Grain shipments from Ukraine drop as Russia blamed for slowing inspections

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The amount of grain leaving Ukraine has dropped even as a UN-brokered deal works to keep food flowing to developing nations, with inspections of ships falling to half what they were four months ago and a backlog of vessels growing as Russia’s invasion nears the one-year mark.

Ukrainian and some US officials are blaming Russia for slowing down inspections, which Moscow has denied.

Less wheat, barley and other grain getting out of Ukraine, dubbed the “breadbasket of the world”, raises concerns about the impact to those going hungry in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia – places that rely on affordable food supplies from the Black Sea region.

The hurdles come as separate agreements brokered last summer by Turkey and the UN to keep supplies moving from the warring nations and reduce soaring food prices are up for renewal next month.

Russia is also a top global supplier of wheat, other grain, sunflower oil and fertiliser, and officials have complained about the holdup in shipping the nutrients critical to crops.

Under the deal, food exports from three Ukrainian ports have dropped from 3.7 million metric tons in December to three million in January, according to the Joint Co-ordination Centre (JCC) in Istanbul. That is where inspection teams from Russia, Ukraine, the UN and Turkey ensure ships carry only agricultural products and no weapons.

Bulk carrier
Food exports from three Ukrainian ports dropped from 3.7 million metric tons in December to three million in January (Gideon Maundu/AP)

That has helped lead to back-ups in the number of vessels waiting in the waters off Turkey to either be checked or join the Black Sea Grain Initiative. There are 152 ships in line, the JCC said, a 50% increase from January.

This month, vessels are waiting an average of 28 days between applying to participate and being inspected, said Ruslan Sakhautdinov, head of Ukraine’s delegation to the JCC. That is a week longer than in January.

Factors like poor weather hindering inspectors’ work, demand from shippers to join the initiative, port activity and capacity of vessels also affect shipments.

US officials such as USAid administrator Samantha Power and US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield have blamed Russia for the slowdown, saying food supplies to vulnerable nations are being delayed.

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba and infrastructure minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said in statement on Wednesday that Russian inspectors have been “systematically delaying the inspection of vessels” for months.

Inspectors on boat head to bulk carrier
A boat with Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN officials heads to inspect cargo ships coming from Ukraine in the Marmara Sea, Turkey (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Other observers have also raised the possibility that Russia might be slowing inspections “in order to pick up more business” after harvesting a large wheat crop. Figures from financial data provider Refinitiv show Russian wheat exports more than doubled to 3.8 million tons last month from January 2022, before the invasion.

Russian wheat shipments were at or near record highs in November, December and January, increasing 24% over the same three months a year earlier, according to Refinitiv. It estimated Russia would export 44 million tons of wheat in 2022-23.

Alexander Pchelyakov, a spokesman for the Russian diplomatic mission to UN institutions in Geneva, said last month that the allegations of deliberate slowdowns are “simply not true”.

Russian officials also have complained that the country’s fertiliser is not being exported under the agreement, leaving renewal of the four-month deal that expires March 18 in question.

Without tangible results, extending the deal is “unreasonable”, deputy foreign minister Sergey Vershinin said last week.

UN officials say they have been working to unstick Russian fertiliser and expressed hope that the deal will be extended.

Martin Griffiths, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told reporters on Wednesday: “I think we are in slightly more difficult territory at the moment, but the fact is, I think this will be conclusive and persuasive.

“The global south and international food security needs that operation to continue.”

Tolulope Phillips, a bakery manager in Lagos, Nigeria, has seen the impact first-hand. He says the cost of flour has exploded 136% since the war in Ukraine began.

“This is usually unstable for any business to survive,” he said. “You have to fix your prices to accommodate this increase, and this doesn’t only affect flour, it affects sugar, it affects flavours, it affects the price of diesel, it affects the price of electricity. So, the cost of production has generally gone up.”

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