After Putin’s war in Ukraine, another La Niña drought is the last straw for global food supply

The report by New AG International said Ukraine would normally export 6m to 7m tonnes of grain a month through Black Sea ports. These are blockaded by the Black Sea Fleet. Stocks have quadrupled to 20m tonnes and can no longer be stored.

Rapeseed spoils if moisture levels rise above 10pc. The internal price of corn has collapsed by 40pc, discouraging farmers from planting. It is a vicious circle.

Exports by train are slow because Ukraine’s railway gauge is incompatible with Poland. Some grain is getting through the Romanian port of Constanta. The ministry says it will take 18 to 24 months to clear the backlog. “Honest to say, it’s a disaster,” was the verdict.

The Kremlin has twisted the knife further by weaponising fertilizer exports. It froze foreign sales of ammonium nitrate during the planting season, purportedly to help its own farmers. Russia accounts for 45pc of global traded supply.

The fertilizer crunch is storing up trouble across the world. The International Fertiliser Development Center says it will cut corn and rice yields by a third in west Africa this year.

The North America fertilizer index tracked by Green Markets has risen almost fourfold from pre-pandemic levels. Farmers are moving down the “fertilizer curve” sacrificing output to maximise commercial return. The Brazilian soy giant SLC Agricola says it plans to cut its usage by a quarter this year. The rule of thumb is that this will lower yields by 15pc.

The immediate unknown is whether this year’s La Nina spoils the coming harvest of US and Canadian grains. The effect so far has been to cause severe drought across the western farm belt, and too much rain on the eastern side. The next six weeks will be critical.

The larger unknown is whether La Nina will hang on for a third year, and if so, how much it might weaken with age. The risk is that it blights yet another season of grain and seed production in Latin America. Southern Brazil lost 18pc of its soybean crop last year from drought.

So far, we have not seen a fatal rush into corn ethanol and biofuels ro replace oil, diverting edible grains into transport. But it is hard to hold back the tide with Brent crude at $ 110 a barrel and heading for $ 150 or more if the West succeeds in constricting Russian oil cargoes to Asia with curbs on shippers and insurers. The grain used to fill the tank of an American SUV is enough to sustain a human being for a year.

Rich OECD countries can buy their way out of the food crisis, but only by outbidding poorer grain-importing countries – many having to buy dollarised global grain with badly devalued currencies. “I don’t think it is going to be some tremendous famine. It’ll be a silent crisis of undernourishment, ”said Mr Abbassian.

The very poorest in the FAO’s hunger hotspots may be pushed over the edge. Some 161m people were already facing “acute food insecurity” last year. The figure will be much higher now. Some of the vulnerable states are conflict zones: the numbers in phase 4 “emergency” reach 8.7m in Afghanistan, 5.4m in the Congo (DCR), 5.1m in Yemen, or 4.3m in Ethiopia.

Others are the perennial victims of bad government and bad luck. The proportion in acute insecurity has doubled to 35pc in Honduras over the last two years, and risen to 46pc in Haiti.

Putin has much to answer for. He may not match the 20th century famine tallies of Stalin and Mao but his imperial misadventure di lui has probably left several hundred million people facing chronic malnutrition. Some will starve to death.

Those countries in the global South that still refuse to condemn his actions out of reflexive anti-Western ideology might reflect on this.


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