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Analysts: Russia's Grain Deal Halt Critical to Resolving World Hunger

FILE - In this photo released by the UN, an official inspects the cargo ship TQ Samsun, which traveled from Odesa, Ukraine, loaded with grain, while anchored in the Black Sea near the entrance of the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, Turkey, July 17, 2023.

WASHINGTON — Russia’s decision to halt its United Nations and Turkey-brokered grain deal with Ukraine may have come as a surprise as concerns over yet another surge in global food prices unnerves the world, particularly in regions such as the Horn of Africa.

But experts say the development exposes the more critical need to reimagine a broader way of feeding the world.

On Monday, Moscow decided not to extend the deal that allowed Ukraine to export grain and other food items through the Black Sea even as its invasion of the latter continues.

The deal known as the "Black Sea Grain Initiative" was reached in July last year, permitting the export of corn, wheat and sun flower oil to developing countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Hanna Saarinen, an Oxfam food expert, told VOA that although the grain deal helped in curbing skyrocketing food prices, "it is not the cure-all for world hunger," as millions of people were facing hunger before the Russia-Ukraine conflict started, and continue to be.

"Famine, something which should not exist in this day and age, is one step away in Somalia and South Sudan. Yet less than 3% of grain from this deal went to the world’s hungriest. Somalia received a mere 0.2%," she said.

Saarinen said Moscow’s position — at least for now — draws the world’s attention to the fact that "global hunger will not be solved by growing crops in only one of the world’s few breadbaskets."

"We must stop this unhealthy reliance by diversifying production and investing in small-scale farmers in poorer countries to increase food production where needed," she added.

The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told told reporters in New York Monday that Moscow's resolve to not extend the deal "strikes a blow to people in need everywhere."

"There is simply too much at stake in a hungry and hurting world," Guterres said.

Harry Verhoevan, international economist at Columbia University and senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy in New York, told VOA that aside from Russia's decision, there are other factors — the value of local currencies, distortion of local markets and security dynamics — that are putting pressure on high food prices in many of these countries including Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.

"It's a complex story, and Russia’s decision is not going to help, even if it is true that it would have been important to revise some of that deal to better target it towards developing countries and making sure that some of these grains were not going to Spain, or Italy or other Western countries instead of where it’s really ultimately headed," Verhoevan said.

In the United States, severe drought in much of the country has seen grain harvests plummet — their lowest in decades. Verhoevan thinks that this scenario would play a role in increasing the prices of grain and food commodities being shipped to Africa.

"The heat we’re seeing across the Northern Hemisphere in the United States, in Europe, and parts of Asia which is also important for global food prices, are all going to have an effect in six to nine months as is the effect of El Nino particularly on the Horn of Africa and southern Africa where you already have chronic food deficits," he said.

He also agreed with Saarinen that there should be other pragmatic ways to end global hunger.

"We need to find ways of boosting production and making sure there’s enough available food within global and regional systems, but also on the demand side, making sure people’s purchasing power — even in the face of declining supply — is resilient, is stable, and that is not happening at this moment."

Russia's halt isn't its first attempt at ending the grain pact. In October, Moscow opted out of the deal for a few days when it accused Kyiv of a drone attack on its side of the Black Sea.

The U.N. says the initiative has ensured the safe passage of over 32 million metric tons of food commodities from Ukrainian ports.

VOA's Carol Van Dam contributed to this story.