EU plans to help Ukrainian food exports dodge Black Sea blockade – POLITICO

ŁÓDŹ, Poland – Brussels will propose a way for certain food exports to bypass the Russian blockade of the Black Sea, by taking the land route.

The European Commission will unveil a plan on Wednesday to dramatically increase the amount of food that agricultural juggernaut Ukraine can deliver to starving countries around the world via EU roads and rail.

This aims to help tackle an issue that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky raised this week, fuming that the blockade of the port of Odessa was probably something that hadn’t happened since World War II and that dozens of countries were now facing shortages because of Russia. assault.

EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski announced the ‘action plan’ at the opening of a meeting of the UN food agency in his native Poland, saying the bloc must counteract the deliberate destruction of Ukrainian agriculture by expanding export channels and pushing back against Moscow’s efforts to portray itself as a humanitarian actor feeding the world in a deepening food crisis.

“It is necessary to organize alternative corridors for export, especially for wheat, corn because Ukraine has a lot of stocks,” Wojciechowski told POLITICO. “We want to secure food supply chains for Europe and the rest of the world,” he said earlier to a room of diplomats from 53 countries in Europe and Central Asia, during a biennial regional conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Both Ukraine and Russia are huge food exporters to countries dependent on imports from Africa and the Middle East, but Russia’s land and sea attack has left millions of tonnes of Ukrainian grain stranded in silos unable to leave ships through the Black Sea, which traditionally accounted for at least 80 percent of Ukraine’s food exports.

The EU commissioner also issued a stern warning that Russia would seek to turn the situation to its advantage when it comes to food. Not only could Moscow steal Ukraine’s share of the global market for commodities like corn and wheat, it will try to whitewash its image as a charitable supplier to poor countries, just as it blocks Ukraine’s own supplies. Ukraine, he warned.

“This is Russian propaganda. They are intentionally destroying Ukraine [agricultural] potential…and the next steps will be that they are friends of the world and present themselves as the saviour,” he said.

Not on the right track

“The main solution is the corridors towards [Poland’s] Baltic Sea ports,” said the Commissioner, mentioning Gdańsk and Gdynia. He downplayed the feasibility of setting up humanitarian corridors to export food from the Black Sea, describing it as “possible but not the main solution”.

Before the war, Ukraine was able to export around 5 million metric tons of grain and up to 700,000 tons of sunflower oil per month via the Black Sea, but despite progress in rapidly speeding up the routes export by rail, efforts are hampered by serious logistical problems. Ukrainian railways are not built to export such quantities of food, and there is a difference in the gauge of the railways between Ukraine and Poland, which means that every train crossing the border has to be unloaded and reloaded. .

“We lack European wagons with narrow widths between the wheels. We also still do not have the ability to change the wheels to European Union standards,” said Roman Slaston, general manager of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club. . He said Ukraine is currently far from reaching the capacity to export food by rail, and described “very large queues” of rail wagons on all of Ukraine’s borders with the EU, sometimes retreating for 10 or 20 days.

In April, Ukraine managed to export less than a million tonnes of grain, about a third of what it managed in the same month last year, according to market research firm APK-Inform. . The increased export capacity would also financially help Ukrainian farmers and the country’s economy.

Mariia Dudikh, director of the National Agrarian Forum of Ukraine, said that at this rate it would take 24 months to export the current grain stock, which she estimates at around 14 million tonnes of maize and more than 4 million tonnes of corn.

To make matters worse, unless the military situation on the Black Sea improves soon, the problem of stalled exports will be compounded by the arrival of a new crop in two or three months, as evidence mounts that Russia deliberately targets grain storage infrastructure such as warehouses.

Dudikh said plans were being discussed between Kyiv and EU ministers to build a brand new railway linking Ukraine to the Lithuanian port of Klaipėda, but conference attendees in Poland were less keen on about the idea, saying it would take years to build.

“We don’t know how long this crisis will last, how long Russia will continue its aggression,” the commissioner said.

Wojciechowski said many Commission services were involved in drawing up the plan, but he took the lead after meeting with Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solsky in Lithuania last month.

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