European leaders will intensify efforts to get food out of Ukraine by land as a Russian blockade of the country’s ports threatens tens of millions of people across the world with starvation.
An EU summit finishing on Tuesday will pledge to improve attempts to find alternative routes to bring out millions of tonnes of grain over the next three months and free Ukraine’s warehouses for the coming harvest, according to draft conclusions seen by the Financial Times.
Dozens of countries rely on cereals grown in the war-torn country, mostly exported via its Black Sea ports which are now either in Russian hands or blockaded by warships.
Russia President Vladimir Putin has said he would only allow grain ships to leave the port of Odesa if the EU lifts the sanctions it imposed after his invasion of Ukraine three months ago.
Kyiv needs to export 20mn tonnes of grain in the next three months or some crops will rot as there will be nowhere to store them after August’s harvest. In April just 1.2mn tonnes were exported.
Ukraine produces 12 per cent of the world’s wheat, 15 per cent of its corn and 50 per cent of its sunflower oil.
“We will discuss concrete ways to help Ukraine export its agricultural produce using EU infrastructure,” Charles Michel, president of the European Council, told leaders in a letter inviting them to this week’s summit.
The EU on May 12 announced a plan to take up to 4mn tonnes of grain out of Ukraine a month through neighbouring countries.
But Brussels accepts the challenges are huge. Railway gauges in Ukraine and the EU are different so trains must change the chassis that carry the wheels or the cargo must be switched to different trains. It has launched a desperate plea to member states to provide equipment to do the transfer as well as rolling stock, trucks, drivers and barges.
A total of 467 wagons can be handled per day at the eight railway border crossings with Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
Adina Vălean, the EU’s transport commissioner, last week also instructed the bloc’s agriculture ministers to speed up border crossings.
There were “shocking examples of entire convoys being delayed for four days or sometimes even 10 days for one missing certificate for types of cargo where such certificates were not even required at the destination”, she said. “We are also asking the member states to increase inspection capacity at border posts to deal with arrivals 24/7,” Vălean added.
EU diplomats said freight networks were already congested, meaning trains were moving slowly. Private companies are reluctant to send trucks into Ukraine as they cannot get insurance and could be bombed by Russian forces
Barges can take grain up the Danube to Romania, for onward shipment from the port of Constanta. But Vălean earlier this month outlined the scale of the challenge, referring to a seagoing grain carrier that left Constanta with 70,000 tonnes.
“To fill it to capacity, a combination of 49 barges and trains was used. One 600m train can carry around 1,900 tonnes of grain. A convoy of six barges, which is how the grain travelled from Ukraine’s Danube ports, can carry a maximum of 18,000 tonnes.”
Many believe the EU plan is simply undeliverable. David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Programme, told the FT’s Rachman Review podcast that trucks could only handle 1mn tonnes a month.
“Twenty-six countries get 50 per cent or more of their grain from Ukraine or Russia,” he said, including Egypt, Lebanon and Senegal.
With 49mn people threatened with famine, “we are taking food from the hungry children to give to the starving children”.
Michel has invited Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, chair of the African Union, to join the summit remotely on Tuesday. The European Commission has said Russian propaganda has told Africans that the EU, rather than Moscow, is responsible for spiralling prices and food shortages because of its sanctions.