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Sensemaker: The battle for Ukraine’s grain

Sensemaker: The battle for Ukraine’s grain

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Britain braced for record temperatures as wildfires scorched countries across Europe (more below).
  • A report on the deadly Uvalde school shooting criticised “egregiously poor” decision-making in the police response. 
  • Ukraine’s Zelensky suspended his security chief and top prosecutor after dozens of their staff “collaborated” with Russia. 

The battle for Ukraine’s grain

In May, David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Programme, told Tortoise that the world had 60 days to reopen the Ukrainian port of Odesa and prevent a global disaster of hunger. Diplomatic efforts have been getting frantic as the clock ticks down; Ukraine grows enough food to feed 400 million people and around 20 million tons of grain are trapped in storage silos, with a new harvest on the way.

A deal to restart grain exports appears to be in sight. The UN chief António Guterres described talks last week as a “ray of hope”, with negotiators due to meet again in Istanbul again within days. But as long as Odesa and other Black Sea ports are blockaded by Russian warships, Putin holds the cards.

Ukraine has been testing alternative options. Since the Russians were forced off the strategic Snake Island, a route has opened up through the Danube delta – so far 16 foreign ships have taken grain through and around 100 more are queuing. But the canal is not deep enough for large carriers; it’s estimated that the Danube routes can export around a million tons of grain a month, compared to 8 million tons that Ukraine could send out before the invasion. Moving grain overland is slow and difficult. Grain exports from Ukraine are 40 per cent lower than in 2021.

The “world can‘t wait” says UN aid chief Martin Griffiths. The blockade has sent global prices of wheat and sunflower oil sky high: countries in the Horn of Africa such as Somalia, which have suffered years of drought and depend on Ukrainian imports, are on the brink of a catastrophic famine.

The grain deal under negotiation has a few key sticking points:

Mines: Ukraine wants security guarantees that if it removes mines placed around its Black Sea ports as a deterrence, Russia will not launch attacks. Negotiators also want Russia to agree to a ceasefire to protect the shipments. 

Inspections: Russia wants to carry out inspections on vessels and cargo to make sure ships are not carrying Western weapons to Ukraine – the deal will likely involve joint Turkey-UN checks. Turkey has proposed setting up an operations hub in Istanbul. 

Sanctions: The deal includes helping Russia export its grain and fertiliser. In anticipation of an agreement, the EU’s latest round of Moscow sanctions includes exemptions to allow agricultural purchases.

Even if a deal is reached to export the current harvest stuck in ports, the next one is under threat. As well as blockading Ukraine’s ports, Russia has destroyed up to 1,500 hectares of grain fields in occupied southern Ukraine at a cost of $4.3 billion (£3.6 billion) to the agricultural sector, says the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE). Grain silos holding around 4 million tons of grain, along with bridges and other export infrastructure, have been destroyed by shelling.

The Ukrainian government has accused Moscow of stealing up to 600,000 tons of wheat, worth an estimated $613 million, since it launched its invasion on February 24. Ukrainian journalists say the wheat is being transported from occupied regions to Russian-controlled Crimea, where it is put on to ships and sent to Turkey. 

What next? A deal could be signed off in the coming days – but “the most important thing is … a green light from Putin” an official told the Wall Street Journal. Putin is due to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week in Tehran, which will be key.

Then we watch and wait. If, in the worst case scenario, Russia uses shipping lanes to launch a naval attack on Odesa, the geopolitical situation will become unimaginably worse. Russia has made it clear that its military is in charge of the grain talks; Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “If there is a need to announce results of the negotiations, the military will do so.” And the best case scenario of a functioning Black Sea export route does not mean the war will end any time soon. 


Risky property bets
Property developers are moving ahead with plans for two new London skyscrapers, apparently confident that people will return to the office at least on a hybrid basis. Axa IM Alts will build a £1 billion, thirty-six storey skyscraper, which when completed will be one of London’s largest buildings, while Topland Group has committed to building a £165 million tower block. The projects could add over 800,000 square feet of office space to the city – a risky bet, given that office occupancy sits at around a quarter of pre-Covid levels. Sol Zakay, the chief executive of Topland Group, dismissed concerns. “We believe there has been an overreaction to the shifting dynamics of the City’s office market now that hybrid working is here to stay,” he told the Financial Times. 


Drone superhighway
The British government is backing an automated drone superhighway to survey motorways and ports across the country, as well as projects that use drones to deliver post to the Isles of Scilly and medication across Scotland. A £273 million funding package for the aerospace sector is being announced today by Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, at Farnborough International Airshow, the first to be held since 2019. More than £12 million of funding is going to Skyway, based in Reading, that the BBC says wants to connect the airspace above Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry and Rugby by mid-2024, while Open Skies Cornwall will be handed £2.4 million to use drones to provide residents on the Isles of Scilly with deliveries of mail. CAELUS 2, based across Scotland, gets £10.1 million to use electric drones to support the distribution of medical products. Project leaders are hoping that if the drones provide a public service, people are more likely to put up with the noise. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Dial 988 for mental health emergencies
Many American adults are experiencing their worst mental health in years. At the end of 2021, 47 per cent of adults reported symptoms of anxiety, 39 per cent reported symptoms of depression, and 1 in 5 adults disclosed suffering from a mental illness, according to the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. Now, anyone in distress can call 988, branded as the “911 of mental health” and they will be connected to a trained mental health counsellor. The number is backed by more than $400 million in federal funding, but fears remain that short-staffed call centres around the country will be unable to meet demand. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Europe wildfires
Wildfires are spreading across Europe and forcing thousands of people to flee as a deadly heatwave tormenting the region envelops Britain. France has evacuated 16,000 people threatened by fires in the south-west Gironde region as firefighters tackle blazes in Spain, Croatia and Greece. More than 1,000 deaths have been blamed on the heat in Portugal and Spain, where temperatures have reached 45.7C in recent days. Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense as a result of climate change – a recent study found European heat waves in particular are becoming more common. The UK has declared an unprecedented heat emergency today and Tuesday with temperatures possibly reaching 41C in some areas, beating the previous record of 38.7C that was logged in Cambridge in 2019. 


France hunts for mustard 
France is in the throes of a mustard shortage. In grocers, restaurants and kitchen cupboards across the land, the country’s national condiment is nowhere to be found. In any stores where Dijon mustard is still available, signs limit customers to one jar per person. Chefs are putting out desperate appeals on social media. It turns out that this distinctly French condiment relies on imports: at least 80 per cent of the brown seeds come from Canada, where a heat wave over Alberta and Saskatchewan last year cut production by about half, as hot weather also hit the Burgundy harvest. The war in Ukraine has also had an impact: Ukraine and Russia are big producers of the yellow seeds used in milder mustards, creating pressure on the whole market. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. Email: sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Nina Kuryata

Jessica Winch

Additional reporting by Sebastian Hervas-Jones and William Lloyd.

Photographs Getty Images

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