When Russia’s war blocked vitally needed grains at Ukrainian ports, officials succeeded in finding other routes out. But the solution brought its own problems.
In Britain, food prices were up 19 percent last month from the previous year. In Spain, farmers are worried that a lack of rainfall will irreversibly damage wheat and barley production. And in West and Central Africa, record numbers of people are facing potentially dire food shortages.
Nonetheless, a handful of European nations including Poland and Hungary have blocked the entry of farm products from Ukraine — one of the world’s biggest grain exporters — arguing that the flood of cheap imports is ruining local farmers. Now, to quell the rising discord, the European Union is considering a temporary ban on grain imports to five nations.
The combination of spiraling prices for consumers in one part of the world and plummeting incomes for farmers in another illustrates the maddening complexities of the global food market.
Long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, climate change, violent conflicts, supply-chain bottlenecks related to the pandemic and burdensome debts were contributing to food shortages and hunger around the world. But the war in Ukraine threatened to seriously worsen the crisis by reducing the country’s grain exports and driving up food and fertilizer prices.
With sea shipments from Ukrainian ports blocked or restricted by Russian forces, the European Union suspended tariffs and quotas on food from Ukraine and rushed to transport as much as possible by rail and truck through neighboring countries. The idea was to create an alternate pathway that would funnel grain from Ukraine’s breadbasket to the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia, where it was most needed.
The plan worked, at least to some degree, easing anxieties over shortages. Food prices have dropped by more than 20 percent from a peak in March 2022, according to a food price index calculated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Much of the Ukrainian grain was getting to far-off markets by traveling through Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, as well as Bulgaria — but not all of it. And that is what has set off the tensions.
“Enough makes its way to local markets, and makes it more difficult for European farmers to get the price they want,” said Monika Tothova, an economist with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
The uproar in rural areas has created political headaches for government leaders.
With a national election coming up in Poland, which has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki last week imposed a unilateral ban on Ukrainian grain and certain other farm imports, a violation of European Union rules.
As early as last summer, some farmers in Romania were complaining about the glut of Ukrainian grain, saying it had pushed down prices for their own products at a time when the costs of fuel, pesticides and fertilizer were rising.
Hoping to dampen the growing internal discord, the European Union promised on Wednesday to offer “comprehensive proposals” to address the concerns of the five Eastern and Central European countries and provide 100 million euros ($110 million) to compensate farmers.
On Thursday, an E.U. official confirmed that one of the measures under consideration was a temporary ban on certain Ukrainian food exports to Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, if those five countries canceled any unilateral measures.
It was not clear if the countries would all go along with the plan, which some European officials said did not go far enough.
“We have to expand this product range,” the Hungarian agriculture minister, Istvan Nagy, wrote on Facebook late Wednesday, adding, “We must also apply restrictions on eggs, poultry and honey” coming in from Ukraine.
The prohibitions on Ukrainian grain to neighboring countries come at the same time that Russia is threatening to back out of a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to allow grain shipments to leave Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. That deal is set to expire on May 18, although talks about an extension are continuing.
Even with the deal in place, though, passage through the Bosporus in Turkey is slow, uneven and expensive. Ukraine is already harvesting 40 percent less than it did before the war. High shipping fees add to the costs and may cause farmers to plant even less next year, and in turn further reduce food production.
“There is no global food crisis,” Ms. Tothova said. “There are many crises in different countries. The problem last year was a problem of access. Grain was available but many did not have enough resources to buy it.”
Even as Europe’s leaders skirmished over Ukrainian grain, Ukraine itself was given encouragement on Thursday that it would eventually be accepted into the European military fold.
On a visit to Kyiv — his first since the Russian invasion over a year ago — Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, said Ukraine’s “rightful place” was in the alliance.
“I am here today with a simple message: NATO stands with Ukraine,” Mr. Stoltenberg said at a news conference with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Mr. Stoltenberg said the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership would be “high on the agenda” at a NATO summit in Lithuania in July.
Though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the alliance has helped coordinate its requests for nonlethal assistance and supports deliveries of humanitarian aid. And some NATO members have provided major military assistance to help Ukraine fend off Russian forces.
Even those NATO members who are open to the entry of Ukraine have made it clear that it is a long-term goal.
But Mr. Zelensky, who has been invited to attend the NATO summit, said it was important that Ukraine be invited to join the alliance.
“There is no objective barrier to the political decision to invite Ukraine into the alliance,” he said.
On Thursday, Mr. Zelensky also tried to win over lawmakers from Mexico, which has said little publicly about the Russian invasion.
“Ukrainians and Mexicans hurt equally when we see innocent lives taken by cruel violence, where true peace could reign,” he said, addressing them remotely.
The Ukrainian president has spoken to dozens of legislatures over the past year, often using the occasions to ask for military aid. But speaking to the Mexican lawmakers, Mr. Zelensky seemed content just to ask for their support.
Victoria Kim, Enjoli Liston and Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting.