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Canada urged to help as millions face starvation due to Russia-Ukraine conflict

Wheat exporters are being asked to donate some of their supplies to urgently fill a food shortage in conflict zones
golden wheat field and sunny day
Shutterstock/ESB Professional

The UN World Food Program has warned that millions of people in the developing world and conflict zones are on the brink of starvation following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, one of the world's biggest wheat exporters.

It is asking Canada and other major wheat exporters to open up their silos to urgently fill the shortage, which it said could lead to millions going hungry in countries including Ethiopia, Yemen and Sudan.

The UN program and many countries in the developing world, including Lebanon and Bangladesh, rely on Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, for its wheat supplies.

But the spike in the cost of grain and the disruption to supplies from Ukraine and Russia has raised the alarm about a global food crisis.

On Friday, Canada's Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau attended an emergency meeting of her G7 counterparts to discuss the impact of the Russian invasion on global food security.

Bibeau said Canada was aware of the serious situation, was closely monitoring it and wished to help.

"The global supply chain for wheat has been significantly impacted by this conflict," Bibeau said in a statement.

"While Canada, as a leading global agri-food exporter of many key products, is working with its allies on how it can assist efforts, Canadian wheat production was significantly reduced due to last year's drought and there is not a significant amount of wheat uncommitted and available to the market until the next harvest."

Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Program, said the humanitarian organization itself sourced 789,000 tonnes of its wheat supplies from Ukraine last year.

He said another 158,000 tonnes came from Russia. The organization also buys wheat from Canada, one of its biggest financial backers.

He called on Canada and other grain exporters to step in to fill the gap either by making donations from their stocks or selling their supplies at a discount to aid agencies.

"This is as bad as it gets," Husain said.

"It is necessary for the large producers like Canada, like Australia, to please open your hearts and provide wheat to the aid agencies. In Yemen alone, five million people are literally a step away from famine."

The price of wheat has risen sharply since the war began, making it more expensive for developing countries, aid agencies and other importers.

Shipping companies that usually transport grain and vegetable oil from Ukraine and Russia are unable to approach ports safely.

Husain said they had also seen their insurance costs spike, as well as the spiralling cost of fuel.

He said the higher price of wheat would also make it more expensive to buy and distribute to the world's poor and displaced people, who now include Ukrainians.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday during his visit to London that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was having a "ripple effect" across the world, including to the UN World Food Program.

Sandra McCardell, an assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs Canada, told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee last week that the federal government was "looking at contingencies" for the expected food shortage.

"This is not going to be just about Ukraine and Russia and we do need absolutely to be ready," she said March 3.

Dave Quist, executive director of the western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, said Ukrainian farmers would find it extremely difficult to get their seeds in the ground and it was doubtful whether those that manage to plant their fields would be able to harvest in August or September.

He also said many Canadian farmers had already brought in seed to plant other crops this spring so it was difficult for them to plant wheat at short notice instead.

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