The humanitarian ways of wheat

Publish date 11-10-2022

by Claudio Monge

Only a week after the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, with a statement by the President of the Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, did Turkey trigger the rights provided by the Montreux Convention on the transit of ships through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, preventing the passage of warships, destined to worsen the military escalation in the region.
But the Bosphorus is a crucial way not only for too many warships but also one of the most important routes of global trade and Putin is perfectly aware of it. Russian warships have in turn closed the ports of Odessa, Chornomorsk and other ports of the Black Sea, blocking the sea route of Ukrainian grain and forcing it to be transported through congested and inefficient land routes. 31 kilometers long, between 740 and 3,700 meters wide, the Bosphorus divides the European Istanbul from the Asian one, connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of ​​Marmara, in turn connected with the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles. Until now, the world was above all aware of the fact that the Bosphorus is one of the most important bottlenecks in the world for the sea transit of oil. Over 3% of the global supply of black gold (something like 3 million barrels per day), mainly from Russia and the Caspian Sea.

Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 25 million tons of grain, stored in silos in Ukrainian ports, have in fact remained blocked, when in less than three months, space should be made for the next harvest. The organization also claims that Moscow troops are also looting the storage facilities to seize the precious raw material and bring it home. Under normal conditions, 60% of these reserves normally come out of the Black Sea region, right through the istanbuliota strait, meeting 25% of world needs, largely in geographical areas already at risk of food.

We think, for example, that khubz, also known as Syrian bread, pita bread or Lebanese bread, a staple in the diet in the Middle East and North Africa, is largely made from the grain that should arrive via ship from Russia and Ukraine. In many of these territories, people spend on average - despite subsidies - over 40% of their income on food (the increase in food prices generally accounts for 17% of household spending in the economies of industrialized countries ): the general fear is that the increase in prices (exponential, moreover, not only because of the war but also, for example, of the drought that is affecting the main producing regions of the world, such as Canada, India, Brazil), can quickly set off a new social bomb.

In this emergency situation, the Turkish leadership plays a double game: as a major importer of Russian-Ukrainian wheat and as a regulator of trade flows across the Bosphorus. The first aspect is paradoxical to say the least: Turkey, facing serious shortages in the supply of cereals from Russian and Ukrainian producers, has tried to obtain supplies from India, clashing against the wall of food protectionism of Prime Minister Modi. However, the opposition is raising the tone of the controversy given that Turkey would have sufficient fertile land for its food self-sufficiency.

This internal food security crisis, could cause serious civil unrest, creating a danger to the country's national security. It is this state of exception that could allow Erdoğan to exercise a derogation from the Montreux Agreement on the Sea Strait, allowing for the passage of ships belonging to countries bordering the Black Sea: the creation of a "corridor for grain", now considered like a "humanitarian corridor".

Claudio Monge
NP June-July 2022

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