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Analysis: Türkiye’s mediating role in preventing global food crisis

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Grain shipment deal leads Türkiye to win great diplomatic victory in world amid ongoing Russia-Ukraine war

While Russia’s launch of a military operation against Ukraine on Feb. 24 created repercussions across the world, it firstly affected the Ukrainian people and secondly countries that have a coast with the Black Sea and Europe and then started spreading to a wide geography.

Even though Türkiye has stayed neutral since the beginning of the war and hosted negotiations between parties, deep-rooted conflicts between the two countries and elements such as the fact that the Western countries are parties to the conflict in line with their various interests in the region negatively impacted the talks and resulted in the war, which was expected to end sooner, to continue.

– How did Russia-Ukraine war affect food crisis?

The significant roles of the warring sides, Ukraine and Russia, in grain exports worldwide caused wheat prices, which were already on the rise since January this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak, to increase by two or three times. This situation, particularly, created a panic environment in the whole world, especially in Egypt and Lebanon, the countries whose wheat consumption is mainly based on imports, as well as the African countries, who do not have food security and who depend on food aid from others. In fact, the hunger crisis had reached even more severe dimensions even before the war with the impact of the pandemic, starting with the coupling of many factors such as climate change, drought and economic fluctuations.

The Russia-Ukraine war has not only influenced prices of wheat, barley, oats, rye, corn and sunflower oil but has also resulted in a large increase in fertilizer prices, with low-income or food export-dependent countries affected directly and indirectly. It is estimated that there will be serious decreases in Ukraine’s agricultural production for the next year, including the upcoming sowing and harvest seasons, due to the fact that the war is still going on, the difficulties farmers face in planting their fields and input problems. In addition, the fact that Russia is a very important producer in the fertilizer sector and of raw materials, causing many crops from animal feed to palm oil to fall all over the world from Brazil to Argentina and to Indonesia and is expected continue in the coming years. We have learned from the statements of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that we have entered a food crisis because of these developments.

Guterres has been warning world leaders on the issue that the food, finance and energy crises will break out and “turn into a perfect storm.” There have been extraordinary meetings about the issue in the last few months. The food crisis and fear of hunger take first place on the agendas of platforms like the G7 and G20 as well as meetings held by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). World leaders are invited to work in coordination and global solidarity. In this regard, developed countries are warned that they should help countries that are still in the development stage in these difficult times, abandon food nationalism, stay away from export restrictions, abandon policies that will negatively affect global food trade, increase social assistance for vulnerable segments, diversify in agriculture, and support local production.

– Importance of Black Sea in food trade

While all these are underway, it has been more clear how important the Black Sea is in world food trade. Reminding that Türkiye is a key country in the Black Sea with its Straits, it also underscores the geopolitical significance of the country.

The importance of the Black Sea and the Straits in world grain trade was actually understood during the First World War. When the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War in 1914 and closed the Canakkale Strait, Russia’s grain exports to Europe had to stop, and this route was reopened with special agreements. This historical situation was repeated with the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian War, and Türkiye proposed the opening of a grain corridor on the Black Sea to prevent the danger of hunger in the Middle East, North Africa and Saharan Africa.

– Türkiye’s mediating role

The very first agreement, which regulates grain traffic in the Black Sea, was signed on July 22, 2022 in Istanbul with the mediation of Türkiye and the personal attendance of the UN secretary-general. Afterwards, a joint coordination center was established in Istanbul on July 26. The deal had repercussions, as it made it possible for the national defense ministers of Russia and Ukraine, which are still at war with each other, to sit at the negotiating table and enabled Türkiye to secure an important diplomacy victory in the world. It showed how much the sides needed this corridor despite Russia bombing Odessa Port just a day before the deal was signed.

Until reaching this point, Türkiye had carried out a multi-layered foreign policy in the process of the Russia-Ukraine war. Türkiye previously managed to establish a regional foothold and influence in challenging countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan. The country has also developed the image of a responsible, neutral and relevant actor in the ongoing Ukrainian case while continuing mediation and humanitarian aid activities as well as providing military support to Ukraine through its armed Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles. Considering the ambitious moves of Türkiye during the NATO membership application process of Sweden and Finland, it would not be wrong to say that Ankara is pursuing a foreign policy aimed at increasing its prestige and sphere of influence in the international arena in this period. The mediation role that the country has played in the grain corridor negotiations can also be seen as part of Türkiye’s recent diplomatic offensive. In this sense, we are witnessing that Türkiye is moving towards a line where soft power elements are used in a more balanced way compared to the foreign policy line where hard power elements and security come to the forefront. Its successful mediation in the wheat corridor talks, especially with its Western allies, help harmed relations get on the path of normalization in recent years and gave Türkiye more visibility in the international arena.

– Future of grain corridor

With the opening of the grain corridor, Ukraine will be able to empty its warehouses for new harvests and retain hot money flow by exporting about 20 million tons of products that it has been holding since the beginning of the war. Russia, in turn, will have opened the door to getting rid of the economic embargo imposed against it by Western countries. However, even though the first implementation of the deal began on Aug. 2 with the departure of an Egyptian-loaded ship from the Port of Odessa to Lebanon, difficulties in maritime traffic also continued to be experienced due to the ongoing war. For instance, insurance companies previously stipulated the need for mine clearance and international protection as a condition for shipping grain. However, after the grain corridor agreement, they waved these conditions. Still, since the insurance premiums in the Black Sea have increased by at least 5% since the war began, this increase is expected to be reflected in grain prices.

In addition, since the start of the war, many cargo ships carrying grain and other commodities have been stranded in the Port of Odessa. With the entry into force of the agreement, many of them will be able to leave the Ukrainian ports. However, the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) considers it impossible to normalize ship traffic unless mine-related security is firmly established.

The issues are not limited to just these. It is also very difficult to find people to work on ships and in the ports unless security is provided in the current situation. Ukraine hosts 4% of the seafarers in the world, that is, 1.88 million seafarers. As the risk is very high since the war still goes on, wages of employees are also expected to be very high. This suggests that grain prices may not fall despite the reopening of the sea route.

– Türkiye’s role in global politics

As the world is witnessing a new food crisis, Türkiye has responded to the UN secretary-general’s message of global cooperation and solidarity with the grain corridor in a timely and effective manner. It may be possible for Ankara to turn this opportunity into long-term policies. Considering the negative impact of the sharp increase in food prices on the Turkish economy, it can be said that this mediation has also had a very positive impact on the country’s domestic politics. When it is taken into account that food crises are expected to further increase in the following years, both the inclusion of this issue in Türkiye’s mediation portfolio and the fact that it is one of the most important agricultural trade centers of the world may offer the country the opportunity to stand out on international social policy and food policy platforms that it has not given much priority to before. In this regard, the grain corridor agreement can move Ankara’s mediation from a regional role to a global scale.

*Hilal Enver is a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and a member of the Committee on World Food Security and Pinar Akpinar is the decision manager of the SEARCH Chair Action Research Program at Sabanci University in Türkiye

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