Blog post by Oğuzhan Açıkgöz, School of Law, Koç University

1. Introduction

The intricate relationship between food security, global market stability, and human mobility has come to the forefront of global attention with the interruption of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI), a mechanism to facilitate the safe transportation of grain, foodstuffs, and fertilizers from Ukrainian ports. This interruption has not only unveiled the interconnectedness of these critical issues but also underscored their significance in shaping the socio-economic and humanitarian landscape on a global scale.

In this blog post, I explained the background of the BSGI, its objectives, and the recent developments leading to its suspension. Then, I argued the intricate connection between food security and human mobility in the context of BSGI. Finally, I discussed why the interruption of the BSGI underscores the urgent need for a multi-dimensional approach to address the challenges posed by food security, migration, and global market stability with the empirical evidence that highlights the role of food insecurity as a compelling catalyst for migration.

2. Background of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI)

According to a FAO Report, in 2021, both the Russian Federation and Ukraine ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, barley, maize, rapeseed and rapeseed oil, sunflower seed and sunflower oil. The Russian Federation also ranked as the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, the second leading supplier of potassic fertilizers and the third largest exporter of phosphorus fertilizers. Therefore, the Russian Federation and Ukraine -which are net exporters of agricultural products and are leading suppliers of foodstuffs and fertilizers to global markets- are among the most important producers of agricultural commodities in the world.

The majority of the countries to which Russia and Ukraine export agricultural goods are part of the Least Developed Country (LDC) and Low-Income Food-Deficit Country (LIFDC) groups that also struggle with food access problems due to high pre-war prices. The war in Ukraine, the question of whether agricultural crops can be harvested, the closure of ports and the accumulation of agricultural products in warehouses, as well as the economic and financial sanctions imposed on exports from Russia, have caused new concerns about access to food for countries that are already in distress. In the above mentioned FAO Report, the organization put forward some projections if the war and the associated problem of access to food continued. FAO’s projections for 2022 indicated that up to 181 million people in 41 countries could face food crises or exacerbated levels of acute food insecurity. If the war results in a prolonged reduction of food exports by Ukraine and the Russian Federation, it will exert additional pressure on international food prices, with detrimental effects on economically vulnerable countries. FAO’s simulations suggest that under such a scenario, the number of undernourished people globally could increase by between 8 and 13 million in 2022/23, with the most pronounced increases taking place in Asia-Pacific, followed by sub-Saharan Africa and then the Near East and North Africa.

3. An Overview of the Initiative on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs from Ukrainian Ports

The BSGI, or the Agreement on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs from Ukrainian Ports was launched by the United Nations, Türkiye, the Russian Federation and Ukraine on 22 July 2022. In addition, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Russian Federation and the Secretariat of the United Nations on promoting Russian food products and fertilizers in the world markets. The purpose of this initiative is to facilitate the safe navigation for the export of grain and related foodstuffs and fertilizers, including ammonia, from the ports of Odessa, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhny (“the Ukrainian ports’’).

The initiative was prolonged by 120 days in November 2022. Nevertheless, there were subsequent extensions of merely 60 days each in March 2023 and once more in May 2023. The most recent extension of the Initiative was concluded on 17 July 2023, and the Russian Federation decided not to renew it. The possibility of further extensions remains uncertain despite ongoing discussions. While the future of BSGI is uncertain, the leaders declaration agreed by the G20 nations in September 2023 called for ensuring ‘the immediate and unimpeded deliveries of grain…to meet the demand in developing and least developed countries, particularly those in Africa.’ (Reuters, 2023).

4. The Nexus Between Food Security and Human Mobility in the Context of BSGI

Food security, as an essential precondition for human sustenance, fundamentally influences the decisions of individuals and communities to migrate. The scarcity or instability of food resources can trigger migratory patterns driven by the pursuit of sustenance and livelihood opportunities. Empirical evidence as outlined below suggests that regions grappling with food insecurity often witness heightened rural-urban migration, as individuals seek improved access to food, employment, and socio-economic prospects in urban centers (FAO, 2018). In conflict-ridden regions, the nexus between food security and human mobility is further accentuated. Armed conflicts disrupt food production systems, impede supply chains, and displace populations, rendering them vulnerable to acute food insecurity. Moreover, the shortage of food and the competition for limited resources can play a role in increasing violence through various means (see Jones, 2020). The ensuing displacement often precipitates large-scale movements, both internally and across borders, as individuals and families seek safety, sustenance, and a secure environment.

From 1 July 2022 to the end of May 2023, 50 percent of Ukrainian exports for oilseeds, grains, pulses and derivatives relied on the BSGI (FAO, 2023). The 32.9 million tons of agricultural goods exported under the agreement augmented the roughly 3 million tons of similar agricultural products exported monthly through the Solidarity Lanes- overland routes through Eastern Europe – as well as through the Danube River  (FAO, 2023). The partial resumption of Ukrainian sea exports enabled by the Initiative has unblocked vital food commodities and has helped reverse spiking global food prices, which reached record highs shortly before the agreement was signed. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Food Price Index recorded a steady monthly decline over the past year, dropping more than 23 per cent from its peak in March 2022. The Initiative has allowed the World Food Programme (WFP) to transport more than 725,000 tons of wheat to help people in need in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Ukraine supplied more than half of WFP’s wheat grain in 2022, as was the case in 2021 (FAO, 2023).

The ongoing disruption in the initiative is expected to create market instability and have a notable adverse impact on humanitarian assistance. The global prices of essential food items may experience fluctuations based on the anticipation of Ukraine’s export availability, along with changes in agricultural conditions in other major producing nations.

Figure 1: The impact of BSGI on wheat and food supply

Source: FAOSTAT, Joint Coordination Centre Black Sea Grain Initiative

Figure 1 shows the nations currently grappling with severe macroeconomic challenges, marked by substantial debt burdens. The potential escalation of import expenses or economic instability would significantly erode their ability to provide for their citizens. As illustrated in Figure 1, a handful of countries, including Kenya and Bangladesh, which already contend with significant undernourishment rates, have utilized the BSGI to ensure a steady wheat supply, upon which their overall consumption heavily relies. In contrast, countries like Yemen and Afghanistan exhibit a distinct form of vulnerability. Despite the BSGI contributing to less than 8 percent of their total wheat supply, both nations struggle with extensive undernourishment levels and a substantial dependence on wheat in their diets. Hence, any disruptions could lead to grave consequences for their populations.

The world is currently facing an unprecedented and severe food and nutrition crisis, as highlighted in the WFO 2023 Report. This year, a staggering 345 million people are experiencing acute food insecurity, while hundreds of millions more are at risk of falling into deeper levels of hunger. A complex interplay of factors, including conflicts, climate change, natural disasters, economic instability, and financial turmoil, compounded by a lack of sufficient funding, have converged to create an overwhelming and multifaceted crisis that is driving the global food emergency. The root causes and aggravating factors of this crisis are diverse and intricate, spanning from ongoing conflicts and insecurity to the impacts of climate change and disasters, as well as economic uncertainties and financial downturns. The situation is further worsened by a funding crisis for food security that is impeding our ability to adequately address urgent humanitarian needs. These overlapping challenges collectively contribute to a global “polycrisis,” underscoring the critical importance of unified efforts to confront this persistent and complex issue. Both developing and developed nations are grappling with persistent food price inflation, coupled with mounting debt challenges in many developing economies, all amid projections of a slowdown in the global economy.

Food insecurity serves as a compelling impetus for migration, particularly among populations disproportionately affected by its scourge. The WFP chief said 276 million people are struggling to find food, and 49 million in 43 countries are “knocking on famine’s door,” which results not only in death but “unmatched migration,” which can destabilize societies (UN, 2022). The inability to procure adequate nourishment has implications to overall well-being, compelling individuals to seek refuge in regions offering better food accessibility and economic prospects. Vulnerable segments of society, such as rural farmers, marginalized ethnic groups, and low-income households, are especially susceptible to displacement driven by food insecurity (see Osman and Abebe, 2023; Shamsuddin and others, 2022; OXFAM, 2019; Roiser, 2011).

Migration decisions emerge from a complex interplay of multifaceted determinants encompassing economic incentives, societal impetuses, conflicts, climatic variations, and natural adversities. Insufficient development, destitution, and famine drive significant migrations, especially in vulnerable regions, revealing the link between migration, food security, and agriculture. Prominent migration factors often arise in economically, politically, and environmentally susceptible areas, emphasizing the interconnectedness of migration, food security, and agriculture. (FAO, 2018).

During famines, the connection between food security and migration is evident, as affected individuals often have few options beyond embarking on migration to escape starvation. Famine-driven imperatives push people to seek sustenance and avoid contagion. While such movements often assume a transitory nature, they simultaneously pose substantial challenges for local communities, the encompassing nation, and – in the aggregate sense – for the international collective (FAO, 2018).

The ramifications of insufficiencies in food security exhibit a multifaceted and expansive character, extending beyond the immediate repercussions on the physical health and overall welfare of individuals within households. Despite heightened global focus within international policy discourse aimed at mitigating worldwide food insecurity and attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there exists a marked dearth of scholarly inquiry into the role of food insecurity as a compelling impetus for migratory movements. Individuals residing within low- and middle-income nations are progressively resorting to migration as a means to fulfill their fundamental requirements. While the factors driving migration have undergone comprehensive scrutiny, there exists a notable scarcity of scholarly investigations delving into the role of food insecurity as a compelling catalyst for migratory patterns.

According to Smith and Floro (2019), while food insecurity is most common in poor households, non-poor households can also experience food insecurity. Thus, measuring the impact of poverty on migration intentions can miss the relationship between those that are non-poor but also food insecure, such as those working in the urban informal sector. Hence, there is a need for more direct analysis of the relationship between food insecurity and migration behavior. The regression results of their research confirm that food insecurity represents a significant determinant of migration behavior among individuals in low- and middle-income countries. The results of their research indicate that the relationship between food insecurity and migration intentions is statistically significant, which supports the first hypothesis of their research (since food insecurity decreases an individual’s utility in their country of origin, we expect food insecurity to be associated with an increase in migration intentions). Their finding is consistent with the second hypothesis of the research (by holding constant an individual’s characteristics and thus, their cost of migration, they expect migration intentions to increase with the severity of food insecurity), that the likelihood of intending to migrate is determined by the severity of food insecurity.

Additionally, Saddidin and others (2022) examined how food insecurity can affect international migration aspirations and subsequent actions taken in preparation to move internationally from Sub-Saharan Africa. The presence of food insecurity is strongly linked to increased migration aspirations. This aspiration becomes stronger as food insecurity worsens, with a noticeable rise in the likelihood of considering migration. Specifically, individuals subject to moderate food insecurity manifest a 3.9 percent heightened likelihood of desiring migration, in comparison to those characterized by either food security or mild food insecurity. Moreover, for individuals contending with severe food insecurity, this likelihood experiences a more pronounced escalation, reaching 5.2 percent. These findings underscore the prominence of escalating food insecurity severity as a pivotal impetus within the Sub-Saharan African context, fostering an amplified inclination for international migration as a pursuit of improved economic prospects. In a nutshell, they demonstrated that the relationship between food insecurity and migration desire was positive in their research: food insecurity increased migration desire, and to a greater extent as the severity of food insecurity increased.

In the context of the empirical data mentioned above, the rising concerns about a global shortage of food emphasize the need for a deeper understanding of its impact on migration. It’s worth noting that policies aimed at lessening the severity of a food crisis, without fully resolving it, could inadvertently lead to a rise in international migration. Considering the millions of individuals currently displaced from their home countries, it is important to recognize the potential role of food insecurity in explaining their displacement (Carney and Krause, 2020). Despite the explicit mention of the right to food in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, states seldom acknowledge food insecurity and hunger as valid reasons for seeking asylum (Carney and Krause, 2020). Hence, food insecurity is a critical push factor driving international migration, along with economic factors, population growth and the existence of established networks for migrants. Further, the act of migration itself can cause food insecurity, given the high costs involved, as well as lack of income opportunities and adverse travel conditions along the journey (WFP, 2017).

5. Conclusion

The Black Sea Grain Initiative was established as a mechanism to facilitate the safe transportation of grain, foodstuffs, and fertilizers from Ukrainian ports, particularly benefiting nations that heavily rely on these commodities. Therefore, the interruption of BSGI has significant implications for global food security and human mobility. Before the interruption, initiative played a crucial role in stabilizing food prices and ensuring the availability of essential food items to vulnerable populations, contributing to global efforts to address acute food insecurity. The BSGI’s suspension has direct repercussions on global food prices, market stability, and humanitarian assistance. Nations that depended on the initiative for a significant portion of their food supply now face uncertainties, potentially leading to economic instability and increased vulnerability among their populations.

The ongoing global food crisis, exacerbated by various factors including conflicts, climate change, and economic challenges, underscores the urgency of addressing food insecurity and its intricate relationship with migration. Vulnerable populations disproportionately affected by food insecurity often resort to migration as a means of survival and improving their well-being. Studies reveal that food insecurity is a significant determinant of migration intentions, especially in low- and middle-income countries (see EU 2018). Moreover, the disruption of the BSGI highlights the interconnectedness of food security, international migration, and the broader global context.

In light of the complexities surrounding food security and human mobility, addressing the challenges requires a multi-dimensional approach that involves policy interventions, humanitarian aid, and international cooperation. Recognizing the role of food insecurity as a driving force behind migration is crucial for informed decision-making and effective strategies to mitigate its impact. As the global community continues to grapple with the intertwined challenges of food security, migration, and other complex issues, collaborative efforts are imperative to create a more secure and stable future for vulnerable populations around the world.

The interruption of the BSGI has unveiled intricate connections between food security, global market stability, and human mobility. The BSGI played a pivotal role in stabilizing food prices, ensuring the availability of vital commodities, and mitigating acute food insecurity. The initiative’s absence accentuates market instability, exacerbating vulnerabilities and undermining humanitarian assistance efforts. In particular, the resulting uncertainty poses economic risks for nations reliant on its provisions, with potential repercussions cascading across international borders. Addressing these challenges necessitates comprehensive approaches, encompassing policy interventions, humanitarian aid, and international collaboration. Acknowledging food insecurity as a driving force for migration is pivotal for informed decision-making and effective strategies.

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