Crisis and capitalism: A deep dive into the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the global politics of food

Joost Jongerden & Mark Vicol

The Ukraine grain deal and the resumption of food exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has been accompanied by strong narratives heralding the global food security and humanitarian impacts. However, export data suggest that Western countries, the food industry, and Turkey, are among the main beneficiaries, and not those who are food insecure.

Black Sea Grain Initiative

On the back of the impacts of the pandemic on global food systems, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and subsequent ongoing conflict has raised fears of global food shortages and price rises. This is because of the prominent role of Ukraine in the global food system as a major exporter of food grains and oilseeds. Most of Ukraine’s food exports leave the country via the major Black Sea ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Yuzhny/Pivdennyi. These ports, however, were forced to close in the early days of the invasion, cutting off Ukrainian grain and oilseed from the global market. Under the narrative of humanitarian and global food security concerns, the UN, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine have launched the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI). The Initiative is based on a UN-proposed agreement signed in July 2022 between Russia and Ukraine, brokered by Turkey, to enable the safe resumption of Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea.

To authorize, coordinate and monitor the export of food commodities, a Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) of representatives of Turkey, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the United Nations was established. It was also agreed upon that the JCC protects a route between the Ukrainian Ports and Turkey, where the ships are inspected, and provides vessel movement information. Under the agreement, cargo ships carrying Ukrainian grain are escorted by Ukrainian vessels to international waters, proceeding on to the Bosphorous strait for inspection by Turkish authorities. The first shipment of grain under the Initiative left Ukraine on 1st August 2022 to much international fanfare. In recent days, the Initiative has been back in the news, with Russia announcing its intention to withdraw from the agreement on 29th October 2022, only to wind back that threat, under pressure from Turkey and other international actors, a couple of days later.

While the geopolitical intrigue around the agreement has dominated the news, what is interesting for us as critical food system scholars is the discourse regarding food, hunger and farming that has accompanied the Black Sea Grain Initiative. To our mind, this has involved the deepening/reproduction of dominant narratives of the global food system, including that of global food crisis and the appropriate responses that should follow. Taking cues from ideas around disaster capitalism and food regime theory, in this blog post we aim to disentangle the complex narratives of crisis, food security, conflict and trade that have accompanied the Black Sea Grain Initiative. To do this, we take a deep dive into the UN’s own data that documents the cargo, tonnage and port of destination of all grain ships that have left Ukrainian ports under the Initiative. We compare the picture that this data paints to the narratives about food systems and food security promoted by proponents of the Initiative, and consider what the disjuncture between data and narrative means for the broader politics of our food system. It seems to us that dominant food system actors are using the narrative of crisis as a pretext to double down on the unjust governing structures of global food that give rise to food crises in the first place. We should instead use this moment to not only advocate for an end to violent conflict in Ukraine and justice for Ukrainian farmers, but to also reimagine a just and emancipatory future food system that would radically reshape how we think about food, hunger, conflict and trade.

Unpacking food security narratives

The Black Sea Grain Initiative and the resumption of food exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has been accompanied by strong narratives heralding the global food security and humanitarian impacts. In particular, a strong narrative has emerged that the resumption of Ukrainian grain exports has been vital to alleviating hunger in the world’s poorest regions in a time of food crisis. The Initiative has likewise been framed as a major victory for the UN and as ”a beacon of hope” and an “unprecedented agreement” and that the agreement would “stabilize spiraling” food prices and “stave off famine”. We do not challenge the importance of international efforts to eliminate hunger and food insecurity, and we are strong advocates for supporting Ukrainian farmers. However, we also believe it is important to scrutinize the ways in which such efforts are discursively represented, the links between discourse and actual events and movement of food crops on the ground, and the other political work regarding our global food system that dominant discourses might perform. Here, we identify three prominent narratives presented in the media and via international organizations and subject them to further scrutiny. These narratives each make claims, often presented unproblematically, about different causal mechanisms between Ukrainian grain exports and efforts to alleviate global food insecurity: first, the impact the BSGI will have on the supply of food aid; second, the impact the BSGI will have on calming global food prices; and third, the composition of exports realized under the BSGI as being about ensuring the circulation of food (and in particular, wheat) in contrast to the circulation of commodities.        

Food Security and WFP

Perhaps the most emotive and compelling narrative put forward about the BSGI is that the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine is critical to addressing famine and acute food insecurity amongst vulnerable populations in ‘food deficit’ countries, particularly in North Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In other words, the BSGI is presented as crucial for ‘feeding the world’ in a time of food crisis. At the center of this narrative is the World Food Programme (WFP) – the key international actor in emergency famine relief, food aid and food security programmes more generally. In August, the Executive Director of the WFP said that “getting the Black Sea Ports open is the single most important thing we can do right now to help the world’s hungry”. This narrative rests on the fact that Ukraine is an important source country for WFP food aid procurement, particularly wheat. In 2020, for example, the WFP procured 424,000 tons of grain from Ukraine, representing 13% of total WFP procurement that year. So, no doubt Ukraine grain is important to WFP operations. Yet, the BSGI is represented as being overwhelmingly about addressing the food crisis, famine and global food insecurity. Much attention has been given in the media to the role of the WFP in the Initiative, with the impression that a majority of the BSGI grain is really going to those ‘most in need’. UN press releases have focused on the WFP vessels leaving Ukrainian ports, and this narrative has been reinforced in the media. For example, CNN reported that on 31 October, 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said of the BSGI that “one third of the world’s wheat is produced by Russia and Ukraine. You are the closest witnesses of our efforts to deliver this wheat to the countries facing the threat of famine”. In the same article, which reported Russia’s erstwhile threat to withdraw from the agreement, the director of USAID, Samantha Power, was quoted as saying that “any attempt to undermine the agreement is an attack on hungry families around the world whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on this initiative”. In August, another CNN article quoted the US Embassy in Kyiv that “the world will be watching for continued implementation of this agreement to feed people around the world with millions of tons of trapped Ukrainian grain”.

Yet the UN’s own data on the export of grain under the BSGI paints a different picture. The inspection check-list includes lading and cargo plan. On August 1, 2022 the first vessel left the port in Odessa. The ship carried 26,527 tons of corn for a number of countries, which were not specified by name. The ships that followed brought corn to Ireland, Italy, Turkey and Iran respectively. Next came shipments of sunflower meal and sunflower oil, soya beans and then wheat. On August 16, 2022, more than two weeks after the food commodity trade under the flag of Black Sea Grain Initiative was resumed, and following 19 vessels bound for China, Iran, Ireland, Italy, South Korea, and Turkey, the first vessel chartered by the World Food Program (WFP) left a port in the Ukraine. It carried wheat as part of the WFP’s “drought response in the Horn of Africa”. On August 30, a second chartered vessel left Ukraine with wheat for Yemen, after being milled in the flour in Turkey. On September 17, a third and fourth vessel brought wheat to Ethiopia and Djibouti respectively for humanitarian aid in the Horn of Africa. On September 22 and October 7 wheat vessels left with the destination Afghanistan and Somalia. This makes 6 shipments out of a total of 408. The total amount of BSGI wheat purchased by WFP was 150,800 tons. On a total of 2,674,156 tons of wheat leaving the Ukrainian ports, this is less than 5% of the total amount of wheat shipped. Up to now, in fact, 61% of the grain exported under the BSGI has gone to European countries, followed by 26% to Asian countries (mostly to China), and only 13% to African countries. Figure 1 breaks down the total grain exports per destination country, showing that Spain, Turkey, Italy, China, and the Netherlands have received the most grain shipments under the Initiative. When we break down these numbers per commodity, Spain is the main beneficiary of corn, and Turkey the main beneficiary of wheat. As a broker and protector of the grain deal, Turkey has been given priority in the export of wheat from Ukraine. Turkey’s Minister of Agriculture claimed that the country receives a 25% discount on wheat from Ukraine, yet this has been denied by the United Nations. 

Food Security and Prices

The claims that the Black Sea Grain Initiative will alleviate global hunger is not only based on the supposed direct shipment of grain to those who are food insecure. Various UN institutions have suggested a direct link between the Black Sea Grain Initiative, lower food prices, and food security, where lower world market prices would improve food access for food insecure populations. The UNCTAD may have been most explicit about this relation between prices and hunger, stating that “[t]he Initiative has helped to stabilize and subsequently lower global food prices, and move precious grain from one of the world’s breadbaskets to the tables of those in need.” (UNCTAD, 2022: 3). In a news update on the initiative, explaining its “importance for the world”, the United Nations declared “all of the grain coming out of the Ukrainian ports thanks to the Initiative benefits people in need, as it helps to calm markets, and limit food price inflation” (emphasis in the original). Others have warned that a collapse of the agreement made under the Black Sea Grain Initiative would be “an attack on hungry families around the world whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on this initiative,” according to an USAID Administrator.

Yet, precaution is required when assessing the relation between the Black Sea Grain Initiative and food prices. First, the UN and others seem to deploy language to actively avoid making any claims about causality between the Black Sea Grain Initiative and global food prices. Yet by putting the two together a causal link is implied. Second, others have questioned this relation explicitly. The International Crisis Group stated that the effect of the agreement under the Black Sea Grain Initiative on global food prices is expected to be limited. Third, critical food system scholars have long argued that price volatility in general is linked to the financialization (Clapp & Helleiner, 2012) and speculative trading of food, particularly in futures markets (Ghosh, Heintz, & Pollin, 2012). Crises provide a fruitful context for food commodity speculation (Baines, 2017). Fourth, attention should be given to other voices and visions of how to solve world hunger outside of the same tired market and trade-based solutions proposed by dominant narratives. For example the need for a prioritization of ”actions boosting production of locally grown nutritious food and making agriculture more resilient” and strategies of local farmers to address, for example, wheat shortages. Research from Wageningen Economic Research (WEcR) also argues that when wheat prices rise, local farmers often respond byproducing locally appropriate alternatives, such as cassava. These are the types of locally grounded responses that are often sidelined in the dominant global discourse on food systems and food security.

Food Security and Corn

While the Black Sea Grain Initiative has been heralded for moving grain from a cradle of wheat production to the tables of those who are food insecure (UNCTAD, 2022: 3), corn has in fact been the main crop exported (see figure 2). Between August 1 and October 29, a total of 4,001,897 tons of corn left the ports in the Ukraine compared to 2,674,156,695 tons of wheat, approximately a ratio of 3:2. Spain has been the main destination of Ukraine’s corn exports under the Initiative, receiving 833,356 tons of corn, or 30% of the total, up to now. Corn imported by Spain is mainly used as animal feed and feedstock for bioethanol production, the latter a controversial use of a food crop.

Zooming in on the Netherlands, 355,043 tons of corn, or about 9% of the total amount of corn exported in the August-October period, was sent to the Netherlands. Though no information is available for the corn specifically imported from the Ukraine, 65% of all the corn imported by the Netherlands is processed into animal feed and 15% of the corn is processed into biofuel. The remaining 20% is for human consumption. The possibility that this corn has been used to alleviate hunger in food insecure regions is low. Though, again, no statistics are available for corn in particular, and also not for corn from the Ukraine, ninety percent of Dutch cereal exports go to other EU countries (Jukema, Ramaekers, & (Red.), 2021: 98). The dominance of corn exports in the BSGI problematizes the dominant humanitarian discourse around the Initiative. Instead, the BSGI seems much more about reinforcing and shoring up the global industrial food value chains that are a hallmark of our current corporate industrial food system. Again, our goal here is not to challenge the necessity of supporting Ukrainian farmers or reopening Ukrainian ports, but instead to also encourage a deeper reflection of the broader food system politics that are at play.


The discourse around the Black Sea Grain Initiative suggests that the deal contributes to global food security. However, data provided by the Joint Coordination Center of the Black Sea Grain Initiative suggests otherwise. The commodities exported and the destination of these exports suggest western countries, the food industry, and Turkey are the main beneficiaries, and not those who are food insecure. Yet more research is needed, and the authors of this blog are happy to supervise WUR MSc thesis students interested in researching the relation between the Black Sea Grain Initiative or similar responses to food crisis, the restoration of international (corporate) value chains, and food (in)security, and the implications for the broader politics of our current food system and alternative futures.


Baines, J. (2017). Accumulating through food crisis? Farmers, commodity traders and the distributional politics of financialization. Review of International Political Economy, 24(3), 497-537. doi:10.1080/09692290.2017.1304434

Clapp, J., & Helleiner, E. (2012). Troubled futures? The global food crisis and the politics of agricultural derivatives regulation. Review of International Political Economy, 19(2), 181-207. doi:10.1080/09692290.2010.514528

Ghosh, J., Heintz, J., & Pollin, R. (2012). Speculation on Commodities Futures Markets and Destabilization of Global Food Prices: Exploring the Connections. International Journal of Health Services, 42(3), 465-483. doi:10.2190/HS.42.3.f

Jukema, G. D., Ramaekers, P., & (Red.), P. B. (2021). De Nederlandse agrarische sector in internationaal verband Wageningen: Wageningen Economic Research en Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek.

UNCTAD. (2022). A Trade of Hope: The role of the Black Grain Grain Initiative in Bringing Ukraine Grain to the World. Geneva: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

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