Global leaders called Tuesday for urgent efforts to address global food insecurity amid fears of disastrous harvests next year, as Ukraine's president blamed Russia for the crisis and sought the world's "toughest reaction" against Moscow.
On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, ministers from the European Union, United States, African Union and Spain met on food shortages which are seen as a key factor in conflicts and instability.
Appearing by video link was Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky, who directly accused Moscow of willingly triggering a food crisis.
"Any state that provokes famine, that tries to make access to food a privilege, that tries to make the protection of nations from famine dependent on... the mercy of some dictator -- such a state must get the toughest reaction from the world," Zelensky said.
He blamed Russian blockades and other "immoral actions" for slashing exports from Ukraine, a major agricultural producer.
"Russia must bear responsibility for this," he said.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his February invasion of Ukraine, "is trying to blackmail the international community with food."
"There is no peace with hunger and we cannot combat hunger without peace," Sanchez said.
The Group of Seven major industrial powers at a June summit in Germany promised $5 billion to fight food insecurity but German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said there was still "great urgency."
"The Russian war of aggression has caused and accelerated a multidimensional global crisis. Countries in the Global South with prior vulnerabilities have been hit hardest," Scholz said.
President Joe Biden will address the General Assembly on Wednesday and announce new US aid, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
In his own address Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said his country will finance shipments of Ukrainian wheat to Somalia which is facing risk of famine.
Ukraine is one of the world's largest grain producers and the Russian invasion sent global prices soaring.
Russia has cast blame on Western sanctions, an assertion denounced by Washington which says it is not targeting agricultural or humanitarian goods.
Turkey and the United Nations in July brokered a deal between Russia and Ukraine to allow ships with grain to sail through the blockaded Black Sea.
Putin has recently criticized the deal, pointing to shipments that have headed to Europe. US officials say some of the grain is then processed and sent to poorer countries.
"Despite some of the misinformation that continues to come from Moscow, that grain and other food products are getting where they need to go to the countries most in need, predominantly in the Global South," Blinken said.
"It's also helped lower food prices around the world. So it needs to keep going, it needs to be renewed. That is urgent."
- Long-term fears -
Concerns are also mounting on the long-term impacts. A recent report by the Ukraine Conflict Observatory, a non-governmental US group, found that around 15 percent of Ukraine grain stocks have been lost since the invasion began.
And experts warn that disruptions in fertilizer shipments could seriously impede future harvests worldwide.
"It's very clear that the current food supply disruption and the war in Ukraine is having an impact on the next harvest," said Alvaro Lario, incoming president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
"There's one or two harvests per year, and already we're seeing that it's going to be devastating for next year," he told AFP, warning that the impact could be "much worse" than Covid.
He called for longer-term action, which would entail billions of dollars of investment, to ensure stability of food supply chains and adapt to a warming climate.
"We know the solutions and we have the institutions to make that happen. What is currently lacking is the political will, in terms of the investment," he said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said recently that the world had enough food in 2022 but that the problem was distribution.
If the situation does not stabilize this year, in 2023 "we risk to have a real lack of food," he said.