BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The EU aims to address rising wheat and fertilizer prices and expected shortages in the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East with “food diplomacy” to counter Russia’s narrative on the impact of its Ukraine invasion, EU diplomats and officials say.
Food insecurity was causing “resentment” in vulnerable countries in these regions, while Moscow was portraying the crisis as a consequence of Western sanctions on Russia, one European Union diplomat said.
This posed a potential threat to EU influence, the diplomat said, which it plans to tackle with “food diplomacy and a battle of narratives”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that the West’s sanctions had fomented a global food crisis and spiralling energy prices.
EU neighbours, particularly Egypt and Lebanon, are highly dependent on wheat and fertilizers from Ukraine and Russia. They face a price spike after a drop in supplies since Moscow began what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
“We cannot take the risk of losing the region,” a second European diplomat added.
The 27-member bloc also wants to boost international efforts to mitigate the impact of shortages and will together with the U.N. World Food Programme announce new initiatives on Tuesday.
France, the EU’s biggest agricultural producer, is pushing an initiative called “FARM”, which would include a global food distribution mechanism for poorer nations.
France aims to secure international agreement on its plan before the end of its six-month presidency of the EU in June, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters after talks on Tuesday between EU officials and U.N. food agencies in Rome.
Hungary has suggested boosting the EU’s agricultural output by altering its climate goals.
And the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) confirmed that it was considering a food import financing facility.
However, the EU’s foreign affairs service said cooperation with the FAO’s Director-General Qu Dongyu over global food insecurity was “challenging”, an EU document seen by Reuters showed, adding that the EU was pushing the FAO to act quickly.
The FAO did not comment on Qu’s relations with the EU.
In a list of recommendations on the FAO’s website Qu says: “Countries dependent on food imports from Russia and Ukraine should look for alternative suppliers to absorb the shock.”
Brussels considers Russia’s communication campaigns on the food crisis as disinformation, the first diplomat said, adding that the EU is not restricting food trade with Russia.
EU sanctions on Russian exports have usually exempted food, but not fertilizers, whose export from Belarus and Russia has been restricted.
“It’s not sanctions that are creating the risk of a future food crisis, it’s Russia’s occupation … of Ukraine,” France’s Le Drian said.
Russia is also making it hard for Ukraine to ship agricultural products by attacking ports and bombing wheat storage, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Monday.
Russia, which has restricted wheat exports, has bombed several fuel storage facilities in Ukraine.
And while wheat storage facilities are full, Ukraine cannot export because of a shortage of fuel, EU officials said.
The EU is trying to facilitate food exports via Poland and is supporting the delivery of fuel to Ukrainian farmers to ease the situation, the officials said.
The EU is also providing financial support to the most vulnerable nations, last week announcing 225 million euros ($244 million) in aid to North Africa and the Middle East.
Nearly half of this will be directed to Egypt, while Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority are to receive emergency funds of between 15 and 25 million euros each.
Another 300 million euros in agriculture support is to be provided to Western Balkan countries, as part of regular EU funding to the region, with Serbia considered of concern because of intensive Russian communications there, EU officials said.
($1 = 0.9205 euros)
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Additional reporting by Gus Trompiz in Paris; Editing by Alexander Smith and Grant McCool)