By Maytaal Angel
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain's farming minister called on Tuesday for an immediate investigation into allegations that Russia had been stealing grain from Ukraine, following Moscow's invasion which has driven up world food prices to record levels.
Black Sea ports in Ukraine, the world's fourth-largest grains exporter, have been blocked since the invasion, with about 20 million tonnes of grain now stuck in the country.
Victoria Prentis told an International Grains Council (IGC) conference in London that she had heard the allegations of grain theft by Russia firsthand from sources in Ukraine's southern region of Kherson, describing them as very serious.
Russia has previously denied allegations that it has stolen Ukrainian grain.
The United Nations is trying to broker a deal to enable Ukraine's grain to be shipped from ports such as Odesa. Russia has said it wants Western sanctions lifted as part of a deal.
Turkey has also been pushing for an agreement between Russia and Ukraine on a plan to resume grain exports from Ukrainian ports, although prospects for a deal look dim, with each side blaming the other for disrupting global food supplies.
Ukraine and the West accuse Moscow of weaponising food supplies. Russia blames the situation on what it says are Ukrainian mines in Black Sea waters and on international sanctions against Moscow.
Ukraine said last week Russia was shipping stolen grain to Turkey out of Crimea, which it annexed in 2014. It also accused Russia of sending 100,000 tonnes of stolen Ukrainian wheat to Syria.
Ukraine's deputy economy minister, Taras Kachka, told the conference that the reputation of Russian companies would be damaged for years by what he said were their attempts to trade in stolen grain.
(Reporting by Maytaal Angel; Editing by David Goodman and Edmund Blair)