How Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain shipments exposes cracks in the global food distribution system
“If we do not feed people, we feed conflict.” — Antonio Guterres, U.N. Secretary General
Since early April, U.N. authorities and others have warned of an imminent food crisis in East Africa and the Middle East. With Russia’s naval blockade of Ukraine’s grain shipments to those regions as its immediate cause, the widespread famine would be perilously exacerbated by climate change.
Sadly, the predicted calamity is developing at an alarming pace, and millions of people in the affected regions are currently threatened with starvation while their countries are on the verge of societal destabilization and its accompanying desperate migrations and armed conflicts.
Climate change is entering the picture in its characteristically erratic fashion. In mid-April, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Joe Biden, during talks, that India had huge grain reserves left over from keeping its people fed during the pandemic. These could be available for export to make up for the predicted interruption of Ukrainian supplies. Then India was hit by a crushing heatwave that destroyed much of this season’s crop, and it banned all grain exports.
Tough stuff, Sudanese mother. You get to watch your child slowly waste away until it can no longer move its limbs, while its stomach extends and eyes hollow just before you bury its skin-clad bones.
While Modi might actually care about this suffering, but is unable to act because of his responsibility to his own people, one government that clearly does not care is Russia’s. It apparently feels it can blackmail the Western Alliance into lifting the sanctions imposed because of its genocidal attack on Ukraine by using mass starvation elsewhere as a bargaining chip.
That’s all I’ll say, or need to say, about Putin and his minions. The more pressing question is, what can be done about the food crisis?
Fortunately, the U.N, with the active cooperation of the U.S., is trying to step up to the plate. At an urgent U.N. meeting on May 18, the U.S. pledged to provide $2.6B in emergency food assistance to the world’s most vulnerable populations. The USDA will also invest $500 million in boosting the domestic production of fertilizer for export, helping to counter another shortage caused by the war in Ukraine. Simultaneously, the U.S. is calling on (arm twisting?) its G-7 partners to provide emergency funds, and the World Bank has pledged $12B for food and other humanitarian aid.
These measures could help relieve some of the worst immediate shortages, but what is perhaps most encouraging was a sentence from the Latino news service ADW’s online writeup of the meeting where the U.S. pledged that “[Working with the U.N.] We will strengthen resilience by building inclusive and equitable food systems that empower women, youth, and disadvantaged communities to weather the effects of climate change, conflict, and supply chain disruptions…”
This near-term (five- to 10-year), global-vision approach could, at last, address the root of the problem which is not a food shortage, but increasingly centralized food production and monopolized food distribution systems. As U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres points out, there is enough food to go around — it’s just not getting around.
The entire planet, which once had a wide diversity of locally-grown food stocks, has become increasingly dependent on industrially grown grain for its primary source of calories. And like oil, that grain comes from just a few regions. For example, two countries, Russia and Ukraine, produce almost 30% of the world’s grain exports — now frozen because of a single localized conflict. A handful of majors produce most of the rest. Meanwhile, four international corporations control as much as 90% of global grain trade.
While this system engenders certain efficiencies and high profits for some, it is subject to shocks that can disrupt its major components and result in calamitous famines, which will produce more shocks of all types.
If we’re to survive the climate crisis with our global civilization more or less intact — and preserve democracy while we’re at it — we must recreate diversified agricultural systems that rely on local production of regionally appropriate, sustainably grown foods and balanced, multi-faceted trade and distributions systems that prioritize feeding people over raw profitability. It won’t be an easy task, any more than fostering international cooperation on climate issues is easy, but it’s a must-do-or-else challenge for humanity.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.