Our Global Food System Was Already in Crisis. Ukraine War Will Make It Worse

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The Global South will suffer the most as colonial legacies, climate change, and capitalism continue to plunge millions into hunger.

Raj Patel in the Boston Review: The first tank hadn’t yet rolled across the border before the U.S. oil industry was recycling calls to “drill, baby, drill.” Now it’s food’s turn. Together Russia and Ukraine accounted for just under 30 percent of global wheat exports in 2021. The price of wheat hit a record high this year at approximately $12.94 a bushel (it opened the year at $7.55). The Financial Times reports that the U.S. Farm Service Agency is thinking about loosening federal restrictions on land. Dig, baby, dig is a reactionary battle cry in waiting.

Higher food prices will lead to more people going hungry—and digging won’t solve the problem. The malnutrition caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine cannot be fixed by planting new wheat. The season is over for U.S. winter wheat. Farther north, only a small minority of Canadian farmers are bothering to plant more for the spring harvest. Even if farmers were to bend seasons, soil, and rain to their will, spring wheat won’t be ready for four months. The markets are already pricing in the shortfall. Croupiers at grain trading desks the world over are readying themselves for bumper bonuses amid the meager harvests.

Illustration by Sadia Tariq

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations calculates that, worst-case scenario, food prices will rise by an additional 8.5 percent by 2026–2027. That will push 13.1 million more people into malnourishment, most of whom will be in the Asia-Pacific and Sub-Saharan African regions.

The appalling 2014 statistic reporting that 606.9 million people are undernourished—around 8.3 percent of the global population—may be remembered as the closest humanity came to ending hunger in the twenty-first century. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, 118–161 million more people joined their ranks. Although 2021 numbers are still preliminary, malnutrition in the Global South was widely understood to be worse, with USDA projections suggesting a roughly 7 percent increase. The war in Ukraine has piled an additional 8–13 million people onto that. Meanwhile a worsening drought in the Horn of Africa threatens to put 20 million people at risk of starvation. In 2022 we will be lucky if only 830 million people are deprived of 2,100 calories a day.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seals a fate that was already inked by the woefully inadequate economic and political responses to COVID-19. The rise in prices and hunger triggered by the war will cause a wave of rebellions, just as food price spikes have in the past: as with the 2010 demonstrations that inaugurated the Arab Spring, the 2007–8 wave of food protests from Haiti to Italy, and the 1980s and ’90s International Monetary Fund (IMF) riots. The only difference is that this time, it will be worse. More here.

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