Will food insecurity create a new Russian Empire?
Does Russia want world famine?
According to David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), up to 323 million people are ‘marching towards starvation’ and 49 million are ‘knocking on famine’s door’, wrote David Pratt in the Sunday National (‘Food squeeze begins’, 5/6/2022).
In the West we are experiencing a cost-of-living crisis, some much worse affected than others, but food prices were already rising since late 2020. The WFP blames a convergence of post-covid demand, climate change, scarcer food stocks, high energy prices, supply-chain problems, export restrictions, taxes, and finally the invasion of Ukraine.
With the ongoing war in Ukraine, the situation has worsened, due to the simple fact that Russia and Ukraine between them were in the top three exporters of barley, wheat (17% of world supply from Russia, 13% from Ukraine), maize, rapeseed (Ukraine supplied 20% of the world supply), sunflower seeds and sunflower oil. The sunflower is even Ukraine’s national flower.
Ukraine is estimated to feed 400 million people worldwide. Twenty-five million tonnes of corn and wheat is trapped in Ukraine, with Russia blockading the Black Sea. Russia is the world’s largest producer of fertiliser, accounting for 20% of world nitrogen fertilisers, and with sanctioned Belarus, 40% of the world’s potassium. Fertilisers now cost 78% more than a year ago. Russia is still managing to export wheat, despite international sanctions on buying Russian produce and on facilitating payment.
Ukraine had already shipped out most of last year’s summer crop before the war, but had to ship them out via rail westwards and from the Danube ports while they remained open. And this year’s harvest cannot be reaped. Russia must reopen Ukrainian shipping lanes, Ukraine must de-mine the approach to Odessa, and Turkey must allow naval escorts through the Bosphorus.
Only a day after a UN- and Turkey-brokered deal to release the grain for shipment, Russian missiles struck Odesa, damaging the port’s infrastructure. The deals had paved the way for opening up Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhny for the export of Ukrainian grain and Russian gran and fertilisers.
The Donbas provides 5% of Ukraine’s total barley production, 8% of its wheat, 9% of sunflower seeds, and a small amount of maize. Other areas of Ukraine bordering Russia and Belarus account for up to 30% of maize and sunflower seed production, 10%-15% of barley production, and 20% to 25% of wheat production.
The poorest will suffer the most. Those living in emerging economies spend 25% of their budget on food, in sub-Sahara about 40%. War-torn Lebanon imports half it wheat from Ukraine. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa were already in a food crisis due to covid, climate change, droughts and floods and landslides.
It is estimated that 47 million more people in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Afghanistan and Yemen may fall into acute hunger. Food crises have sparked riots, beginning with Tunisia and Sudan, leading to the Arab Spring in 2010, and the famines caused by the Ukraine situation will likely destabilise countries, adding to the refugees clamouring to be let into the prosperous West.
Particularly since the invasion of Ukraine, food is a weapon of war. The Russian strategy of total destruction of the land it takes has led to at least one-tenth of the Ukrainian population becoming refugees in foreign lands, and many more displaced westwards within Ukraine itself. Some have argued that Russia wants a global famine in order to become the saviour of starving nations.
Western Food Insecurity
Next year we in the UK may not have to contend with just rising prices, but actual shortages of basic foods, and although it is likely we will be shielded to some extent by government, in poor countries this is simply not possible.
Western food shortages are caused directly by the grain blockade by Russia, and indirectly through fertiliser shortages. But Western governments are not perhaps choosing the best time to turn people away from meat-eating. The Dutch government wants to reduce its livestock by 30%, which has sparked riots by farmers.
In the UK, high energy bills and a 400% increase in fertiliser costs may lead to a lower crop yield next year. The National Farming Unions of England and Scotland have found farmers considering leaving milk production by 2024, and are living with the uncertainty of future UK government subsidies for meat production. In Scotland, without subsidies, only 37% of farms are deemed viable, and the Scottish government has not announced subsidies going forward from 2024. Much of the subsidy till then is from the UK government attempting to replace lost EU subsidies.
Pig farmers are scaling back production. Following last year’s culling and burning of thousands of pigs due to a shortage of abattoir workers and butchers, this year farmers are losing £30 to £40 per animal due to the doubling of the cost of animal feed and many are being forced out of business. Farmers’ mental wellbeing has been heavily affected. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is advancing 50% of its Basic Payment Scheme payment to July to help farmers with cashflow pressures and are belatedly providing an extra 10,000 visas for seasonal workers.
Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus believes we need to rethink policies to feed our populations. He decries the rich world’s ‘obsession with organics’ (‘The global food crisis… and organic farming’s dirty secret’, Herald, 28/07/22). Europe’s dependence on Russian gas has been exposed, but fossil fuels are needed for the majority of global needs, at least medium term. He goes as far as to say that organic farming cannot feed the world and may worsen things. The European Union is pushing for a tripling of organic farming by 2030, but organic produces between a quarter and half less food per hectare than conventional farming, requiring a rotation of soil use from production to pasture, fallow or cover crops. Organic farming is more expensive and needs much more land to feed fewer people.
As agriculture currently uses 40% of the earth’s ice-free land, swathes of natural land would have to be destroyed to give the same production as traditional farming. Sri Lanka enforced an organic transition overnight last year, but foundered as organic production needs twice the land to replace synthetic nitrogen fertilisers (mostly made with natural gas) with animal manure.
Most existing organic crops depend on imported nitrogen, so nitrogen scarcity becomes disastrous, and organic farming can only feed about half the current world population. But Lomborg’s proposed solution of genetic modification of seeds, and increased use of fertilisers and pesticides is not a solution which will appease eco-friendly Western governments.
is causing major headaches in the EU. France, Germany and others are heavily dependent on Russian gas, which Russia has exploited as financial sanctions have cut deep. Germany had to agree to pay for gas supplies in roubles or get none, with others like Finland having their gas supplies ended due to the refusal to pay in roubles.
Russia has received $320bn from the EU this year for energy, up 35% from last year. The closure of the NordStream 1 pipeline from Russia for maintenance cut off gas supplies to eastern Europe, and since reopening it ran first at 40% capacity, and now at 20%. The NordStream 2 was abandoned unused after costing $11bn.
Russian gas exports are 20% of the global trade and account for 40% of EU gas imports. Natural gas is needed for the production of nitrogenous fertilizers like ammonia and urea, with Russia providing 15% of global nitrogenous fertilizers and 17% of global potash fertilizer exports. Russia’s ally Belarus provides 16% of the global market in potash exports.
The EU is currently trying to reduce its reliance on Russian gas supplies in the coming winter, and the UK’s National Grid has asked permission to pump more gas to Europe. The EU recently approved a law to lower demand for gas by 15% from August to March for most of its members. Hanover in Germany is switching off hot water and central heating in public buildings and gyms. France will follow suit in some places. But this was tried before (not for the same reasons, but for councils to save money) and had to be abandoned due to making the streets even more unsafe than they are, especially for women.
An added dimension to the problem is that many countries are pushing the production of biofuels mixed with petrol or diesel as an alternative vehicle fuel, but this in its turn depletes food crops like wheat, maize and edible oils and pushes up the global price for the supplies which remain as food.
Russian Territorial Ambitions
From the annexation of Crimea in 2014, claiming Russia had a historic claim to it, and the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts), allegedly to protect the population from forced de-Russification, it has become increasingly difficult to contradict those who say Russia will not be satisfied with anything less than the annexation of Ukraine, and possibly Transnistria and Moldova for good measure, even the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Finland and Sweden have come in for particular wrath over their decision to join NATO, with Russia warning Finland that it was courting its own destruction.
Russia’s current position in the Donbas is far from secure, with reports that a key Ukrainian target is to win back Kherson and advance in the south, which is a significant source of Ukrainian GDP, according to Mick Ryan of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
A new Russian Empire?
Belarus is well within its sphere of influence, and reunification was mooted in the recent past, even the recreation of the old USSR. But most of those countries are now independent and Russia appears instead to be realigning itself south-westwards. Its 2008 invasion of Georgia was an omen. Russia was faced down and forced to retreat to a large extent to the pre-2008 borders with the exception of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it recognised and itself occupied. In response, Georgia is leaning towards Europe and has just applied for full membership, although it appears there are a lot of hurdles to overcome before that becomes a reality.
Russia’s pretext for invading Ukraine was its claim that Ukraine was ‘being run by Nazis’ and the alleged forced de-Russification of the populations of the Donbass. Russia has become spectacularly mired in Ukraine due to the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians, aided by the West, particularly the UK and US, but has now admitted it wants more than just the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. It wants Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, and Odesa, to create a land route to Transnistria, an unrecognised breakaway region in Moldova, and cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea.
Russia appears to be setting its sights on a new alliance with Iran, Turkey, possibly Egypt and even China, then possibly into Africa due to its dependency on Russia for food. Russia has just signed a huge oil development deal with Iran. Turkey has replaced being Western-orientated and secular with becoming more autocratic, and recently threatened the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO because of their support for Iranian Kurds. Russia and Iran are allied with President Assad in Syria, while Turkey backs Assad’s opponents, apart from the Kurds.
China in its turn wants cheap Russian and Iranian oil and gas and Russian grain. All three are opponents of the West. The creation of a new Eurasian state allied with China is foreseeable and terrifying.
It appears that far from being contained to Europe, the Ukraine war could eventually result in a total realignment of Russia’s allies and set Russia and China together, opposing the EU, UK and the West. The EU is trying to present a united front, and is looking to enlargement, but it is not inconceivable that energy sanctions may in the end fatally split the EU, with countries like Hungary and even Romania once more coming into the Russian orbit.
Julia Pannell 03/08/2022