“Collateral damage” of the Ukraine war

Neither peace nor bread

As in all wars, the worst effects of the Ukraine war are borne by those who are most vulnerable. In this case, the war is also pushing up inflation, causing the prices of certain raw materials, such as cereals, to rise, and potentially increasing the risk of famine in numerous Third World countries.

Daniel Gatti

03 | 22 | 2022

Photo: Gerardo Iglesias

Since the Russian invasion, on February 24, the international price of rapeseed shot up by 74 percent, wheat increased by 66 percent, sunflower oil rose by 40 percent, maize by almost 34 percent, and barley by more than 18 percent.

Known as the “breadbasket of Europe,” Ukraine and Russia are among the world’s largest producers and exporters of all these commodities.

If the war continues, there could be disruptions in the Spring planting season in April and May, and in the wheat harvest in July, during the winter of the northern hemisphere.

This scenario is compounded by the effects that the Russian blockade of Black Sea ports has on Ukraine’s exports, and the impact that the even larger embargo imposed on Moscow by many Western powers has on Russia’s exports.

No bread

A third of the wheat traded in the world is harvested in Russia and Ukraine.

Russia is the largest exporter of this cereal, far ahead of the United States, which is the second largest, while Ukraine is the fifth largest, behind France and Canada..

Many countries, some of which are among the poorest in the world, source their wheat almost exclusively from the two nations now at war.

According to the United Nations, some 45 nations in Africa and Asia import at least one-third of the wheat they consume from Russia and Ukraine, and 18 of them import as much as 50 percent of their wheat from those countries..

Egypt, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan are some of the countries on that list. Another is Kenya, which purchases 80 percent of all its wheat abroad; also Lebanon, which imports 80 percent of all its basic food staples.

The war could cause “a hunger hurricane” in all those countries, due to the shortage of grains and the increase in prices of those and other raw materials, as well as of energy, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said.

Rising international wheat prices could even result in some wheat-producing countries (such as Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, in Latin America) transferring that increase to domestic market prices.

“I would not be surprised if before long poor people are not able to afford bizcochos [traditional croissant-like pastries] or even a loaf of bread. These are soon going to be luxury goods. Flour prices will be sky high, and when the war is over, it will be very hard to get those who line their pockets with this business to bring prices back down again. They will have gotten used to such sweet profits,” the manager of a bakery in downtown Montevideo told La Rel.

“It will be just like with beef,” he added, a commodity that Uruguay produces in large quantities and exports at high prices, mainly for the benefit of the mostly Brazilian companies that own the meatpacking plants.

The hunger moves

One of the great dilemmas faced by the war makers on the Western side is whether to allow Moscow to continue exporting wheat to avoid a global food catastrophe in this case.

China and India have large wheat reserves, but not enough to compensate the withdrawal of both Russia and Ukraine from the market.

The United States also fears that China, its leading trade and economic rival, will increasingly operate as an ally of Russia in a world that is in the midst of reconfiguring itself.

The rise in food prices means, for example, that countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which until 2017 spent 20 percent of their income on food, will have to spend 35 percent on such items by 2023; countries in Southern Asia will have to spend 20 percent, up from 15 percent in 2017; and Latin American countries will have to spend 20 percent instead of 13 percent..

These are regions—especially the first two—in which a large part of the population do not even eat the bare minimum.

According to the 2021 Global Report on Food Crises, by the Global Network against Food Crises, the number of people in “acute food insecurity”—that is, people whose lives are at imminent risk—has been rising steadily since 2017. In 2020 there were 155 million acutely food insecure people in 55 countries or territories, 20 million more than the previous year.

And the number of people living in extreme poverty, who eat very poorly and irregularly, is approximately 800 million, according to another report produced by UN agencies.

An estimated nine million people (more than half of them—some five million–—children) die each year in the world due to hunger-related factors, such as undernourishment, malnutrition, or perfectly curable diseases.

Conflicts and climate change feature invariably among the causes of acute food insecurity cited by these reports. In the last two years, an additional cause has been the action taken (or not taken) against the COVID-19 pandemic.

What these documents fail to mention are the inequalities inherent in the system in which these people, and most of the world, live, and the origin of the “conflicts.”

One cow, two cows

The populations—or most of the populations—of the regions suffering from food insecurity are extremely poor. Their territories are, often, extremely rich.

In a monumental book entitled El hambre (Hunger), first published in 2014 and again last year, the Argentine journalist and writer Martín Caparrós makes a very simple but at the same time very complex point: how is it possible that in a planet that for decades has been producing more food than is necessary to feed its entire population, so many people die because they cannot eat?

There is a political issue there: let’s call it inequality, wealth distribution,” he said in an interview. “Hunger is the most violent metaphor for inequality.”

Caparrós says that he decided to write this book after he asked a woman from the Niger what her greatest wish would be if a genie were to grant her any wish, and she replied: “a cow.” When the journalist asked her if that was really her greatest wish, the woman said: “Well, two cows then. With two, I can be certain I will never be hungry again.”

“The Niger is the clearest example of structural hunger, the most obvious expression of how a system produces hunger. A very arid place where it is difficult to grow crops,” but also “the world’s second largest producer of uranium,” which is mined by “a French company and a Chinese company,” Caparrós writes.

The country is located in an area that has seen multiple conflicts and multiple wars. An area rich in uranium, in gold, in oil. An area with a strong presence of multinational corporations. And inhabited by people who are only rich in poverty.