Monday, March 28, 2022

World Food Supply and the Ukraine War

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Agriculture, Science & Society, History of Science

Ed Hessler

So far I haven't run across any reporting on the importance of Ukraine to the global wheat supply, not that I've looked very carefully.*  It must be included in the list of humanitarian crises, currently and to follow in the Ukraine and world-wide.

The British journal Nature has a short article which shows the fragility of the world food supply. Alison Bentley reports on "short-, medium- and long-term disruptions to the global food supply. ... Ukraine and Russia contribute nearly one-third of all wheat exports (as well as almost one-third of the world’s barley and one-fifth of its corn, providing an estimated 11% of the world’s calories).

What is going to happen to wheat already planted? They require "management and inputs" if a harvest is to be productive. And will wheat reach markets in the Ukraine and the world? Bentley notes that more likely "with rising input chain disruptions (not only fertilizer and fuel)" will reduce productivity." Furthermore, "there could not have been a worse time for heavy rains to have dented China’s winter wheat crop. Many countries require subsidized bread programs that will be severely tested.  In addition "overall government spending and provision of public services will reach far beyond wheat. The last time wheat prices increased sharply, in 2008, it precipitated food riots from Burkina Faso to Bangladesh."

Bentley calls attention to what the war has revealed, namely "the folly of having 2.5 billion people depend so heavily on three main regions of wheat production and export in a changing climate." She suggests three important steps are needed.

First, what production must be expanded including "high-productivity areas (North America and Europe) and in regions with suitable conditions (Sudan and Nigeria are promising), and by increasing productivity in places where it is low (such as Ethiopia and Turkey)." This seems obvious and simple but comes with its own demands: "skilled workers, fertilizer and seed, particularly to low-income nations." While "Improved wheat germplasm provides predictable, reliable and resilient plants — but only if farmers have access to best growing practices" and the development of new blends of flour which include other flour sources.

Second, we should take advantage of the real-time monitoring capabilities of satellites and remote sensory imagery real-time monitoring. Such data can be used by farm managers to make quick decisions about interventions during the growing season. Genomics comes into play as well, "used to track plant pathogens and pests."

Third, food policies have an important role,  tailored especially to women who farm in rural areas.Bentley calls our attention to a decade old "Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO" which "estimated that if women had the same access to resources (land, technology, credit, education and so on) as men did, they could increase yields by 20–30%, reducing the number of hungry people in the world by 12%, perhaps more." The issue is that men take over when "crops gain economic and social value. They then "become goods for trade rather than for household consumption." 

The title of her reporting could not have a more appropriate and evocative title: Broken Bread

* Related, I think, is a provocative essay for the Steady State Herald by Brian Czech, the executive director of CASSE (Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy) on Putin's "practical motives" for invading Ukraine that has not gained any traction or attracted any reporting. "Surely," Czech writes, these "include the rich soils...and grain-belt climate of the steppes comprising  Russia's western doorstep. With the breadbasket landscape of Ukraine and capitalist mode of production, Russia would become a bona fide superpower on the order of the Soviet Union; Putin's dream come true."

The reasoning is based on the notion of agricultural lebensraum and the historical writings of Lizzie'" Collingham (The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food)." Russia is no longer "a wide-open country with plenty of space for economic growth." Czech writes that Collingham "details the nexus between food and strategy in domestic policy and in military operations. For the Nazis, starving hundreds of thousands of “'useless eaters'” in Europe—not just in concentration camps but out on the lebensraum—was a conscious decision pursuant to a detailed strategy, the ominously named “Huntgerplan.” The Hunger Plan, overseen by Herbert Backe. the Nazi’s Minister of Food, was designed especially to starve enemy forces while feeding their own along the front."

When asked possible parallels, Cunningham told Czech, "'People of the West are amazingly unaware of the importance of Ukraine to Russia, not only as a strategic location on the map of Europe but as the main competitor and potential contributor to Russian grain production.'” As a steady-state economist, Czech notes that "agricultural surplus allows for the other sectors to develop and “'authorizes'” the exchanging of money. In that very real sense, agricultural surplus generates all the money in the world."

This is a steady-state economic term known as the trophic theory of money.

Czech describes a war policy of Nazi Germany of which I'd not heard. Whether it applies to Ukraine or not, I don't know but if Russia's oil economy is severely curtailed it makes some sense. Putin has spoken in the past on his concerns about food production, according to Czech. He paraphrases a comment attributed to Lenin that "'Grain is the currency of currencies.'"

Czech's thoughts on this linkage may be read here. The essay includes links to people, policy, etc. which I've not included here.


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