World

After invasion, famine

3 April 2022

7:30 PM

3 April 2022

7:30 PM

Geopolitical pundits fool themselves by thinking that President Putin wants simply to return to challenge Nato or return to the Soviet Union. This is a much older story. Russian imperialists have had utopian designs on the Ukrainian plains since at least the days of Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. In 1768, Catherine the Great fulfilled the Russian dream by seizing Ukraine’s goldilocks zone of abundant fresh water, flat land, fertile soil, and the dirt roads that led to the Black Sea. This is the same land that fed the Greek city-states, the Roman and Byzantine empires, and, in the 18th century, the grain-guzzling cities of Europe: Liverpool, London, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. And it was Catherine who planned the construction of Odessa, the deepwater port that carries much of Ukraine’s grain to world markets today.

Last year Russia and Ukraine together accounted for almost 30 per cent of global wheat exports, nearly all of which passed south through the Black Sea. With the port of Mariupol destroyed, what was once known as the chorni shlyakhy, or black paths, are barely functioning. Russia has stopped around 300 grain ships from leaving the southern coast of Ukraine. The Agriculture Ministry has suggested that because of this blockade, Ukraine may have to export its grain via Poland or Romania. But the price of wheat shipped by rail, when it finally reaches deep water, will be exorbitant. The world market cannot pick up the slack; the only climate where farmers can plant in March for a summer harvest is Canada. Though India had a substantial surplus this year, it has limited facilities for storage and deep sea delivery.

This is bad news indeed for the wheat eating regions in North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, which have been trading with the Black Sea since the days of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Wheat is still the staple food of poor people between the Strait of Gibraltar and the Strait of Hormuz. It comes in the form of Egyptian baguettes, Nigerian Indomie noodles, or Algerian flatbread. This food, composed of grain, still makes up 30 to 40 per cent of household expenditure in these places. As bread prices rise, upheaval follows, as it has for centuries. Droughts in Morocco, Syria, and Algeria have made those regions even more dependent on imported food this year.


Eleven years ago, in 2010, when wildfires and drought led Russia to cap grain exports through the Black Sea, the surge in grain prices contributed to the revolutionary upheaval of the Arab Spring. Grain futures now, at $10 a bushel, are as high as they were then.

Covid-19 was the first test of our global food supply system. We all saw the effect of disruption to our sophisticated supply chains when grocery stores ran short of chicken and breakfast cereals during the pandemic. Beef, pork, and chicken prices, which are extremely sensitive to the cost of grain, may rise faster. But along the ancient grain corridor between the Strait of Gibraltar and the Strait of Hormuz, things are much more dicey. From North Africa through the Middle East around India to Southeast Asia – where distance multiplies the cost of transportation – grain’s contribution to the surge in food prices will be faster, and may well bring violent conflict.

There is no solution to this problem unless the Ukrainian blockade is broken. Russia, meanwhile, reopened its grain exports through the Black Sea in mid-March. Indeed, Moscow has been able to sell its own grain at a premium. This export, and the chaos that could ensue if it fails, protects Russia from sanctions as much as its supply of oil.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian farmers are busier fighting the Kremlin’s forces than seeding for the coming harvest. That same black mud that once fed much of the world is being churned up by Russian tanks and shelling. A lack of grain will only sow more global discord.

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