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.
The Food and Agriculture Organization 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.
This essay is featured in Imagining Global Futures.
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.
As a lesson in the complexity of today’s emergency, consider a particularly dark story in the history of hunger from 2010. That year a huge wobble in the Northern Hemisphere’s jet stream created two weather disasters: one in Pakistan and one in Russia. When one-fifth of Pakistan flooded, it was difficult to find any information in news headlines. However, when a heat dome squatted over Russia from June through August of 2010, killing 55,000 people (primarily due to air pollution from wildfires), the news went global. At the time the heat dome was dubbed a one-in-five-hundred-year event; by 2100 such heat waves are predicted to occur in Europe and North America every two or three years.
The worst of the heat- and fire-seared land in Russia had been subjected to cycles of industrial agriculture for pine forests and cereals. Russia accounts for over 10 percent of the global roundwood trade. Pines are often planted commercially because they make good lumber and can better withstand drought than other commercial species. However, at industrial scales, pines’ virtues begin to pale.
Commercially grown pine forests contain trees of the same age to make planting and harvesting more convenient. Imagine, then, fields of geometrically arranged trees, all identical in height. Absent the complex mix of species and varying ages of trees found in old-growth forests, the young pines became perfect tinder during the heat dome, burning hot and fast.
Food burned too. The late spring crops of corn, sunflower, potato, and sugar beet require more water than the winter and early spring grain crops. Under the Soviet Union, the planting of late spring crops was tightly regulated. Strict crop rotation rules allowed the soil to regain moisture that was lost to water-hogging harvests in previous rotations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transition to oligarchy was blessed by a cabal of U.S. free marketeers, including Jeffrey Sachs and Larry Summers, as chronicled in Janine R. Wedel’s classic 1998 essay “The Harvard Boys Do Russia.” Market forces removed the government’s restrictions on when certain crops could be planted.
Many of the areas hit the worst in 2010 had grown late spring crops for eight or nine years of the prior decade; they had far worse outcomes than other areas, where such crops had been grown fewer than five of the previous ten years. The desiccated earth and climate change raised the risk of a heatwave thirteen-fold. Drier soil, mined for water by the signals of the free market, led to higher and more widespread heat.
The effects of climate change and capitalism in the planting disaster are sometimes hard to tease apart. The economics of global food systems surely are a culprit behind the predisposition to flammable land. Sometimes, though, it is very easy to pinpoint capitalism’s contribution to catastrophe.
In early August, as the fires spread, the Zurich-based grain trading unit of Glencore International Grain Company called on Moscow to implement a wheat export ban. The fires lowered grain harvest forecasts in the Siberian grain belt, and already-high prices were putting grain traders in a bind. Traders assumed they would have cheap grain to fulfil their contracts, and fire-driven price spikes meant they would lose huge sums of money with every wheat delivery. An export restriction amounted to a ‘get out of a contract free’ clause. If Moscow declared a ban, traders could invoke a force majeure clause in their contracts: it wasn’t their fault that Russia decided unilaterally to change the rules of the game and, as such, they’d be off the hook. Under such a provision, traders could walk away from their ill-considered bets as if they’d never been made at all. Two days after Glencore’s appeal, Russia announced an export ban. Wheat prices hit levels not seen since the global food crisis in 2008.
Throughout the world trading system, the price spike propagated a regime of rules for exchange forged through European colonization and decades of debt-driven intervention by organizations such as the World Bank and IMF. Countries in the Global South had long been encouraged not to grow food, nor to waste resources on grain storage for local emergencies, but to concentrate on tropical export products—tea, cocoa, sugar, cotton, coffee, tobacco, timber—which they might exchange for dollars to repay the debt with which they had often illegitimately been shouldered. If grain was needed in a hurry, the market’s nimble supply chains would provide. After the Great Recession in 2008, the international banking orthodoxy—Larry Summers again—demanded austerity. Prices for essentials, particularly fuel, were rising. Governments were encouraged to allow the pain of fuel poverty to hit home, so that market forces might work their improving magic.
Mozambique was particularly hard hit in 2010. Portuguese colonization had transformed Mozambique’s diet; white bread became a staple, despite the absence of naturally growing wheat anywhere near Mozambique prior to colonization. Local cultivation never met local demand. The country imported over 90 percent of its wheat in 2010. The Russian export supply ban meant daily bread prices rose by 17 percent.
Accompanied by double-digit increases in energy and water, the spike in the cost of bread sparked a food rebellion. Because police, too, had austerity budgets, they had fewer funds for crowd control supplies. When they ran out of rubber bullets to shoot at protesters, the authorities switched to live ammunition. Beginning in Maputo at the start of September, six people—including two children—were killed. The protests intensified and spread to the central city of Chimoio. Ten days later, 600 people had been injured and 13 were dead.
Since then, food insecurity in Mozambique has only increased, from 24.9 percent in 2009–2011 to 31.2 percent in 2018–2020. Indeed, the news from southern Africa is bleak this spring. In March Mozambique was lashed by Cyclone Gombe, a category 3 storm. Purchasing power had already fallen because of high fuel prices. The civil war in the north of the country made poverty even worse. As the UN observes, like most of the continent, the demand for wheat in Mozambique looks impossible to meet and prices appear unlikely to fall soon.
It would be reasonable to predict unrest. During the last outbreak of food rebellions, in 2008 and then in the Arab Spring of 2010, communities took to the streets, demanding change from their governments. In India, the world’s largest democracy where Narendra Modi also sparked the world’s largest protest, farmers were able to roll back some of the most egregious pandemic-smuggled economic policies.
Yet even in India, where hunger has become catastrophically worse under Modi’s mismanagement of the pandemic, hope is fading. In the decade since the last round of food rebellions, autocrats have had a chance to perfect a hegemony of patronage and lies. When news broke of India’s worsening hunger crisis, the country’s politicians responded swiftly and decisively. The news, they announced, was fake. Meanwhile the country’s political class has achieved the impossible in recent regional elections. In the districts where farmers predominate, and where national farmer leaders campaigned against the BJP (Modi’s party), the party still won. In the years since the last food crisis, in India and elsewhere, the far right have eroded the institutions of democracy ruthlessly, and repressed movements for change constantly. In the next wave of food rebellions, that there’s every reason to imagine a far more brutal silencing of voices of dissent than in Mozambique, the Arab Spring or in Haiti’s 2008 uprising.
Colonial legacies in Mozambique, climate change in Russia, and capitalism in world markets are part of the reason why hundreds of millions took to the streets to protest their hunger in 2008 and 2010. But hunger will only get worse in the 2020s. Colonialism, climate change, and capitalism are now exacerbated by four more Cs: COVID, conflict, chemical agriculture, and craven opportunism.
Climate change has led to droughts in grain belts in the United States and Latin America. This is in line with predictions that 60 percent of the world’s grain producing areas will see severe water shortages by the end of the century—in addition to the various spikes of extreme weather currently lashing the planet.
COVID, despite well-funded efforts to confound a diminuendo with a finale, is still a global problem. The supply chain disruptions, and corporate profiteering from those disruptions, has raised prices for staples, hitting the poorest hardest. Higher costs of living meld with the chronic grind of long-term care. Under capitalism the trade-offs people are forced to make daily between care, self-exploitation, food, and housing will only become more acute. COVID’s burden will continue to disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women in low-income communities.
Conflict, of course, predates the war in Ukraine and continues in parallel to it, from Yemen to Syria to Myanmar to Mexico. The arms industry’s most obscene weapon, the anti-personnel landmine, has been strewn across the world’s food fields. In every armed clash, food supply lines are disrupted, fields remain under-planted and under-tended, sources of food necessary for survival are cut off, funds flow away from social security and toward military security, and refugees are forced to rely on food far from home, sometimes for decades.
Colonialism shapes both the taste for wheat and its modern pathways. That India and Argentina are the counter-seasonal fallbacks for wheat production has everything to do with British colonial interest (and U.S. grain trading in the case of Argentina). It isn’t just taste that colonialism produced; the means of feeding the new foodways is the fabric of colonialism. Amid the supply chain crisis, it’s worth recalling that continent-spanning supply chains began with the origins of racial capitalism in the fifteenth century. In reflecting on that history, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, in their magisterial All Incomplete (2021), argue that logistics, in “converting everything in its path into a coordinated time and space for ownership . . . is the science of whiteness in/as the science of loss.”
Chemical agriculture fortified the colonial supply of grain. The chemist William Crookes, writing in 1898 in the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope, opined on the urgency of the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen: “Unless we can class it as among certainties to come the great Caucasian race will cease to be foremost in the world, and will be squeezed out of existence by races to whom wheaten bread is not the staff of life.” The importance of chemical fertilizers to the modern food regime has only increased. Market consolidation in the fertilizer industry has led to few options for farmers. In the United States, the potash fertilizer market is entirely controlled by Nutrien and the Mosaic Company, and 75 percent of nitrogen fertilizer is controlled by CF industries, Nutrien, Koch, and Yara-USA. Now, with the war in Ukraine raging, some of the largest exporters of fertilizer are off the market. Russia is the largest exporter of nitrogen fertilizer—a product essentially made by processing natural gas with atmospheric nitrogen—and the world’s second largest exporter of phosphorus and potassium fertilizer, both of which are processed from ores found beneath Russia.
Capitalism continues to invent new modes of extraction through global markets. In Oceans of Grain (2022), Scott Reynolds Nelson reminds us that the global fungibility of wheat contracts isn’t an accident. For the wheat traded in Chicago to be substitutable by wheat sold in the Black Sea requires a history of U.S. military, economic, and political domination, woven into European struggles for peace, land, and bread. Now tight market consolidation puts a few corporations in positions of extreme market dominance.
Globally a handful of grain trading companies muster the internationally traded commodities. On March 25, as the Russian shells fell on the grain shipment facilities in Mariupol, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge’s share price hit an all-time high. If they were publicly listed, Dreyfus and Cargill would have too. They have since jumped even higher.
Yet, while everyone from McDonald’s to Louis Vuitton has left Moscow, the Wall Street Journal reports that a mix of international grain traders and chemical companies remain. Citing humanitarian concerns in the Wall Street Journal, Archer Daniels Midland, Bayer, and Cargill say they’ll tough it out, reluctant croupiers of hunger and misery, serving a system they profess to not particularly enjoy, even if they have to make a profit doing so.
This leads us to craven opportunism. The catastrophe has provided an alibi for exploiters of land and labor to double down. In the food system, war’s state of exception gives license to everyone, from allowing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to use fertilizer shortages to mine in the Amazon on Indigenous land, to the decision to postpone laws that would have reduced pesticide use by the European Union.
The Financial Times reports that the U.S. Farm Service Agency is thinking about loosening conservation restrictions on land. Opening more land for farming in April is foolish. U.S. winter wheat is planted in the fall, and spring wheat planting is limited to northern strips of the Dakotas and Montana.
In Africa similar moves are afoot. Writing in Time Magazine, Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), has offered solutions to the hunger crisis, suggesting that African farmers be allowed to access fertilizer to grow more food—the same fertilizer’s price that has since hit record highs, up 30 percent since the start of the year. This strategy championed by AGRA has been aggressively pushed over the past fifteen years.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation developed a plan to turn African farmers into commercial farmers in the vein of U.S. ones, dependent on imports of fertilizer and pesticides. Their billion-dollar plan aimed to “catalyze a farming revolution in Africa.” In an evaluation conducted by its own consultants, the plan has been an abject failure. Independent assessments, such as those led by Tim Wise, are far less kind. The plan began in 2006 with the goals of reaching 20 million farming households and halving food insecurity by 2020—neither goal has been achieved. Hunger is up 30 percent; both Gates’s money and hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer support have little to show. Mozambique’s rise in hunger tracks its increase in fertilizer imports. If AGRA worked, we’d have seen the opposite. The U.S. Agency for International Development ought not to be bankrolling it any further.
So, what can be done? To be sure, bullshit and self-dealing in the development industry are not new, but they are particularly tragic given the knowledge, reconfirmed by the recent IPCC report, that climate change will wreak the most harm on the poor in the Global South. This is tragic because there always have been, and remain, better options to confront hunger. For the sake of symmetry, I present the five Ds.
Depots: The head of the World Trade Organization has been reduced to asking countries to “please” not hoard grain because there is not enough to go around if they prioritize their own citizens over others. After the massive food price spike in 2008, even the World Bank’s own consultants averred that perhaps governments in the Global South weren’t unreasonable to want to have access to local grain reserves. Although those reserves might be inefficient, they represent an investment in domestic stability long discounted by the bankers. China, it must be noted, has resisted neoliberal orthodoxy, and has some of the largest grain stores per capita. Less powerful countries aren’t afforded that option.
Diversify: The homogenization of crops is a consequence less of genetics than of finance. Commodity traders have shaped global markets to offer crops that are fungible for one another. It’s no accident that traders can fulfill contracts for wheat from a global storefront—to a large extent they built it. Although the first futures contracts in grain were struck in Edo Japan, the modern global standardization of cereals can be traced to the Chicago Board of Trade. These contracts provide some price stability, its boosters argue. Crop diversification will need its own circuits of risk and price management, but that assurance needn’t be bought at the price exacted by the food industry’s casino owners.
Debt reparation: Countries in the Global South rarely get to shape their economic policy because they are indebted to the Global North. COVID made it that much harder to repay this usury. Suriname, Belize, Ecuador, and Zambia have all defaulted on their loans. Sri Lanka has already seen protests this year. Occasionally bankers from rich countries perform a pantomime of calls for debt forgiveness or offer overseas development aid. In 2019 the level of that aid was $152 billion. The debt held by the Global North over the Global South is $7.8 trillion. As interest rates rise, governments in the Global South indebted by development financiers will face an even more acute choice between paying the rich or feeding the poor. The UK alone has siphoned $64.82 trillion out of India in 2020 dollars. Yet it is made to appear as if the UK is a creditor. Reparations offer one path out of this absurd situation.
Decouple: Fossil fuels play an outsize role in the modern food system despite abundant evidence that the planet cannot sustain humans’ persistent attempts to shove nitrogen into the soil using the energy locked up in natural gas. A move to live within the planetary boundary for nitrogen can, by contrast, offer a path to feeding 10 billion people by 2050. Doing that will require breaking the grasp energy and food industries have on the real economy.
Cutting edge science helps. Some of the latest science is agroecological, yielding far better results than industrial agriculture across a range of metrics. But politicians largely ignore it, one reason for this being that its practitioners are farmers. In English the idea of a peasant scientist is a contradiction in terms, even when over 8 million farmer groups—not individuals but associations mainly in the Global South—are dedicated to practicing it. The prejudice of the ignorant peasant waiting for the gift of knowledge from the urbanite gets it precisely wrong. This owes to colonial notions of metropolitan sophistication and rustic stupidity, which still characterize thinking about food systems. For this reason, the final D is the both the most important, and the hardest.
Decolonize: The croupiers of global hunger are heading for bumper bonuses because we live inside a system of exploitation built by centuries of greed. It’d be foolish to expect them simply to shrug and walk away; power concedes nothing without a demand. The demands of decolonization are revolutionary and transformational ones, as they must be to meet the apocalyptic trajectory of late capitalism. We’re beyond the comfortable remedies of voting with your fork and shopping at farmers markets. There is no number of metal straws that will undo the architecture of global hunger in which we currently live. There are regimes of care, of reparation and repair, that offer transformative change. Winning them will require courage in the face of incipient global fascism. Yet the schools for this transformation already exist, from the shacks of South Africa to the streets of Detroit to the agroecological laboratories of the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil. The policies already exist, too. It is up to us to implement them.