Food Crisis: It’s Not About Ukraine

Northern Africa is heading into a season of shortage, one that may lead to widespread starvation. There is no famine; climate change is not responsible. Instead, we’re told it’s due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent shortages.

But it turns out, that’s not entirely true. It’s partly true, but this is not -just- about Ukraine. Read for a bit; we’ll see why that matters.

On the face of things, we are in fact looking down both barrels of an international catastrophe stemming from the interruption in Ukrainian grain exports due to the Russian invasion. Ease of shipping has made Ukrainian wheat the go-to crop for much of northern and eastern Africa, but what with minefields in the Black Sea and the Russian attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure, port cities, and shipping, millions of tons will rot in granaries full to bursting. Exacerbating the issue, Russian crops and fertilizer are finding it difficult to get to market as well, despite that food isn’t subject to sanctions, because carriers are reluctant even to put in to Russian ports.

In addition to this, however, we must consider two factors: First, that there exists a global food surplus and has for five decades now, even with these interruptions in Ukrainian wheat; and second, that at one point North Africa was a net exporter of crops.

Egyptian wheat in particular was once a major export commodity; presently, it’s the subject of government restrictions on growing, obscene amounts of corruption, and other issues stemming from their free bread program. Ethiopia, before decades of civil war, had a thriving agricultural sector; it was sunk without trace by the availability of cheap grain imports and has never rebuilt. In Somalia, warlords have long kept power by ruthlessly cornering wheat and rice supplies, even to the extent of raiding and burning foreign aid. In short, North Africa’s “famine” is political in nature, and largely internal; Ukrainian wheat has only ever been an artificial crutch.

It’s important to note that, while interesting and important, none of this will prevent starvation in the affected areas. Egypt, for one, will need to deal with their own internal problems on a political level — either that or be prepared to pay inflated costs, which seems more likely. It’s highly unlikely that Ethiopian agriculture will recover overnight despite a massive government program aimed at doing exactly that, and Somalia is still actively engaged in fighting.

There is one aspect of this which major media — or, rather, major Western media — isn’t covering: Russian wheat is still available on international markets, and as demand increases, it will eventually sell regardless of any moral distaste or political pressure that may be applied. The first examples of this have been observed in Syria; Russian-flagged bulk carriers have been spotted unloading millions of tons in the (also politically-generated) famine-stricken nation.

The bottom line here is that wheat is a commodity, and as with all commodity shortages, the market will adjust accordingly. Prices will rise in some places; some people will shift to rice; some bulk shipping carriers will alter their routes. Charitable purchases may have some ameliorating impact in the worst-hit regions, but as in Somaila they are often ineffective regardless of scale; moreover, historically, the major impact has been to slightly increase the commodity price. Unfortunately, this means that Putin’s war of self-aggrandizement will, in fact, lead to a lot of people starving, even though much of the responsibility also belongs to local governments and the structure of the international commodities markets.

So what can we do to help? I hear you ask. Unfortunately, the honest answer is “not much”; there are dozens of causes combining to make one inexorable result. If we could end the wars in Ukraine or Somalia that would be nice, but at present that appears as unlikely as Egypt fixing their bread corruption problem. There are a few good charities which we’ll link below, but in general even those are startlingly ineffective simply because the nature of the larger problem in most affected areas is usually political. That’s no reason not to give; just don’t expect much to change as a result.

It’s kinda like politics that way: private donations to parties don’t achieve much in the face of massive amounts of corporate money.

In case you missed my point back there: For the love of God, do not donate any money to Donald Trump or his campaign. It’s also pretty pointless to give it to the Democrats, who are about to get shellacked in the Midterms regardless of any contribution you could possibly afford. If you want to change the world with your money, we’ve prepared a list of charities that do great work and are desperate for more funds.

On an unrelated note: You can send cash to PayPal in order to help support us, set up a subscription donation at Patreon, or buy us a coffee.

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