Cherise Kim, Editor-in-Chief
When picturing a protracted armed conflict between two sovereign nations in the 21st century, one may conjure to mind images of tanks rolling through villages, or perhaps fighter jets flying menacingly overhead. Clamoring crowds around empty shelves at a grocery store, however, is a far less likely picture.
Since Russia’s unprecedented invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, global markets for countless goods have faced major upsets and disruptions, carrying far-reaching effects on many different sectors. In particular, this has had extremely consequential effects on the production, prices, and availability of food worldwide.
Ukraine and Russia are both major players in the international food production market, with Ukraine often being dubbed the “breadbasket of Europe” due to its high volume of grain exports. In addition to being a fellow wheat producer, Russia is also a major exporter of fertilizer, which is vital for horticulture worldwide. Together, Russia and Ukraine provide more than 30% of international wheat exports, 20% of corn exports, and almost 80% of sunflower oil exports . According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 26 countries source at least 50% of their wheat needs from the Russian Federation and Ukraine .
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed on Russia by over 30 countries, including the United States and the European Union, have halted or stalled flows of numerous different exports from both countries. Bottlenecks have occurred at critical ports on the Black Sea, and the aforementioned sanctions as well as widespread boycotts of Russian ports have led to a significant decrease in the outflow of goods from both Russia and Ukraine. These exports are incredibly vital for import-dependent countries, and particularly the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Even Ukraine and Russia’s fellow European countries such as Greece have been afflicted by the decrease in food output.
The MENA region is disproportionately affected as consumers of Russian and Ukrainian wheat exports. Despite constituting only 5% of the world’s population, nations such as Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Tunisia, and Algeria collectively require roughly 35% of the world’s grain imports . Together with existing supply chain issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic, this conflict has exacerbated existing shortages and has further raised prices for many basic commodities. Finding alternative sources of food quickly has been a challenge for many of these countries, with Lebanon’s Minister for Industry George Boujikian stating that the Lebanese government would be allowing bread makers to solely access milled flour whilst it seeks alternative sources of grain imports from countries such as Canada . In Sudan, where more than 80% of the country’s wheat is imported from Russia and Ukraine, protests about rising bread prices were met with bullets and tear gas . In Iraq and Greece, farmers held protests about rising fertilizer prices.
Rooted deeply in a history of colonialism, particularly when discussing the MENA region, the politics of food and its availability to all is a particularly intriguing lens through which to view the status of global inequality. For many of the countries most affected by the current crisis, the problems they face in regards to food infrastructure, arable land, and water were not always so endemic. In fact, many countries in the MENA region were largely self-sufficient for most of their respective histories; this is fitting for a region home to the area known as the “Fertile Crescent,” where favorable land and water conditions led to what many consider the birth of human civilization. This changed, however, during the colonial period, where the groundwork for many of the current systems of agriculture were laid by the British, French, and other European colonial powers.
The pressures of production for export rather than sustainable domestic growth can be seen in cases such as Syria in the aftermath of the 2006-2011 drought. The prolonged period of drought forced it to import large quantities of wheat for the first time since the 1990s, which came as an especially tough blow to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which wanted to maintain the image of Syria as a completely self-sufficient food producer . Many experts believe this was due to the political and economic choices made by al-Assad’s government and the ruling Ba’ath party, which prioritized maximum returns from exploitation of the land rather than sustainable methods of agriculture and water extraction .
The linear relationship between Russian invasion of Ukraine and acute shortage of basic food staples in the Middle East is just a microcosm of the precarious global domino effect which can occur when authoritarian power-grabs clash headfirst with the global supply chain of basic necessities such as food. The power-hungry whims of one leader and its consequences can find their way into the lives and homes of massive swaths of people — many of whom already struggle to meet basic needs for themselves and their families — across borders, seas, and continents.
While this phenomenon is not, of course, exclusive to Russia, this moment in contemporary politics provides a particularly salient example of undemocratic unilateral decision-making and its extreme consequences. Vladimir Putin’s long-standing and vice-like grip on power in Russia differentiates him from other executives whose style of leadership has oft been described as extreme or leaning towards authoritarianism, such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, or India’s Narendra Modi. Of course, the alarming practices of these leaders and others like them cannot be understated. What differentiates Putin, however, is how long he has retained his grip on power and the means with which he has been able to do so, including but not limited to: unchecked manipulation of the Russian Constitution and laws, systemic elimination of opponents (such as famed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who claims to have been poisoned at the hands of Putin), and suppression of free press .
Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has been a rising cause for concern amongst the international community, as it constitutes one of the most substantial violations of international norms to occur in this century; in the Global North, a disregard and active delegitimization of national sovereignty accompanied by direct military invasion has not been seen since the outbreak of World War II. Without checks on power such as enforced term limits, checks on executive power from other branches of government and civil society, or a free and independent media, Putin and leaders like him are free to unilaterally make decisions that affect not only Russians and Ukrainians but those in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and innumerable others around the world. And when taken within the broader global political context, the politics of food and its availability are not solely limited to trade associations and agricultural ministries. It is a metric by which to measure and examine ever-increasing inequality, the necessity of accountable systems of governance, and the ripple effects of unchecked executive power.
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[Image Credit: Raimond Spekking CC-BY-SA 4.0]