DANIEL VAUGHAN: The looming global food crisis

A little over a decade ago, a young street vendor in Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring. The police and locals harassed Mohammed Bouazizi for selling fruits and vegetables on the street. One day, after they harassed him and stole all his merchandise and his way of making a living, he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. 

He later died in a hospital from that attempted self-immolation. His actions and death sparked protests across the Middle East. People who still hadn’t recovered from the Great Recession and struggled to find food due to inflation sparked wars and toppled governments. One of the driving factors was food costs, which no one could afford.

Like most things, the Arab Spring was multi-faceted. There were more factors than the price of bread. But when a populace can’t eat, their anger at other ills in a society becomes sharper and intensifies.

There’s growing evidence we’re headed towards a similar crisis.

The Russia-Ukraine breadbasket.

Russia and Ukraine are what are called “breadbasket” countries. Ukraine by itself is one of the top grain exporters in the world. When combined with Russia, they produce a significant amount of wheat, fertilizer, sunflower seeds, and various oils for cooking in that region of the world.

Food prices and scarcity were already high coming out of the pandemic and problems with drought. Even in America, the land of abundance, we’ve seen grocery store shortages and significant price increases. What America has experienced is mild compared to other countries.

Now, NBC News is reporting growing fears the war in Ukraine will trigger a global food crisis. Typically, “In times of peace, Ukrainian farmers would now be preparing to plant their spring wheat crop. By late summer, they’d look to harvest the winter wheat that’s already been planted and is lying dormant now.”

It’s unclear whether Russia’s invasion will impact Ukraine’s capacity to farm. The Russian military has made several attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, from power plants to water. If Ukrainian farmers can’t plant in the spring or harvest the winter wheat, that will trigger shortages.

Both Ukraine and Russia are banning exports of key agricultural products. They both see their capacity to supply food products for themselves to be severely impacted and don’t want to lose it. Those actions are provoking similar export bans in other countries in the region.

Farmers plant now.

In short, all the governments in that region are scared of a food crisis. These decisions are happening before farmers even start planting.

American farmers face a similar timetable. It’s mid-March, and that means it is planting season for many. Farmers are tending to the winter wheat planted in the fall and are looking towards a summer harvest. It’s impossible to plan how a likely food shortage in a few months impacts your planting decisions now.

I appreciate that Florida Senator Marco Rubio sees this crisis on the horizon. He tweeted, “It is time to start preparing for the fact that Putin’s criminal invasion of one of the worlds leading wheat producers is going to result in a massive increase in food prices including here in America & a food insecurity crisis in many parts of the world.”

It’s essential to recognize the problem. However, the time for Congress to act is now. Congress can do nothing once the planting season is over to change the seasons or increase the food supply. The time to pass those Congressional actions to aid farmers in improving the food supply is now, not when the crisis is here.

That predicament could be sooner than expected, too. The Wall Street Journal reports, “What remains of last year’s crop has been kept off market due to the closure of Ukrainian ports and shippers’ hesitancy to enter a war zone to fetch Russian wheat. Meanwhile, it is unclear if growers in the region will be able to harvest winter wheat, which was planted in autumn, or plant spring crops in the coming weeks.”

A food crisis can lead to a political crisis.

Furthermore, WSJ found that shippers were unwilling to go to Russian ports out of fear of reprisals. Shippers were also reluctant to take payment in the Russian Ruble due to its extreme devaluation. While it may sound fun on social media to stop buying Russian products, for some countries, they have little choice. Cutting off that supply means shutting down their only access to grains.

Trading markets have experienced an explosion in prices surrounding wheat and other products. Investors have no idea what to expect in the coming months on how expensive things could get.

And even if the war in Ukraine came to a speedy resolution, there’s no guarantee that the Russian side would get solved. Businesses are leaving Russia in droves, which will make it harder to get Russian wheat to the markets that need them. The supply-chain crisis and lack of ships is a problem everywhere.

What that means moving forward is more instability. The Arab Spring got triggered by unhappiness with the economy, jobs, and food prices. Those events started civil wars, terrorism, and new leadership. Several countries experienced a massive migration from them, like Syria, and into Europe — giving rise to more right-wing, anti-immigration platforms.

It’s possible to draw a line from the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi to Brexit. No one knows where our falling dominos will lead. History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.