Food Protectionism: Looming on the horizon, writes Harini Calamur

While that battle rages – sapping the life energies of both the Russians and the Ukrainians, the world seems to be plunging into another war. A much older and pervasive war. The war against hunger. The focus needs to be on minimising the impact on the poorest. Not just to ensure that western populations do not face discomfort. And to do that the nations of the global South need to talk.

Harini CalamurUpdated: Monday, May 30, 2022, 05:55 AM IST
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India bans wheat export. All nations are looking to ensure that their population is taken care of before the rest of the world is. | Representational Image/Pixabay

About three months ago, Vladimir Putin of Russia ordered the invasion of the neighbouring nation of Ukraine. The war that was predicted to get over in three days with victory for Russia, is now approaching its 100th day, with the Ukrainians holding their own, and fighting for their independence with a passion that is inspiring. The Western nations are aiding Ukraine with money, arms, and intelligence – fighting a proxy war with Russia. The rather sardonic joke about the war is how the West will fight Russia till the last Ukrainian, which seems less like a joke and more of a prediction as to the war mounts. And while that battle rages – sapping the life energies of both the Russians and the Ukrainians, the world seems to be plunging into another war. A much older and pervasive war. The war against hunger.

Ukraine has been the breadbasket of the world for the longest time. A bountiful harvest in Ukraine would mean sufficient bread for large swathes of people in the states adjoining the Black Sea, the Arabian Peninsula, and the North African states. Closer home, Bangladesh and Indonesia are heavily dependent on Ukrainian wheat. Sown in the autumn months, wheat would have been harvested and been ready for shipping when the war struck. The major Black Sea ports, including Odessa, have been facing blockade.

On Saturday, the Ukrainian foreign affairs minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted, “Sanctions on Russia have no connection to the unfolding global food crisis. The sole reason for shortages, rising prices, and threat of hunger is the Russian military physically blocking 22 million tons of Ukrainian food exports in our seaports. Demand Moscow to end its blockade.” Food supplies are stuck. Negotiations are on to get them released, but the number of nations getting anxious about the food security of their populations is increasing. But it is not just wheat production and supply that is in peril. There are dangers posed to the production of sunflower oil – Ukraine and Russia account for almost 70% of the world production; barley and maize are used for animal feed, and packaged food products. Over and above this, there is a threat to the supply of fertilisers.

There are three broad types of fertilisers used in commercial farming – nitrogen, potash, and phosphate – and both Russia and Ukraine are the centres of production for these. Countries across the world, including India, would be impacted by this shortfall. While India has import substitution policies in place, it will take time for the industries to move production capacity. A reduction in grain supply is expected to impact food security this year, while a shortage of fertilisers is expected to have an impact on future production.

Source: International Food Policy Research Institute

The world is rapidly looking for alternative sources of food supply to ensure that mass starvation does not take hold. And as that is happening, nations who have traditionally been food suppliers are pulling up the drawbridges on food exports.

Indonesia, the largest producer of palm oil, started the trend, in April, by banning its export. 63% of India’s import of edible oils is palm oil, and almost all of it comes from two nations – Indonesia and Malaysia. Argentina has banned the export of soya bean; Egypt has banned the export of vegetable oil, and maize; India has banned the export of wheat. Each of these nations is looking to ensure that its population is taken care of before the rest of the world is.

The last time Europeans went to war, the cost on the rest of us was huge. During the second world war, as Imperial Britain diverted food supplies from a drought-struck India to its soldiers fighting in the war, millions of Indians starved to death. It is likely that every one of the former colonies of imperial powers have similar memories and incidents that would remind them of the perils of exporting grain and essentials before meeting internal demand.

One of the greatest impacts of the ban on exports is rising food prices. We are already seeing this in the spiralling costs of vegetable oil and sunflower oil, and it is likely that there will be spikes in the prices of other essentials. In a world not yet over the impact of the economic crisis brought about by COVID, this does not portend well for vulnerable populations in those nations.

Pulling down the shutters on the food trade may seem to be the easy way out – but that is likely to have consequences in the medium and long term in terms of nutrition, and prices. There doesn’t seem to be any way for impacted nations to get together and talk like grownups – and see how they can mitigate this current disaster from having too much impact on vulnerable populations. The only way out seems to be openness and collaboration. The focus needs to be on minimising the impact on the poorest. Not just to ensure that western populations do not face discomfort. And to do that the nations of the global South need to talk.

(The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur)

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