While the world endured global supply chain issues and delays for over two years throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, markets suffered, economies buckled, and there were real fears that it would mean potential shortages of essentials, and even food across the globe.
Such a fate is finally arriving with the Russian invasion of Ukraine impacting the planting, production and harvesting of wheat and other vital commodities in the region. Known as the "breadbasket of Europe", it does not only feed a few tens of millions in the neighbourhood, but at least hundreds of millions elsewhere in the world.
The result is set to be almost apocalyptic. At the time of this writing, data by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) show that around 890 million people worldwide lack sufficient food consumption and subsist on an inadequate amount of calories needed. That number is constantly on the rise, and is a few hundred million higher than statistics from 2020.
As the billionaire astrophysicist and entrepreneur, David Friedberg, said in a widely-circulated video, the entirety of the planet's food supply operates on only a 90-day cycle which constantly replenishes. With people consuming produce made and exported from that previous cycle, any delay or obstruction to the current or next cycle greatly impacts the amount of food and commodities supplied to populations. In short, "humans run out of food in 90 days".
To put the situation into perspective, the spring planting season for wheat began weeks ago, at the end of March and beginning of April. Due to the war in Ukraine, there has reportedly not been an adequate amount of planting being undertaken, spelling disaster for the summer of 2022 and beyond.
When approximately 30 per cent of the world's total wheat supply – and 15 per cent of the world's total calories consumed – is cut off from export and the seriousness of the situation begins to properly set in within the coming months, the number of those stuck in food insecurity and potential starvation is predicted to enter the billions.
A manufactured crisis?
Like almost every issue that pertains to people's livelihood, global food insecurity has become a political issue. While the common and accepted narrative is that Russia's aggression is responsible for impacting the production and export of wheat and other commodities, there are others who question whether that is the primary factor, or even the only one.
Many, especially those on the American and European political right, cite a myriad of other issues ranging from the supply issues caused by the pandemic over the past few years, the lack or shortage of fertilisers needed to grow crops, and reports that some countries are hoarding a disproportionate supply of commodities – such as the fact that China is set to hold the majority of the world's rice and wheat supplies this year.
The theories on the contributors to the global food crisis – or, at least, in North America – sometimes go even deeper, though, with some referring to the fact that much of the farmland in the US has been bought up by major figures such as Bill Gates, who is the biggest owner of farmland in the country. Opponents of such a monopoly on agricultural land fear that it could result in less capabilities to produce goods and benefit from livestock, which would further drive up the price of meat for the average person.
They also point to unwise policies implemented by the US government last year which may have contributed to shortages, such as farmers' having had to destroy their crops and kill livestock during the pandemic, as well as the more recent program by the Biden administration to incentivise farmers with subsidies to stop growing more crops and food in certain areas in the name of cutting back on carbon.
Such agricultural setbacks and monopolies are not just seen in the US, but throughout most of the world where four corporations possess control of over 50 per cent of the world's seed supply – and, therefore, the world's food supply. Furthermore, policies and legislation implemented worldwide by the World Trade Organisation and its member states have reportedly prevented farmers from freely growing, re-sowing, exchanging and sharing seeds, making them easily commodified by those corporations.
The UN itself has acknowledged those concerns, stating in a report thirteen years ago that the "oligopolistic structure of the input providers' market may result in poor farmers being deprived of access to seeds productive resources essential for their livelihoods, and it could raise the price of food, thus making food less affordable for the poorest."
That raising of food prices and the lack of affordability, then, are not simply a result of the Russian offensive in Ukraine and the subsequent reactions to it, nor is it even the result of climate change and increasing instances of drought. This was acknowledged in a report released this month by the US Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).
Instead, it could be more so the result of multinational corporate monopolies, disastrous policies, and the tightening of production and exports which all caused the crisis to be years, even decades, in the making.
Whether one believes that the issue is the result of profit-driven conspiratorial plans to engineer food crises – as seen numerous times throughout human history, including at least 31 times in India under British rule and corporate interests – or that it is merely the result of an accidental series of events, the fact remains that a global food crisis and major shortages are set to hit this year, and could cause famines throughout the world before the end of this year and through to 2023.
The most immediate and severe impacts of these crises will, of course, be felt in the 'third world' and developing countries, where governments have less capabilities and resources from which to receive commodities such as wheat, are more likely to suffer and often are suffering from an economic crisis, and which tend to be import-driven economies.
Countries in South Asia, the Middle East, and south and central America will suffer the most, with examples of the food crisis already being seen in the likes of Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
Meanwhile, high-income and 'first world' countries will likely fare much better, as they are reportedly manoeuvring to buy up essential commodities and stockpile them before the crisis truly hits. There are reports that they are even attempting to siphon off shipments of those commodities from arriving at their initial destinations in developing countries.
This practice was recently pointed out by Kuwait's Minister of Commerce, Fahd Al-Shariaan, who alleged that "vessels that are loaded with wheat, grain and seeds and bound for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman are diverted in the middle of sea to head towards Europe." He warned that the Gulf region should expect a sharp surge in prices, and that "The situation in the world and in our region is very serious; we expect a famine to occur."
When the food crisis hits those countries, and especially more fragile economies which are already struggling, there will predictably be a series of results that would soon be seen. Depending on how quickly the governments individually prepare and react, one of the first impacts could be political instability caused by the nationwide emergence of food riots and protests.
That is already being witnessed in Sri Lanka over the past few weeks, where the riots have resulted in a security crackdown and the recent killing of a protestor. Such unrest and instability would echo that seen during the Arab Spring throughout the Middle East and North Africa a decade ago, of which a primary cause was the rising price of food and bread.
What other issues may follow on from the unrest are yet to be seen, but one likely consequence of the economic and food crises would be the developing countries' need for loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to keep themselves afloat. Those predatory loans, which many developing nations already depend upon, would only further saddle them to ever deeper levels of debt and economic dependency. With potential famines, unrest and economic crises, the fate of the 'third world' looks bleak.
The effects of that will reverberate into the first world, however, through a surge in refugees which is predicted to flee towards western nations. If European governments imagined that they were overwhelmed by the waves of refugees fleeing Syria over the past decade, who numbered a few million, then they had better prepare for a new refugee crisis potentially in the tens of millions.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.