The fact that parts of the world are facing a devastating famine cannot be attributed solely to the consequences of the Ukraine war.
Putin did it! This exclamation, which the Kremlin ruler’s auburn-haired German fan base likes to use with a wink to ridicule any criticism of their surrogate leader, actually seems to apply perfectly in the case of the worsening hunger crisis in the global South. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, staple food prices have really skyrocketed. The food index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), whose calculation takes into account the price of cereals, dairy products, meat, cooking oils and sugar, has risen significantly since the beginning of the war.
Ukraine and Russia, as important exporters of staple foods such as wheat, corn or sunflower oil, supply mainly peripheral states. Belarus and Russia also produce a large share of fertilizers for the global agricultural economy. According to the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control, Ukraine’s wheat production accounts for 11.5 percent of the global market. In 2021, about 33 million tons of wheat were harvested in the country, which has particularly fertile soils, of which 20 million tons were destined for export. This year’s harvest is estimated to be 35 to 42 percent lower due to the war, and exports have already fallen to a third of last year’s volume in May. The food crisis is thus triggered on the one hand by the war in Ukraine and the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, and on the other hand by globally looming crop losses due to fertilizer shortages. Russia and Belarus produced around 37 percent of the potash fertilizer used worldwide in 2019.
Before the outbreak of the war, Russian and Ukrainian grain exports went mainly to those peripheral regions that are particularly vulnerable to famine. Among the largest importers of wheat from Russian and Ukrainian production are Egypt, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Yemen, Sudan and Senegal. Of the 25 African countries that source more than a third of their wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine, 15 countries actually met more than half of their import needs from Russia and Ukraine. In the case of Somalia, Egypt, Benin, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Tanzania, the figure was more than two-thirds. East Africa in particular, where the worst drought in 40 years has already caused a severe famine threatening some 23 million people, to which statistically one person falls victim every 48 seconds, is a major buyer of wheat from the war zone. Since the EU sanctions do not affect Russian sunflower oil and grain exports, and the most important importing countries have not imposed any sanctions against Russia, the price increase and the resulting increase in hunger and malnutrition must be attributed to the imperialist war of aggression which Putin – provoked by Western expansionism in the closest Russian sphere of influence – unleashed in his megalomania.
However, a look at the global development of hunger and malnutrition also shows that the war acts as a crisis amplifier that accelerates already prevailing trends. Indeed, Western public opinion is in part using the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a cheap excuse to distract from the deeper, systemic causes of the crisis.
According to FAO figures, the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition in late capitalism has been increasing almost every year since 2014 due to episodic outbreaks of social and environmental crisis. The increase in hunger was most pronounced in 2020, the year of the pandemic – 768 million people were affected. The fight against the pandemic led to a massive collapse in demand in the core countries, which led to an overproduction crisis and a corresponding explosion of misery in the periphery. According to a report in the FAZ, for example, sales of textiles in Europe and North America collapsed by around 16 billion dollars in 2020, which was reflected in income reductions of around 21 percent in the Southeast Asian textile industry. Since wages in the industry in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan or Burma are at the subsistence level, millions of workers simply had to go hungry – or get into debt.
According to surveys, 75 percent of the workers were forced to take out loans in order to ensure adequate access to the necessities of life. The market-mediated capitalist destitution mechanism, which had its destructive effect not only in the textile industry during the pandemic, transforms the falling demand of the centers of the world system into empty stomachs in the periphery. The rise of hunger thus affected millions of wage-earners in 2020 precisely because too much material wealth was produced that could no longer be valorized in commodity form. Those wage-dependents who are still allowed to sew clothes for Adidas, Puma and Co. have been “lucky,” according to the capitalist logic of valorization.
In capitalism, only that which directly or indirectly contributes to the valorization process of capital has a right to exist, that is, only that which promotes the boundless multiplication of money by means of wage labor. Natural resources and human life have no value in themselves for capital, but function only as a means to the insane end in itself of boundless capital accumulation. Commodities – and this includes the commodity of labor power – represent a mere cost factor if they cannot be valorized. Since, under capitalist conditions, the massive increase in hunger is accompanied by an equally massive decrease in the market demand for food, the pandemic year 2020 was consequently marked not only by a serious increase in hunger, but also by mass destruction of food. The US agricultural industry, for example, destroyed millions of tons of staple foods, while some 38 million US citizens suffered from “food insecurity” and the queues at soup kitchens and food distribution points, which were frequented by 60 million people in 2020, grew longer and longer.
The destruction of foodstuffs that can no longer be pressed into commodity form is also taking place in this year of war and crisis, when, for example, farmers in Münsterland have their strawberry fields plowed under because the food trade is forcing prices below production costs. However, there are now also signs of famines caused by the climate crisis. This is illustrated by a look at India, for example. In the spring, the country was hit by a historically unprecedented, week-long heat wave with record temperatures of more than 45 degrees Celsius, which led to considerable crop losses. In key crop-growing regions such as Punjab, initial estimates put crop losses at around 25 percent. With India already using up a large part of its grain reserves during the pandemic-induced bouts of pauperization to prevent famine and riots as part of a welfare program, New Delhi decided to pull the emergency brake and impose a ban on wheat exports in the face of skyrocketing prices. India originally wanted to use the shortages triggered by the war in Ukraine to open up new markets, but in view of the collapsing crop yields, which are calling into question the government’s food program, which runs until September, the government felt compelled to resort to protectionist measures.
The climate crisis is thus reinforcing the protectionist tendencies that are already prevalent in the final phase of neoliberal globalization – at the latest since Donald Trump took office. And the impacts, which take the form of extreme weather events, are becoming more frequent: the severe heatwave that hit Spain in May endangered the harvest of several berry varieties. In the USA, prolonged drought in the Midwest is threatening yield losses of eight percent for winter wheat – despite an expansion of the area under cultivation. In Morocco, crop losses of 70 percent are expected due to drought, while Canada and France are also facing significant losses due to unusually warm and dry weather conditions in the spring. And China could also see yield losses due to severe flooding. Overall, according to estimates by the US Department of Agriculture, wheat yields are expected to fall by 0.6 percent in the 2022/23 season, and global reserves by as much as five percent.
The skyrocketing world market prices for staple foods, which are likely to contribute to the 193 million people at risk of starvation worldwide, as stated by the Global Report on Food Crises for 2021, will continue to rise this year, only anticipate future market demand in the face of war and the climate crisis. And it is not only India that is responding to this killer market movement with protectionism. Due to massively rising prices and looming supply shortages, Indonesia, for example, issued a short-term export ban on palm oil in April, which further exacerbated the supply situation, especially in the global South. The export restrictions on the environmentally harmful oil, 60 percent of which is produced in the South Asian island state from oil palms grown in monocultures on the soil of deforested rainforests, were only lifted at the end of May.
Just as the failed global fight against pandemics, due to the unequal distribution of vaccines, leads to the emergence of new mutants and resistances in the periphery, the late capitalist world system is at the same time the cause and intensifier of the hunger crisis, which is gaining momentum. The growth compulsion of the capitalist economies, itself only an expression of the process of valorization, is causing global CO2 emissions to continue to rise in spite of all the ideological assurances of green politicians, which will put ever greater pressure on the food supply of humanity. At the same time, the late capitalist agricultural system is incapable of reacting adequately to the increasing distortions, since it follows only the end in itself of achieving the highest possible profit.
The lamentations of the green political swamp, according to which “we” should finally eat less meat and fill up less biodiesel, ignore precisely this irrational end in itself of capital, which turns the basis of human existence into the mere material of the real-abstract valorization process. The demands raised by the agricultural mafia in the face of the unfolding hunger crisis to lower environmental standards and abandon organic farming after all, in order to push the ecologically disastrous industrialization of food production to the extreme, only illustrate the fundamental inability of the late capitalist agricultural sector to reform, as was already expressed in 2020 in the EU agricultural reform, which was softened beyond recognition by lobbying associations (see konkret 12/20).
In the course of the famine crisis, the internal and external barriers of capital interact with each other – this becomes very clear in the upsurge in prices, which is, after all, not only fueled by war and the climate crisis, but also by the consequences of the massive over-indebtedness of the entire capitalist world system. The gigantic global debt burden – the consequence of a missing accumulation regime simulated in the neoliberal era by credit-financed growth – which also crushes many countries in the global South threatened by famine and makes adequate crisis reactions difficult, could only be maintained in recent years by steadily increased money printing by central banks. Long before the outbreak of war, this “expansive monetary policy” manifested itself in rising inflation, contributing to increased food prices and heralding the inevitable devaluation of global debt mountains. And it was precisely these increasing economic as well as ecological contradictions that put the West and Russia on a collision course in Ukraine.
The nature of the neo-imperialist Great Game over Ukraine has consequently changed since 2014 – when the West intervened to prevent the formation of the Eurasian Union, propagated by Putin at the time, by means of a government overthrow carried out by Nazi militias. With the fight over Ukraine’s southern and southeastern regions, which the Kremlin wants to incorporate into its resource empire, an archaic-looking resource war is now also taking place. The disputed areas have the highest agricultural yields of cereals such as wheat and rye. Moscow, which failed to modernize the Russian economy, is expanding its strategy of forming an “energy empire”, which seeks extensive control of the “value chain” of energy sources, to include other “scarce” resources: in this case, basic foodstuffs.
Russia not only wants to be a nuclear-armed gas station, it also wants to become the granary of the late capitalist world lurching into climate catastrophe, thereby gaining another geopolitical lever of power. The visit of representatives of the African Union to Moscow in early June to discuss the food crisis illustrates the Russian strategy. Senegalese President Macky Sall said he was “very pleased and very happy” with the exchanges with his Russian counterpart, after the three-hour meeting with Vladimir Putin, as the latter was aware that “the crisis and the sanctions would cause serious problems for weak economies like the African ones.” The New York Times described the meeting as “something of a diplomatic victory” for Putin. It is doubtful, however, that the late capitalist world system, in its current state, even knows such a thing as a victor.
Originally published in konkret in 07/2022