At the beginning of 2022 the world-spanning system which makes this possible was already in a ropey state. The number of people with access to food so poor that their lives or livelihoods were at immediate risk had risen from 108m to 193m over the past five years, according to the un’s World Food Programme (wfp). A lot of that near-doubling of “acute food insecurity” was due to the covid-19 pandemic, which reduced incomes and disrupted both farm work and supply chains; a good bit more was down to rising prices of energy and shipping as the effects of the pandemic wore off. Things were made worse by swine flu in China and a series of bad harvests in exporting countries, some of which were due to La Niña conditions that began in the middle of 2020. La Niña is a recurrent pattern of currents and wind patterns in and over the equatorial Pacific which has worldwide effects, just as its also-troublesome counterpart El Niño does.
Global grain stocks were, admittedly, quite high. But they were mostly in the hands of well-off importing nations, not those of exporters keen to sell them or poor importers likely to need them. “If we do not address the situation immediately,” David Beasley, who runs the wfp, told the Munich Security Conference in February, “over the next nine months we will see famine, we will see destabilisation of nations and we will see mass migration.”
Just six days after he spoke those words Russia rammed a rifle barrel into the already creaking machinery. In 2021 Russia and Ukraine were the world’s first and fifth biggest exporters of wheat, shipping 39m tonnes and 17m tonnes respectively—28% of the world market. They also grow a lot of grain used to feed animals, such as maize and barley, and are the number one (Ukraine) and number two (Russia) producers of sunflower seeds, which means they have 11.5% of the vegetable-oil market. All told, they provide almost an eighth of the calories traded worldwide.
Ukrainian food exports were promptly throttled by the war; Russian ones were dented by the indirect effects of sanctions. Grain prices shot up. Having fallen back a little as the shock wore off, they are now on the rise again. On May 16th, the first day of trading after India imposed its restrictions, wheat prices in Chicago, the global benchmark, rose by 6%; on May 18th they were 39% higher than they were when Russia launched its invasion.
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