Food crisis and Russia-Ukraine war
September 28, 2023: The mainstream media has been bombarding us with a narrative that the Russia-Ukraine War is the sole reason behind the unprecedented global food crisis. The narrative is misleading by a long way. If you look closely at the hotly debated food crisis and the little-discussed paradoxes that co-exist within it, two distinct realities emerge.
One, the food crisis is not new; it’s been around for decades. And two, the agribusiness industry is sheepishly using the Russia-Ukraine war as a pretext to jack up grain and agri-input prices, and therefore, making super-profits. Basically, they’re fishing in troubled waters.
Let’s start with a few food industry paradoxes before we dig deep into the role of the agrifood mandarins. Did you know that about 40% of all the food we produce goes down the drain? For every 10kg of food that is produced globally, people get to eat only 6kg, and the remaining 4kg is wasted.
Now, at the same time, nearly 25,000 people are dying every single day on the planet due to extreme hunger. The absurd figure includes 10,000 children dying daily due to lack of food.
Here’s another stat. Two years from now, about 42% of the world population will officially be considered overweight. Essentially, by 2025, close to half the world’s population would be living on excess food intake. Also, about 17% of the global population will be deemed obese two years on.
The food crisis paradox
Isn’t all this absurd? Shocking hunger deaths, epic food wastage, alarming obesity levels – everything happening at the same time, within the same population? Is only the Russia-Ukraine war responsible for this complex food crisis? At least that’s what the popular press wants us to believe. The truth is, the food crisis has been around for decades. The war is less than two years old.
Food wastage has assumed gigantic proportions over the last few decades. It is shocking that 40% of the food we produce gets thrown away. Let’s first quickly understand what we mean by food wastage. ‘Food wastage’ is something that can be practically avoided if correct steps are taken by the people in charge. It is different from ‘food loss’, which means food getting wasted due to circumstances that cannot be controlled by people in power, such as natural calamities, conflicts, civil wars, etc.
Food wastage includes leftovers that we throw into the dustbin at home or in restaurants and hotels. It includes crops rotting in the farmland because farmers are unable to sell them due to price drops. Food wastage also happens during the manufacturing and transportation stages. Food that is rejected by retailers because they don’t match the desired colour and appearance from a sales point of view is also considered wasted.
Let’s look at some disturbing numbers. It is estimated that about 250 crore tonnes of food are wasted globally every year, with one tonne equivalent to 1,000kg. Out of the 250 crore tonnes, 120 crore tonnes of food are wasted on the farmland itself.
Here’s an easy way to make sense of the quantity of food wasted just on farms. About 120 crore tonnes of food is the collective weight of one crore blue whales. Well, blue whales are about 80 to 90 metres long; that should give you an idea of the quantity of the food wasted at the farming stage. In monetary terms, food that dies on farmland every year is worth a little over Rs 3,000 crore.
Food wasted on farmland
We often think food is wasted mainly after it is cooked; that it happens in our kitchens, homes, restaurants, while travelling, and at binge-eating parties. Well, that’s not true. The majority of the food wastage happens at the time it is grown or produced. But, of course, that doesn’t mean food wastage is very low at the retail and household level, if seen in isolation.
The UN has found that 93 crore tonnes of food are wasted every year in kitchens, homes, restaurants, hotels, parties, and grocery stores. Do you know what that means? Imagine loading large trucks with all of that wasted food. You will require 2.3 crore fully loaded trucks for all the entire quantity to be accommodated. Now, if you line them up bumper to bumper, the line of trucks will be long enough to circle the planet seven times.
The WWF (World Wide Fund) recently investigated the global food crisis and discovered something quite interesting. It shattered the myth that food wastage mainly happens in economically weak and disorganised countries. People believe poor countries don’t have proper infrastructure and systems to store food, such as refrigeration and cold storage facilities. Hence, a high quantity of food is wasted in these countries.
Who wastes more food?
The WWF found something that is exactly the opposite. Both food wastage and food loss are much higher in high-income countries than in poor countries. It’s very high in the US, Canada, all across western Europe, and in the industrialised parts of Asia.
The political and business leaders of these countries often lecture us on human rights, progress, fairness, and togetherness; and on lofty stuff such as ‘building back better’. But the so-called developed world is responsible for the majority of the food wastage.
One investigation found that 58% of food wastage at the harvest stage happens in several rich countries in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia, even though they are home to only 37% of the world population.
Here is another way to get a sense of scale when you talk about food wasted on farmland. Imagine that all the food crops that get wasted were grown together on the same piece of land. In that case, it would require 4.4 million square kilometres of land. Now, that’s an area bigger than the entire Indian subcontinent!
A look at Bharat
What about Bharat when it comes to food wastage? What do we know? There is no precise updated official data from government sources. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation estimated that 40% of the food produced in the country is wasted every year. It reflects the global average. Yet again, most of the food is wasted well before it reaches the final consumer.
A large portion of the wasted food in Bharat comprises fruits and vegetables. Here is a shocking fact. The quantity of fruits and veggies wasted here is more than what the entire population of Britain consumes.
The weight of all the food that is wasted here annually is 6.7 crore tonnes. That’s a shocking number, considering Bharat is an epicentre of starvation deaths. If you look at the fruits and veggies alone, more than one-third of it gets wasted due to poor storage facilities and transport problems. A report published by the monitor Earth5R concludes that the average Indian wastes about 137 grams of food every single day.
Let’s now look at the opposite end of the absurd food crisis. As of now, there are close to 90 crore people in the world who are severely food-insecure – which means they will go to bed extremely hungry tonight. In fact, it is estimated that 310 crore people in the world do not have access to a healthy diet. That is 39% of the entire global population.
Such a high number of under-fed people is paradoxical in a world where 40% of the food produced is wasted. Expectedly, Africa, Asia, and South America are the three continents – in that order – that are most badly hit by hunger. Africa alone is home to 20% of the world population facing chronic hunger.
In our country, where 40% of the food is wasted, hunger is a major crisis, as reconfirmed by the 2022 Global Hunger Index. The index ranked Bharat at the 107th position among 121 nations that were examined. The ranking declared that the country is officially passing through a “serious” hunger crisis.
The point is, there is more than enough food produced to feed every human being on Earth. Then why are almost 90 crore people still facing a chronic hunger crisis? Isn’t it atrocious that 140 lakh children around the world suffer from acute malnutrition? Even worse and extremely shocking is the fact that hunger alone kills 45% of children who die every day.
The obesity outbreak
The other food-related monster we often overlook is obesity. It is predicted that by the year 2025, about 42% of the global population will fall in the category of overweight people. And the obesity outbreak will widen to cover 17% of the world population. That shows how deeply the junk-food industry is controlling the masses, especially the urban population.
The US, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are some of the world’s biggest epicentres of the ballooning obesity outbreak – thanks to lavish and wasteful lifestyles, sedentary culture, binge eating, and the toxic influence of junk food. Did you know that obesity kills as many as half a crore people every year?
It’s a dark irony. On one hand, we have thousands of daily hunger deaths. At the same time, we have an obesity outbreak. And along with that, we are seeing record high food wastage. Now, the interesting thing is, since the Russia-Ukraine war started in February last year, the mainstream media has been arguing that ending it will end the food crisis. But it is a misleading picture given by the global paid media, which follows whatever the western media shows.
Russia-Ukraine war and the big lie
Navdanya International, an agrifood watchdog piloted by food scientist and farmer rights activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, published an investigation that exposes this enormous media lie surrounding the Russia-Ukraine war. The report debunks the theory that the Russia-Ukraine war alone is responsible for the global food crisis.
What is the media repeatedly telling us? That Ukraine and Russia are the world’s biggest exporters of wheat and sunflower oil. Therefore, because of the war and turmoil, the global supply of wheat has fallen, and that’s why the prices of all kinds of food have jumped up.
This is far from the truth. Navdanya’s investigation found that the Russia-Ukraine war practically couldn’t have caused a wheat supply crisis. That’s because, firstly, before the Russian invasion, Ukraine had already secured high levels of wheat production. All the export stocks had left the country well before the Russia-Ukraine war started. So, a huge quantity of wheat was already out in the marketplace when the war broke out.
Secondly, since there was a fear of a wheat supply crisis, many other countries, which produced high levels of wheat, judiciously released the stocks in the market right in time. Therefore, the supply of wheat simply couldn’t have been driving the food inflation. Plenty of wheat has been available globally despite the Russia-Ukraine war.
The UN, World Bank, and various other international bodies officially announced last year, in the middle of the Russia-Ukraine war, that there was no possibility of a global food supply shortage. In the words of the UN’s food monitoring body, there was “a relatively comfortable supply level” regardless of the invasion of Ukraine.
Wheat supply and Russia-Ukraine war
Based on these findings, Navdanya’s investigation concluded that the food supply is not the problem. Instead, the problem is the escalating over-speculation of food and food grain prices. The global food supply and distribution network is owned not by governments, and therefore, not entirely under their control. The food and food distribution system is controlled by a small number of gigantic agribusiness corporations – mostly from the G7 countries.
In simple words, this small bunch of corporations have been gambling or over-speculating with food and foodgrain prices just as the Russia-Ukraine war kicked off. And that resulted in the unprecedented rise in food prices all over the world. Essentially, the Russia-Ukraine war was just an excuse to push up prices in the marketplace and profit from it.
In the Navdanya report, Dr. Shiva wrote, “Every crisis in history was used by the wheat monopolies to increase their profits and control. The riots over bread in the Arab world, referred to as the ‘Arab Spring’, were the result of rising wheat and bread prices due to financial speculation. Food has been turned into a commodity, a financial asset.”
If you look beyond TV news, you will realise two important things. One, the absurd food crisis we are seeing today is not new. It is the legacy of a failed food control system that has been around for many decades. It’s just that the mainstream media has somehow been tasked to gaslight us into believing that the Russia-Ukraine war triggered the ongoing food crisis. Instead, the food crisis has been around long before the conflict. It will continue even if the Russia-Ukraine war ends.
Financialisation of food
The second crucial point to look at is the root cause of the food crisis. According to Dr. Shiva and many other food activists, the problem lies in the growing financialisation of the food system. They argue that the food system we have is structured around concentrated power.
This system of food control by a small section of the powerful corporate class didn’t happen overnight. It started with the green revolution, and later, was institutionalised with the push for more and more free trade. A 2010 book by Dr. Shiva, called ‘Violence of the Green Revolution’, exposes the root of the rot.
Economist Jayati Ghosh gives us another interesting perspective that confirms that the food crisis is the handiwork of corporate powers, not just the Russia-Ukraine war. She argues that wheat is produced aplenty globally. Therefore, supply shortages in one part of the world, such as in Ukraine, can easily be compensated by more production in other locations. It is misleading to blame the food crisis on events such as a single war.
Follow the money
So, who is behind the false narrative about the Russia-Ukraine war and the rise in food prices? Ghosh says the answer lies in the classic hint: follow the money. She recently pointed out that one simply has to look at the balance sheets of major food grain companies.
Right now, only four companies control nearly 90% of the global food grain trade. They are often referred to as the ABCD food companies: Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. Now, all four of them posted sharply higher profits from 2021 onwards, especially in 2022 – the year when the Russia-Ukraine war started.
The world was told that their profits shot up because of high demand for food grains and shorter supply from war-hit Ukraine. Yet, the supply problem and the rise in demand never really happened, insists Ghosh. It turned out to be more of a mainstream media fabrication.
So clearly, the large agribusiness companies increased their prices at will. In fact, there are several other agrifood companies as well which dominate the global food and agribusiness marketplace, such as Syngenta, Bayer, Du Point, BASF, John Deere, Wilmar, and Nutrien, to name a few.
Russia-Ukraine war and fertiliser giants
A recent study by GRAIN, a food supply watchdog, found that fertiliser companies made a fortune as the Russia-Ukraine war started. Profits of the world’s nine biggest fertiliser companies skyrocketed from $28 billion in 2021 to $49 billion in 2022. Now, a close look shows that their profits didn’t go up because of higher sales. Instead, they went up because these companies jacked up the market price of their fertilisers by using the Russia-Ukraine war as an excuse.
So, here we have a global food crisis that has been around for a long, long time. The deeper question is: why is the global food system lying broken for so long? Why is food supply not decentralised? Why are only a few multinational companies controlling what we eat?
In fact, we need to ask questions even deeper than that. We keep seeing flashy G7 and G20 summits every year. Then there’s the sophisticated UN food programme and various UN meetings. What are all these decorated bodies doing? Just holding meetings and summits, and dishing out lectures and imaginary goals such as SDGs?
These multilateral bodies are supposed to exist for the public. Their big-ticket events happen on public money. But who do they really serve? Is it the food corporations? We call ourselves an advanced space-age society, but our basic food system is deeply colonised and centralised. Is anybody even listening? What is really cooking out there?
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