From CovertAction Magazine
by Mitchel Cohen
May 31, 2022
|Soon we shall be covered by wheat.|
Did you say, wheat?Wheat, wheat.– from Woody Allen’s “Love and Death”
Ten months before Russian troops poured into Ukraine, that country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a bill into law authorizing the private sale of farmland, reversing a moratorium that had been in place since 2001.
An earlier administration in Ukraine had instituted the moratorium in order to halt further privatization of The Commons and small farms, which were being bought up by oligarchs and concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. As documented in a series of critical reports over ten years by the Oakland Institute based in California, the moratorium on land sales in Ukraine aimed to prevent the acquisition and consolidation of farmland in the hands of the domestic oligarch class and foreign corporations.
The marketization of farmland is part of a series of policy “reforms” that the International Monetary Fund stipulated as a precondition enabling Ukraine to receive $8 billion in loans from the IMF.
Even amid the pandemic there has been “wide-ranging opposition from the Ukrainian public to reversing that ban, with over 64 percent of the people opposed to the creation of a land market, according to an April 2021 poll.”
Additionally, the IMF loan conditions required that Ukraine must also reverse its ban on genetically engineered crops, and enable private corporations like Monsanto to plant its GMO seeds and spray the fields with Monsanto’s Roundup. In that way, Monsanto hopes to break the boycott by a number of countries in Europe of its genetically engineered corn and soy.
It is the thesis of this essay that agricultural competition over land use between the U.S. and Russia—two gigantic capitalist countries with the most powerful nuclear arsenals in the world—is a neglected but important force driving the war in Ukraine.
The U.S. government has for the last decade wrestled with Russia over who controls the energy pipelines through Ukraine into Europe, and in what currency costs for that so-called “natural” gas and oil are to be paid. At the same time, the war’s disruption of Ukraine’s wheat harvest and the historic droughts hitting the U.S.’s “wheat belt” have driven the cost of bread around the world through the roof. United Nations officials are making dire predictions concerning the world’s supply of grain.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, world food commodity prices made a significant leap in March 2022 to reach their highest levels ever, rising 12.6% in that month alone as war in the Black Sea region shocked the markets dependent on staple grains and vegetable oils. Global wheat prices rose by 19.7%, vegetable oil by 23.2%, and grains 20.4%. In Tunisia and in other countries, cooking oil, semolina, and rice have all but disappeared from grocery stores, and flour shortages have led to a run on bakeries.
In the Middle East, millions who already spend more than a third of their income on food, are being hit hardest by the war’s impact on the global food supply. Yet UN agencies have begun to divert sacks of grain that had been earmarked for other war zones to the Ukraine, leaving the people of Yemen and refugees from many areas in desperation.
In peaceful times Ukraine harvests 80 million metric tons (MMT) of grain—a category that includes wheat, corn, barley, rice and millet. Between them Russia and Ukraine supply more than 25% of the world’s wheat. Russia recently overtook the U.S. and Canada to become the leading wheat-exporting country in the world; Ukraine is the world’s 6th largest exporter of wheat.
But this year, Ukraine’s harvest will likely reach less than half the norm. “A single MMT of wheat…is enough to feed every person in Europe for about two days, or the entire population of Africa for about a day and a half.…A country like the UK could only make it up by having everyone stop eating for three years. That’s the thing about tonnes of grain: a million here and a million there and pretty soon you’ve got a real issue on your plate.”
People in France or Italy were never expecting to have any Ukrainian wheat shipped to them at all; but they are now competing against Egyptians and Moroccans, who are now suddenly looking for new sources of bread.
The grains are not only used for bread and flour, but also for alcohol, fuel, and for feeding animals. With more than half the tonnage grown in Ukraine last year never intended to be used for direct human consumption, shortages will impact other parts of the economy too.
The Communist Party of Greece points out that “the military conflict in Ukraine is the result of the sharpening of competition between the two warring camps, primarily focused on spheres of influence, market shares, raw materials, energy plans and transport routes; competition which can no longer be resolved by diplomatic-political means and fragile compromises.”
How much of the predicted food system collapse is a result of the war’s disruption of grain harvests, and—a question few in the U.S. mainstream media are asking—how much are skyrocketing food prices caused by plain old capitalist rivalry between two of the main grain-exporting countries of the world?
Competing systems for growing crops
U.S. agriculture relies on two main inputs: migrant farm labor and the monocropping of genetically engineered corn, soy, and other crops designed to tolerate—and thus be saturated with—Monsanto’s cancer-causing herbicide Roundup. The government’s regulatory process is broken, if it ever worked properly at all: Corporations such as Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Novartis, BASF and the other pesticide and pharmaceutical manufacturers are allowed to mask the truth about the dangers of their products.
They are facilitated in this by the complicity of federal (and global) regulatory agencies, allowing them to intentionally thwart the Precautionary Principle. Where the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown, that product or process should be rejected. We need to support the development of international movements opposing the subservience of government agencies to the giant corporations.Continue reading