Spectres of Famine The Ukraine War and the East African Grain Trade

By misdiagnosing the structural forces that sustain food insecurity in North and East Africa, popular opinion succumbs to a shallow understanding of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provoked widespread trepidation about mass hunger across the African landmass. Wheat provides one-fifth of all the calories consumed by humans on planet earth, and bread riots from the French Revolution (1789–1799) to the Arab Spring of the 2010s have toppled governments and kindled civil wars. So, what happens when a twenty-first-century war of conquest envelops a global bread basket? The media discourse on this point is indeed apoplectic. In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion, Paul Krugman wrote ominously in the New York Times that ‘before the war, Russia and Ukraine produced almost a quarter of the world’s wheat, much of it exported.’ In March 2022, The Economist reported that Black Sea wheat represents ‘29% of international annual sales. And after several poor harvests, frantic buying during the pandemic and supply-chain issues, global stocks are 31% below the five-year average.’ Similar trade statistics are repeated in The Guardian, National Geographic, Financial Times, CNN, and the BBC, even as reports of drought and heat damage in France, India, and the United States deflate hopes that alternative sources can fill the gap. However, interpreting this export disruption as an unprecedented global shortfall of recent origins, rather than a localized, perennial challenge to African supply chains, is deeply flawed.

By misdiagnosing the structural forces that sustain food insecurity in North and East Africa, popular opinion succumbs to a shallow understanding of crisis. A long line of scholars, including Amartya Sen, Cormac Ó Gráda, Emmanuel Akyeampong, Alex de Waal and Gareth Austin, has debated whether markets, free trade, cash crops and foreign aid help or hinder food security. Building upon these scholars’ work, what has become clear is that news of the war set off a cascade of speculation and hoarding in global grain markets that aggravated an existing wheat shortfall and created self-fulfilling, artificial scarcity. This crunch interacted with a global shipping network plagued with bottlenecks and backlogs. As street prices rise in Juba and Mogadishu, these structural forces have brought to the fore the latent fragility and inequality of the world’s trade and agricultural regime. They have also highlighted East Africa’s severe dependence on food imports and foreign aid, and the vulnerability of the African continent’s national economies to volatile swings in world commodity markets.

A Great Rumble?

North Africa and East Africa have received particular attention in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine war. Egypt is the world’s top importer of wheat (Algeria and Nigeria are also in the top 10), and Egyptians consume more bread per capita than any other country on earth. The war in Ukraine disrupted imports, forcing the state buyer, the General Authority for Supply Commodities or ‘GASC’, to fall back on reserves. Bread prices were fixed early in the war, and the government has reportedly considered replacing the popular bread subsidy with cash payments to the poor. For at least 14 African countries, more than half of wheat imports come from Russia and Ukraine. For Eritrea, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, that number is above 80 per cent. Meanwhile, port terminals on the shores of the Black Sea such as Odessa are at a standstill, many Ukrainian farmers have missed the crucial spring planting season, and sweeping Western sanctions on Russia have isolated and disrupted the trade of the world’s largest exporter of grain and fertilizer.

Although sanctions technically exclude food, creditors wary of running afoul with the US Treasury are reluctant to finance wheat imports from Russia. Nor have the assurances of the US Department of Agriculture calmed market speculators. At almost $13 per bushel in March 2022, wheat prices soared to their highest levels in 60 years. Increases in the price of meslin, barley, sunflower oil, corn, cooking fuel, and fertilizer are also acute. These recent market shocks have unfolded against the backdrop of a crippling three-year drought in the Horn of Africa, record floods in South Sudan, a locust swarm in Kenya, a cyclone in Mozambique, and campaigns of war and ethnic cleansing in Tigray and Darfur. Premonitions of catastrophic misery evoke the memories of the 2011 famine in Somalia, which killed an estimated 260,000 people.

The risk of a mass hunger event is real, but the media emphasis on the Russia-Ukraine war creates a misleading impression of proximate and ultimate causes. Trade flows are not equivalent to the total grain crop. In fact, in March 2022, the US Department of Agriculture or ‘USDA’ estimated that wheat exports from Ukraine and Russia will only fall by about seven million metric tonnes, or 12 per cent of pre-invasion projections for the 2021/2022 crop year. The USDA’s April 2022 and May 2022 reports left these projections almost completely unchanged. Seven million tonnes of wheat seems considerable, but in global terms, the shortfall is actually less than one per cent of the world’s total wheat crop in 2021. In fact, most of the world’s wheat is not traded across borders but grown in places like the US, China, and India and then consumed domestically. Contrary to Paul Krugman’s assertion, no one needs to hastily replace one quarter of the world’s wheat; farmers need to replace one per cent.

And they already have. Months ago, prices on the futures market rose in anticipation of the Ukraine conflict, encouraging industrial, export-oriented farmers of winter wheat across the globe to sow bumper crops. In the US alone, farmers planted 749,000 extra acres of wheat last winter compared to 2020, and the USDA projects that America will harvest 83 million more bushels of wheat in 2022/23 over last year. Until recently, India also planned to export an additional four to nine million tonnes of wheat relative to last year and has invested heavily in its rail capacity, quality control stations, and ports as crop scientist Dr. Sarah Taber usefully explains. Its recent export ban notwithstanding, India’s cereal exports to Egypt and other ‘food-deficient nations’ will continue. Meanwhile, Morocco increased its wheat and barley crop by 206 per cent this year, while a number of other African countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Senegal have quietly replaced Black Sea wheat with Argentinian. Egypt simply bought more from Russia, while EU and Ukraine authorities have moved swiftly to reroute western Ukrainian grain over rail networks to shipping terminals in Romania and the Baltic. In total, the USDA reports that global production will decline by less than one per cent.

This presents a puzzle. If there will be no cataclysmic global shortage in food grains, why is there panic about the threat of mass hunger among speculators? Why do wheat futures remain inflated when reports by the USDA are not extremely bullish? Why should there be hunger amidst plenty? For food officials and humanitarians, the spectre of famine that haunts East Africa is not solely about the global reserve; it concerns the inability of supply chains to adjust quickly enough. Local shipping-induced shortages and panic behaviour are what precipitate economic hardship, starvation, or upheaval. For countries like Somalia, even a week’s delay transitioning from Black Sea wheat to, say, Indian can be catastrophic. With shipping costs inflated, port terminals congested, and 80 per cent of global container ship capacity controlled by three alliances, the risk of an in-country shortage remains high.

The distinction between a shortage of wheat and the precarity of the shipping trade is not trivial. When the popular narrative about the crisis suggested that there is wheat scarcity, traders panicked and drove up the price of grains—a classic example of speculative markets’ proclivity to manufacture self-fulfilling prophesies. On the country level, export bans are also a manifestation of hoarding. The ensuing price inflation has hindered the ability of poor countries and organizations such as the World Food Programme to schedule new import shipments. It has also reduced the quantity of imports WFP and state buyers can afford given scarce budgetary resources. If food insecurity in East Africa intensifies in 2022, the chain of causality does not just begin with the Kremlin and end with a famine in Somalia. It also runs through the floors of the Chicago Board of Trade, the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, and the Euronext financial centres in Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, and Milan.

The Age of Great Power Rivalry

East Africa’s dependence on the fragile edifice of foreign aid, global shipping, and export markets reflects a violent colonial legacy. As Mahmoud Mamdani explained in Citizen and Subject, the ‘shift from food to export crops’—accomplished in the nineteenth and twentieth century through a violent campaign of land seizure and forced labor—created ‘periodic and devastating famines’. Cotton, tobacco, coffee, tea, and cocoa plantations erased a complex fabric of indigenous land tenure—whether in Sam Moyo’s ‘settler Africa’ (South Africa, Rhodesia, Namibia, Kenya, Algeria) or Samir Amin’s ‘Africa of the labour reserves’ and ‘Africa of concessions-owning companies’ (Rwanda, Mozambique, Congo basin countries). Confronted with periodic famine episodes, colonial authorities sought to replace protein-rich and labour-intensive crops such as sesame or millet with starchy, low-labour ones such as cassava. In the post-independence period, the role of food aid groups expanded, thrusting ever greater shares of the poor and dispossessed at the mercy of international humanitarian intervention.

Global trade continues to arrest attempts to develop African food sovereignty. When the continent’s low-value, unprocessed agricultural exports get wrecked on volatile global markets, foreign exchange reserves fall short. This squeeze forces countries to resort to loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in a vicious cycle of dependency. As Jihen Chandoul has already written, the conditional assistance attached to those loans ‘further undermines agricultural diversification and modernization by pushing for reductions of agricultural subsidies and price support policies for small farmers.’ Meanwhile, the rhetoric of free trade in the West masks a suite of phytosanitary import restrictions and lavish farm subsidies bankrolled by the US, Canada, and European Union, behind which industrial farmers harvest megatonnes of grain for pennies on the bushel.

Globalization and Global Value Chains

In Poverty and Famines, Amartya Sen writes that ‘the ratio of food to population has persistently played an obscuring role over centuries, and continues to plague policy discussions today.’ This is truer now, as the tech frontier advances, and globalization erodes the geographic divisions that separate bread baskets from one another. In the twenty-first century, all hunger is in a sense human-made, the result of distributional relations between social classes and political territories. Nonetheless, the allure of the popular narrative continues. This explains why a small war-time shortfall in global wheat production corrected months ago can trigger a crisis in commodity markets, while the threats to East Africa’s vulnerable populations—the precarity of food aid and the global trade regime—remain gravely neglected. It is the stark distributional divide created by that system, more than the scarcity of any raw material, that promises to exacerbate human suffering. As Dambudzo Marechera, author of House of Hunger, described it:

Hell is crossing the railway line

In a dark mood on a dark night

Crossing from blinding neon to pitiful lightbulb

On this side the power & glory of a full belly

On that side the long dormant earthquake of hunger

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].