Gentle Decline 2/15: Strife & Supplies
Wheat present, wheat future, and little enough of wheat past. How the Russian invasion of Ukraine is affecting and will affect global food supplies.
Hello. Irish news coverage this week has included some extraordinarily on-topic material from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue: he’s asking farmers to grow grain due to wartime supply issues. And of course, the Irish Farmers Association are up on their we-hate-change-just-give-us-money platform, with Tim Cullinan, president of that particular arch-conservative organisation, saying “[I]t is far from certain that asking all farmers to plant crops is the best use of the resources that are likely to be available to us. The biggest issue facing farmers is the rocketing cost and availability of inputs. This is where the Government needs to focus their efforts, as well as looking at some of their own regulations.” This issue is therefore going to give the issue of food supply lines a good hard look, and I shall try to keep the I-told-you-so to a minimum.
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For what it’s worth, I feel that Cullinan’s position can be properly summarised as “how very dare the Minister for agriculture say something about farming without consulting me”, and I’m not giving him any more column inches. That out of the way, let’s have a look at the overall situation, where there are some practical issues.
Any upset in Ukraine and Russia - let alone both - has an immediate impact on wheat, among other commodities. Both countries produce a lot of raw materials, but Ukraine produces a truly startling amount of grain for its size: 8% of the global wheat supply. Russia provides another 17%. Ukraine has officially dropped its export quota to zero for a number of goods, and Russia will not be trading much with anyone except China for at least a few months (and quite possibly the rest of the year). Wheat prices were already rising fast due to climate issues, and an even more limited supply is going to make them rocket. Serbia (not a major world exporter) has also said it’s not exporting any wheat this year, and we can expect some other countries to follow suit.
(Wheat futures chart from nasdaq.com)
What should we do about this? I have a list, five points.
One: if you can, buy some flour (if you use it), pasta and maybe some rice, and stick them in a cupboard, this week. On the average, flour will rise in price first, followed by pasta, and then as those prices go up, some segment of the global market will shift to eating rice, and the price of that will rise. At present, retail prices are based on industry and index prices from last year’s harvest; the index prices are already moving fast, and everything else will follow soon enough. If you have a stash now, you won’t be contributing as much to pressure on supplies later.
Two: shorten supply lines. This is what the Minister for Agriculture is doing, or trying to do; we can cushion ourselves from the global market by producing wheat (and other grains; they’ll all be affected) locally. Unless you’re a farmer, you’re not going to have much to do in this. If you are a farmer, tell the IFA to quit being idiots, and see if you can help the rest of the farming community get with the program (I’m not saying there aren’t difficulties, I am saying the reaction of “but we caaaaaaan’t” is only appropriate if you’re under 6). Grains don’t work well as backyard crops, and they’re resource-intensive to process, so growing them for yourself isn’t very viable. But if you have local Irish grain suppliers, go buy stuff from them now so they can afford to plant more.
Three: plant some potatoes. You can grow potatoes successfully in your back yard, in containers, in raised beds, or in a hundred other ways. Every meal in which you have home-grown potatoes rather than pasta, bread, or even shop-bought potatoes takes a little more pressure off the grain supply, and if you’re growing food where none was grown before, you’re affecting the otherwise zero-sum nature of arable land availability. Grow some other stuff while you’re at it, too, but potatoes are almost a guaranteed success (blight, dogs and chickens aside). Obviously, this falls under Grow Food in the Three Rules.
Four: do whatever you can to bring a just end to the war in Ukraine. Write to your government representatives; leave them in no doubt about your opposition. Write to the Russian ambassador in your country (assuming they’re not chucked out in the next few weeks) telling them… honestly, tell them they’re deluded imperialist fascists, really. Contribute what you can to the people of Ukraine in cash and refugee supplies.
Five: be sensible about what you post on social media. I have seen a number of people pushed to panic in the last week over things that might happen, and about 75% of those were due to daft stuff on Facebook and Twitter. I have yet to see stupid stuff on Tumblr or Instagram, but I’m sure it’s coming; Tiktok has been a mire of misleading idiocy since Invasion Day Zero. This doesn’t have a direct bearing on the food supplies, but it does help reduce the level of panicking, and specifically panic-buying. Getting in some extra wheat-based stuff now is sane. Going in with four trolleys and clearing the Tesco shelves of pasta and flour is not.
But Drew, this isn’t climate-related, why are you writing about it? Well, first and foremost, I have people asking me to write about it, and I don’t know of any historian or writer who can resist an opportunity to hold forth about their own stuff. Second, Gentle Decline is about human-created disaster, and war is extremely human-created. The idea that in this case we can point to one human is pretty notable, to be honest; most modern wars arise out of a kind of grim historical and economic “inevitability”. I don’t mean that they were fated to happen, mind, but mostly they’d have happened regardless of specific people being in power. But Putin’s actions are more in the form of a medieval ruler; one with enough power to let his ego drive the kingdom, and nobody to tell him not to. This is perhaps better understood in modern terms as a mafia thing, and that goes some way toward showing this particular war as a systemic output rather than an individual decision. Overall, it is clear that Putin is the human causing the war.
The other question people have been asking me is whether this will lead to food rationing. My current expectation on this is: not in the West. Russia being cut off from external trade networks, and having to devote a good bit of the country’s transport network to supporting a difficult ongoing war will almost certainly lead to shortages there, and might lead to organised rationing, although I doubt it’ll happen quickly - it’s very clear that there were absolutely no contingency plans there. It would take very significant shortages for the West to end up with rationing in any official way, although it’s entirely possible that shops will limit how much of a given item one customer can buy.
What this is going to do is make life very difficult for poorer people, worldwide. Food bank use has been up in the last few years in many places, and particularly in the UK. As the prices of staple foods go up, food poverty is going to increase even more, and there will be more and more people who can’t afford enough food. Ireland doesn’t have food banks in the way the UK does; there’s an enormous cultural bias against letting people go hungry. But with housing and energy (also affected by the war) absorbing an ever-increasing proportion of people’s income, I think it’s going to be an issue here this year. Unfortunately, most of the systems that are in place for alleviating food poverty in Ireland are under religious control (Crosscare and the Capuchin Order). I’ve yet to work out what the most useful thing anyone in Ireland can do for this is, but once I do, I’ll let you know. Be Generous, though.
Alright. Things being as they are, I’m going to hit send on this sooner rather than later.
This issue has been brought to you by an elderly cat with definite attention needs, experiments in medieval chimney management, and the prospect of an extra bank holiday. I'm taking requests and questions. If you hit reply, you can send stuff straight to me.
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