Sunday 3 July 2022

To Solve The Global Food Crisis We Must First Stop Fixating On Putin

There appears to be a moral panic going around that Putin is engineering a global famine to extort a more favourable outcome to his failed Ukraine invasion. 

This is a delusion with 2 pernicious consequences. First, it grants too much power to a warlord, and thus too much weight to his interests. Second, it distracts us from our own shared global responsibility to prevent food supply disruptions from causing a global tragedy.

1. A Failure of Quantitative Reasoning

A representative example of the moral panic: Source

The basic problem seems to be a confusion about how big some big-sounding numbers really are. For example, you will probably have heard that:

  • Ukraine and Russia together account for about 30% of international wheat sales

  • Around 25 million tons of grain are trapped in Ukraine by Russia's blockade of its Black Sea ports (and other war-related disruption)

I have no reason to doubt that these numbers are true, but I do doubt that they matter as much as many people seem to think. This is because they are dwarfed by other, even bigger numbers. In particular:

  • Most food consumed in the world (80%) doesn't cross a border. Russia and Ukraine are together responsible for 12% of the 20% of calories that are traded worldwide, which adds up to only 2.4% (source: The Economist).

  • In any case, we should really only be talking about Ukraine's exports, since Russia is not subject to a blockade (only some financial sanctions that cause complications but can be worked around). The 25 tonnes of grain trapped in Ukraine are less than 1% of annual global production.

  • Most of the world’s grain is not eaten by humans (even though it is human-edible). Besides some wastage, nearly half is fed to animals or made into biofuel.

Source: The Economist

Thus, when seen in proportion - in its proper context - Putin's blockade of Ukraine's grain exports amounts to a relatively small change in supply that should be quite straightforward to address.

2. But the Global Food Crisis Is Real
Putin's blockade of Ukraine is not a big enough deal to cause a global famine, but it has made an already bad global situation worse.

Bad harvests in various countries (such as due to India's heatwave), together with the disruption and uncertainty caused by Putin's war, have driven grain prices up. At the same time, Covid disrupted economies and raised shipping costs and hence reduced the purchasing power of hundreds of millions of people as well as the hard currency reserves of poor governments. The response of many exporting countries (like India) has been to ban or restrict exports. This is a crude device for forcing down domestic prices (since producers can't reach the better prices on the world market) but it makes things much worse by forcing global market prices still higher and reducing incentives for their own farmers to expand their output in response to global need. 

The upshot is that food insecurity has spread around the poor world and in some places that might become outright famine. 

3. Solving This Will Require Our Collective Efforts, Not Fixing Putin
It is important to remember that there is no actual shortage of food in the world - remember nearly half the world's production of edible grains is fed to animals or made into biofuel. However, hundreds of millions of people have insufficient access to that food, primarily because they can't afford it and their governments can't find any exporters willing to sell it to them at a price they can afford. That is, the fundamental problem is that hundreds of millions of people are going hungry because they can't compete with the purchasing power of SUVs and cows. 

So it seems fairly obvious what should be done about the global food crisis. 

We can continue blaming Putin for trying to weaponise the global food crisis but we should not confuse the scale of his moral awfulness with the scale of his actual influence. When we make that mistake we validate Putin's self-aggrandising opportunism and accept his framing that we must make a choice between supporting Ukraine's war of self-defense or preventing global famine. No such dilemma exists. 

In addition, paying so much attention to Putin distracts the international community of nations from their own relatively straightforward moral responsibilities in this case. 

  1. Exporters like India should end the export bans driving up global prices. These are in any case self-destructive since they incentivise farmers to hoard stocks now and to grow less food in future (thus creating future food crises).

  2. Rich countries should help poor governments buy the food they need for their people at the high global price. They can also change rules to reduce biofuel consumption (so that more grain is available for humans to eat)

  3. Individuals can also help. Around 1 billion tonnes of human edible grains are fed to animals each year (source). Since these animals are mostly eaten by the global middle-class their continued consumption during a food crisis represents the relative superiority of livestock animals'  purchasing power relative to the global poor. But meat is of course a very inefficient means of converting grains into calories. Therefore, as The Economist notes, "Ironically, one of the most effective ways for individual consumers to alleviate the world’s grain shortage is to eat more grain—at the expense of meat."