Popular wisdom says it is darkest before the dawn. But history also shows the opposite, brightness just before catastrophe.
The best history of the 900-day World War II siege of Leningrad opens with a group of students happily drinking wine on the steps of an old Czarist palace at 2 a.m. in the all-night sunshine on the June 1941 solstice. Oblivious to German tanks pouring across the border a few hours south, most would perish in combat, along with 1.5 million of their city’s population, by 1944. Many of these would die of hunger during the siege.
Now it’s Russia that has attacked a neighboring country. And famine once again looms, but this time for distant nations and peoples.
Global hunger threatens, but no leaders seem concerned. Yes, tens of millions of people still are malnourished, but famines in North Africa’s arid Sahel region in the 1970s or South Asia in the 1960s are a distant memory. Still we creep closer every day.
Multiple causes now converge to create this perfect storm.
At its core, both Ukraine and Russia are major food producers and exporters. Most of the wheat from the two nations flow out through the Black Sea. So do sunflowers from Ukraine, the world’s largest producer and exporter of that oilseed. The war has not yet cut off Russian exports, but it may as fighting drags on.
After this, it gets more complicated. Russia and ally Belarus are the world’s second- and third-largest producers and exporters, after Canada, of potash fertilizer, one of the three key plant nutrients needed for growing crops. Saskatchewan alone produces a third of world output, Russia and Belarus another third and all other nations the rest.
Russia is also a major exporter of natural gas, the feedstock for nearly all nitrogen fertilizers. That only a small amount of Russian gas goes to fertilizer production is immaterial. Gas is a fungible commodity. Reductions in Russian exports drive up prices around the world and thus fertilizer costs.
Soybeans, nitrogen-fixing legumes, don’t need this fertilizer, but Brazil produces over a third of world soybean totals on acidic tropical soils that need potash more than the U.S. Midwest. Brazil has no potash or phosphate deposits, and little natural gas, and so imports are vital to its farms. Its soybean production covers an enormous area and planting dates vary, but the first week of September is a general starting point. There isn’t much time.
Any famine always involves two factors: First, the physical availability of the product, and second, the purchasing power to buy it at scarcity prices. The second is more critical than the first.
Hence the third complication: Rising world petroleum prices before the war forced oil-importing poor nations, especially in East Africa, to burn through their foreign currencies leaving little for food imports, world scarcity aside.
All this is bad enough without the United States and Canada having the most adverse spring planting season in decades. The USDA’s May 9 crop condition reports showed 2 percent of Minnesota spring wheat planted, versus 93 percent at the same time last year and a five-year average of 50 percent. For corn, the numbers would be 9 percent versus 81 and 48 percent respectively. Figures for the Dakotas, Montana and Canada’s prairie provinces are similar.
For U.S.-wide farming, corn, soy and wheat plantings last week all were at half of five-year averages. And a rule of thumb is that corn yields drop 1 percent for each day of delayed planting after May 10.
Couple these factors with a weak Brazilian soy crop just harvested, drought and extreme heat in the enormous grain-growing Punjab region of India and Pakistan and outlooks worsen. (For more on this go to the WASDE report, for World Agricultural Supply And Demand Estimates, on the USDA’s website.)
The desire by many western nations, including those in the EU and NATO, to stop Russian aggression using economic means and without direct military involvement adds problems. In our nation, many call for throttling Russia with a blockade on all its foreign trade. Some here are particularly critical of Germany for buying Russian gas, ignoring great potential harm to Germany’s economy from immediate shutoff.
So, taking in all of the above, such calls for total blocks on Russian exports involve some moral questions: Are we ardent to fight the Russians until the last Ethiopian or Bangladeshi is left standing? Or would we take any domestic actions, say a one-year income tax surcharge, as LBJ invoked for 1968, to fund food purchases for innocent victim people?
Would we divert Saskatchewan potash destined for U.S. farms to Brazil because the marginal productivity — the additional pounds of food produced by one more pound of potash — is higher there? The world would have more food overall, but U.S. farmers already complain about getting the fertilizer optimal for growing $8 corn and $16 soybeans.
The answers? Of course we won’t do much to help others!
International law of sea warfare prohibited blockades of foodstuffs until 1914, during World War I, when the British government repudiated existing “cruiser rules” to choke Germany any possible way. Some 900,000 German civilians died of malnutrition before the war ended. Germany saw that as moral justification for unrestricted submarine warfare against all U.K.-bound shipping, including civilian craft.
We need action now. So what needs to be done?
NATO countries should encourage an immediate response, but leave enforcement to quasi-neutrals such as Japan, China, India, Chile, Nigeria, Indonesia and Israel.
Belarus technically is a non-combatant. Land-locked, it exported potash through the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda until Feb. 1. Reopen that immediately under neutral supervision.
Free, safeguarded shipping of foodstuffs and fertilizer on the Black Sea by both combatants is vital, but Russia will object since it still out-ships Ukraine. Notwithstanding a treaty limiting Turkish control of the Bosporus, martial international movement to block all Russian trade until it cooperates. Set up a “neutrality patrol” of naval vessels and personnel from a neutral coalition to enforce free passage. If Russia does not agree, then pour money into infrastructure to increase Ukrainian export capacity via Danube River ports on the Black Sea.
Organize a working group that brings all grain traders, private corporations, cooperatives and other nation’s parastatals to identify potential crisis points and feasible prudent provisions with existing resources.
If not, we ironically risk global catastrophe in our zeal to punish the perpetrator of a regional, and avoidable, war.
St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at email@example.com.