Food nationalism became a new coronavirus trend

The accumulation of food items to ensure supplies for population as the virus crisis deepens became a new reality for many countries. The export shortage could prove especially harmful for poorer nations that survive on imports.

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt trade flows and keeps more than 2.5 billion people under lockdowns, some grain exporters, including Russia and Kazakhstan, are taking a nationalist turn by restricting or planning to restrict exports to ensure enough supplies for their own populations.

Russia, the world’s biggest wheat exporter wants to limit grain exports to protect domestic supplies as the fast spreading coronavirus pandemic disrupts supply chains globally. The Russian Agriculture Ministry initiated a proposal to limit the exports of some grains, including wheat, to 7 million tons for April-June. 

The proposal still needs to be signed off by the Cabinet. Though it complies with the expected end-of-season Russian shipments, it raises concerns among traders that Moscow’s export restrictions may be extended, as it was in the past as a response to high domestic grain prices or poor harvest. 

European traders consider it a symbolic, but a worrying gesture and think it to be the first step in moves to reduce exports to preserve Russia’s own food supplies amid the coronavirus.

Climate changes also makes some adjustments to the world food policy. Just a few weeks ago, Siberia experienced 100° Fahrenheit weather for the first time in recorded history. The rapid warming caused permafrost to melt, damaging building infrastructure and even contributing to an oil spill.

The government has announced that it plans to use the benefits of climate change, particularly in the agricultural sector. These so-called benefits are one-sided, as they will give Russia another potential weapon in its hybrid warfare arsenal: wheat.

Russia is one of the very few countries that are likely to benefit and get an increase in arable land—in previously frozen places like Siberia—under most climate change scenarios. Scientific projections show that warming may expand Russia’s wheat-suitable land by 4.3 million km² in its boreal regions. Though wheat only makes up for 2.3 percent of Russia’s total exports, that constitutes a major proportion of the global wheat export market. Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter and is expected to control 20 percent of grain export markets by 2028. Climate change is likely to make Russia an even greater global grain power.

Russian control of such a large portion of the global grain market is not a recipe for food supply stability. While climate change may expand Russia’s arable land, it is not immune to extreme weather. Melting permafrost has made the country more susceptible to wildfires, and drought will likely become more frequent and severe.

This is not the first time that Russia has restricted food exports, and the results of these restrictions can be destabilizing. In 2010, Russia restricted its grain exports in the face of drought. This triggered high food prices worldwide, which scholars have linked to the onset of the Arab Spring uprisings. It is understandable and appropriate that domestic food security is the Russian government’s priority. However, even when domestic food security is not threatened, the Kremlin has responded to crises by limiting exports. Russia still had significant grain reserves when it imposed an export quota in 2010, and the same is true today.

Even more worrisome than Russia limiting exports in times of crisis is the possibility that Russia could limit exports for political leverage. Russia could weaponize its wheat exports to coerce other countries whose climate-induced food insecurities leave them few options. Russia has proved itself adept at hybrid warfare and has used its other resources—like fossil fuels—as weapons.

At least until April 15 Kazakhstan has also banned exports of wheat flour, buckwheat, sugar, sunflower oil and some vegetables, including carrots and potatoes, as long as it seeks to build stockpiles to deal with the coronavirus emergency. The Central Asian country, one of the world’s biggest exporters of wheat flour, is a crucial supplier to such neighbouring states as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The ban on wheat flour could affect bread companies around the world.

Experts fear limits on the exports of wheat and wheat flour could lead to increased prices of essential items such as bread, for many of the poorer countries in Africa that rely on imported food. High bread prices are known to have sparked riots and caused political instability, especially in Africa.

“Since most poor countries, many of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, are net food importers, sudden price hikes will almost inevitably raise poverty and hunger, because these countries have very limited capacities to respond to shortages and price rises e.g. by drawing down buffer stocks,” Rainer Thiele of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy told DW.

Rainer, however, does not expect a wave of food nationalism across all major grain exporters.  

“EU member states as well as other important players on the world markets for grain such as the United States, Canada and Australia will in all likelihood keep up their supplies,” he said. “Still, some other relevant actors such as India, the largest exporter of rice, may follow the Kazakh and Russian example.” 

So, what is the solution?

Governments can stimulate the economy by speeding the transition to cleaner energy. Policymakers can be proactive about food security. Countries can examine their food imports to consider the climate adaptability and geopolitical aims of the exporting country, modifying their import portfolios accordingly. The pandemic has helped expose the problem of food waste; by innovating new ways to redirect food, countries can reduce their reliance on imports.

Now is the time for governments to increase participation in international institutions. More international coordination will help us address the pandemic, just as it will help us face the climate crisis and resulting in food insecurity. Already, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have coordinated to support supply chains during the coronavirus. This model can be expanded further by tasking an international organization to host backup grain reserves. If an international organization manages a grain stockpile, then it can release supplies to countries in need the next time Russia limits exports—for pandemic, climate, or geopolitical reasons.

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