“Russia has dealt another blow to the world’s most vulnerable,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said upon hearing the news that President Vladimir Putin had decided to end that country’s participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative. That deal allowed the export of Ukrainian (and Russian) grain, crucial not just to stabilizing prices in the affluent West, but also to basic food security elsewhere. “This is really another act of cruelty,” Thomas-Greenfield added.
She’s right. The decision to hold hostage millions of people in the global south, who are already bearing the brunt of so many modern horrors — from conflict and displacement to drought and the wanton destruction of their landscapes and habitats — is the act of a deranged and desperate man.
Still, it’s not Putin who turned dozens of countries, whose people once were able to till the soil and nourish themselves, into dependencies whose populations have no choice but to purchase imported — often low-quality and genetically engineered — grain. We helped do that, through food assistance provided for purportedly charitable reasons, and through our ideological attachment to globalized trade..
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not excusing the Sick Man of the Kremlin. After announcing the end of the UN-brokered agreement, he proceeded to threaten merchant vessels plying busy Black Sea lanes. Since then, the Russian military has hammered port facilities in the once vibrant, cosmopolitan town of Odessa, reportedly damaging warehouses, loading bays and cranes and other machinery needed to hoist weighty cargo aboard tethered ships. 60,000 tons of grain have been destroyed in the process, according to the Ukrainian agriculture minister.
Take a moment to think about that: rivers of golden seeds the earth and her plants labored to fashion, drawing up water and minerals, mixing sunlight into this miracle that people around the world shape into their various staffs of life. The work of the farmers, and all the other humans needed to collect those seeds and move them to port. Doubtless, too, the chemical fertilizers those fields were force-fed, depleting and exhausting their soils, poisoning surrounding waters.
All of that torched.
Now let’s consider some of the human impacts outside of Ukraine. The Council on Foreign Relations has produced a bar-chart of countries most dependent on Ukrainian grain. They run from Lebanon, Pakistan, and Ethiopia at the top down to Zambia, Uganda, and Cyprus. Spain and Greece are in there, for 19% of their total wheat imports each. Top wheat importers by ton overall include China, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey, according to various rankings.
I can’t help but notice that the countries on these lists are also among the most corrupt in the world. Imports of staples, often subsidized, constitute a classic revenue stream for kleptocratic ruling networks. Big Ag., of course, was delighted to participate in what amounted to the knowing impoverishment of rural populations in these countries, by lobbying to get home-purchase requirements written into laws on U.S. humanitarian assistance. Deliveries usually include GMOs, which are designed to make it impossible for any farmer who plants them to become self-sufficient, because the seeds are sterile, so more must be bought every year.
Thus did dozens of delicious, well-adapted local varieties of the main food grains disappear, going the way of languages and wildlife now extinct from the same lands. And thus did such farmers as did get back on their feet, after the drought or other initial calamity passed, remain dependent on imports of foreign grain for seed. Local production could never compete with subsidized imports anyway, so people in the very places where agriculture was invented stopped sowing grain, as did a great many others.
Now all are at the mercy of Vladimir Putin.
This whole story puts me in mind of the last surreal shortage to afflict a world in the throes of supply-chain disruptions due to COVID, monopoly business practices, and the war in Ukraine: baby formula. If our culture and the structure of our economy encouraged all women who are physically able to nurse their own babies, there would never have been a shortage.
During that crisis, I found myself wondering, agog: what kind of mammal deliberately places itself in the position of not being able to offer its own milk to its newborn young?
What kind of species deliberately places itself in the position of not being able to feed much of its number when a single maddened alpha-male commits an act of cruelty?