The Weekend Wonk: Putin Exploits our Fossil Dependence, and Climate’s Pressure on Food Supplies

June 11, 2022

Another example of the chaotic knock-on effects of a warming climate, and our too-slow transition from fossil fuels.

We failed to learn from 9-11, an the disastrous Iraq war for oil.
Now the world faces a brutal, reportedly cancer-stricken, Petro-dictator with nothing too lose, who is willing, apparently, to exploit our vulnerability, and starve millions to achieve his ends.

Timothy David Snyder is an American historian specializing in the modern history of Central and Eastern Europe, who is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

Timothy Synder on Twitter:

Russia has a hunger plan. Vladimir Putin is preparing to starve much of the developing world as the next stage in his war in Europe.

In normal times, Ukraine is a leading exporter of foodstuffs. A Russian naval blockade now prevents Ukraine from exporting grain.

If the Russian blockade continues, tens of millions of tons of food will rot in silos, and tens of millions of people in Africa and Asia will starve.

The horror of Putin’s hunger plan is so great that we have a hard time apprehending it. We also tend to forget how central food is to politics. Some historical examples can help.

The idea that controlling Ukrainian grain can change the world is not new. Both Stalin and Hitler wished to do so.

For Stalin, Ukraine’s black earth was to be exploited to build an industrial economy for the USSR. In fact, collectivized agriculture killed about four million Ukrainians.

Notably, as people began to die in large numbers, Stalin blamed the Ukrainians themselves. Soviet propaganda called those who drew attention to the famine “Nazis.”

Actual Nazis had related ideas. They liked the idea of controlling Ukrainian agriculture. This was in fact Hitler’s central war aim.

Hitler wished to redirect Ukrainian grain from the Soviet Union to Germany, in the hope of starving millions of Soviet citizens.

The Second World War was fought for Ukraine and in considerable measure in Ukraine, between dictators who wanted to control food supplies.

Russian memory politics prepared the way for a 21st-century hunger plan. Russians are told that Stalin’s famine was an accident and that Ukrainians are Nazis. This makes theft and blockade seem acceptable.

Putin’s hunger plan is, I believe, meant to work on three levels. First, it is part of a larger attempt to destroy the Ukrainian state, by cutting off its exports.

Putin’s hunger plan is also meant to generate refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, areas usually fed by Ukraine. This would generate instability in the EU.

Finally, and most horribly, a world famine is a necessary backdrop for a Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine. Actual mass death is needed as the backdrop for a propaganda contest.

When the food riots begin, and as starvation spreads, Russian propaganda will blame Ukraine, and call for Russia’s territorial gains in Ukraine to be recognized, and for all sanctions to be lifted.

Russia is planning to starve Asians and Africans in order to win its war in Europe. This is a new level of colonialism, and the latest chapter of hunger politics.

Just a few weeks ago, Dr. Jeff Masters and I were musing about the potential vulnerability of food supplies this summer.

KCUR Kansas Public Radio:

This time of year, the wheat growing in this part of western Kansas should be thigh-high and lush green.

But as a months-long drought continues to parch the region, many fields tell a different story.

“There’s nothing out there. It’s dead,” farmer Vance Ehmke said, surveying a wheat field near his land in Lane County. “It’s just ankle-high straw.”

Across western Kansas, many fields planted with wheat months ago now look like barren wastelands. The gaping spaces between rows of brown, shriveled plants reveal hardened dirt that’s scarred with deep cracks from baking in the sun.

Of all the years for drought to hit western Kansas wheat farmers, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Even with wheat selling for near-record-high prices as the war in Ukraine disrupts the world’s food supplies, a lot of farmers in western Kansas won’t have any to sell. And those who made it through the drought with enough crop to harvest will likely end up with far fewer bushels than they had last year, a downturn that limits the state’s ability to help ease the global food crisis.

Wheat prices have bounced between $10 and $12 per bushel since setting an all-time record north of $13 in March. So it might stand to reason that farmers should be able to make up for poor harvests by selling the wheat they do have for more money.

But it’s not that simple.

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that wheat fields statewide will average roughly 39 bushels per acre this year, down sharply from 52 bushels per acre last year. But many farms in the western half of the state will produce far less than that.

USDA projections for Lane County say wheat farmers here will end up harvesting an average of 27 bushels per acre — less than half of what the county’s farmers averaged last year.

At $11 per bushel, each acre of that average Lane County farmer’s land would bring in just under $300 this season. In order to recoup the costs of doing business, Ehmke said farmers here need to gross closer to $325 per acre.

Ehmke considers himself fortunate. He expects his wheat to end up higher than that 27 bushel average, something he credits to the way he lets his land rest between plantings. But even with conservative land management strategies, his fields might still only produce half of what they did last year — all because of too much heat and not enough rain.

And he figures that at least half the wheat fields in western Kansas won’t produce enough for farmers to break even.

“They’re losing money,” Ehmke said, “even with the highest price of wheat that we’ve probably ever seen in the past 50 or 100 years.”


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