Ryan Johnson for the Washington Post
Ryan Johnson for the Washington Post

The world has plenty of wheat. Putin still uses it as a weapon.

Propaganda-driven panic drives up prices and denies grain to the hungriest

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When Russia invaded Ukraine, governments around the world responded with severe economic sanctions. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated, threatening to ban exports of oil, gas, fertilizer — and wheat.

“We will only be supplying food and agriculture products to our friends,” former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said April 1 on Telegram, calling food a “quiet weapon” in the war.

Wheat is a weapon. But not just in the obvious way. Putin is not only starving his enemies into submission; he’s also using wheat as a weapon of psychological warfare. The Russian president is a master propagandist, and like all manipulators, he knows that perception, carefully managed, can become reality.

Wheat is a valuable global commodity, both symbol and sustenance. In 2009, after a spike in prices, a Senate subcommittee proclaimed wheat “even more central to modern civilization than oil.” Bread is a measure of stability — or instability. And that’s what makes it such a powerful propaganda tool. “Wheat,” as one agriculture economist wrote during the panic of 2010, “is all about fear.” The real danger is not a global wheat shortage; it’s a fear-driven panic that pushes up prices and cuts off the truly hungry.

There’s a tendency to believe that people starve because there isn’t enough food to go around, but for the past 60 years, that hasn’t been the case. In that period, food prices have steadily trended down, even as income inequality within countries has trended up. So today when people go hungry, it’s not because there’s a shortage of food — it’s because they don’t have the money or the ability to buy it. “Famines are never about food production,” said Arif Husain, chief economist for the U.N. World Food Program. “It is always about access.”

The question regarding wheat right now is who gets it — and at what price. War, supply chain bottlenecks, climate-change-related weather shocks, production subsidies, trading and shipping cartels, and speculation all determine the answer. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, food prices were high even before the war. Supply chains were in crisis. Putin made things worse by invading Ukraine and choking off its ability to export wheat.

But even with the war disrupting Ukraine’s exports, the world has plenty. In 2021, Russian and Ukrainian Black Sea crops made up about 28 percent of the world’s exported wheat. The export market, however, is only about 30 percent of total wheat production. Russia and Ukraine together make up about 13 percent of the world’s wheat crop. Ukrainian wheat alone is only 3.7 percent. And that doesn’t account for the wheat reserves in countries around the world.

Meanwhile, farmers from Illinois to India began planting more wheat when prices started going up. On April 8, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization forecast a “relatively comfortable supply level” of grain worldwide. Global wheat production has increased. Rice production is at an all-time high. “If everyone remains calm, there’s enough to go around,” said Angie Setzer, co-founder of Consus, a farm and agriculture consulting group. “But right now, we’re in freakout mode.”

The danger is that panic will inflate prices, making bread unaffordable for those who can’t pay market rates. “Everyone says the price has to go higher because of inflation, people buy because of the idea that it has to go higher, and it goes higher,” said Setzer. “And then everyone says: ‘See, we have inflation’ — and it’s the most beautiful self-fulfilling prophecy in the world.”

That’s exactly what happened in early March. After Russia invaded Ukraine, grain prices hit an all-time high. So did the Food and Agriculture Organization’s global food price index. Headlines screamed about a worldwide food shortage. Analysts warned of mass starvation. Speculators had a field day, driving up prices so high that Chicago exchanges, where traders bet on future grain prices, hit their daily limits and had to stop trading five days in a row.

In response, multiple countries imposed restrictions on food exports — driving prices even higher by creating an artificial scarcity, thus generating what the World Bank warned could be a “multiplier effect” on global prices.

By early April, prices had sunk from holy-moly highs to merely historic ones. Heads were cooling, but not entirely. Grain prices are still at levels not seen since the panic of 2008-10, when protests over food broke out in countries around the world and eventually helped topple governments across the Middle East.

On April 5, as prices began to sink, Putin threatened global food production by hinting that a shortage of fertilizers was “inevitable.” Russia would have to carefully monitor exports “to countries which are hostile to us,” he said. For the past month, pundits, politicians and grain traders have been parsing his threats. Will he cut off Ukraine’s exports, a key part of the world’s export market in corn, sunflower oil and wheat? Will he withhold Russian wheat for political gain, as experts have been warning for years? And most important, can Putin really cause a global food crisis?

Maybe — but only if we let him, only temporarily and mostly in places where people are already hungry. If well-fed nations panic and keep prices high, food truly will be unaffordable for the world’s hungriest people.

“The real concern is much poorer nations, who cannot compete with the richer countries in the world,” said Setzer. “We know that will starve people. But that doesn’t matter in the face of an inflation trade” — an often speculative investment strategy that seeks to profit from rising prices.

The combination of supply chain disruptions and high prices is bad news for the hungry world, which increasingly gets its wheat from Ukraine and Russia. In 2017, when Russia became the world’s largest wheat exporter, Putin began to position himself as grain merchant to some of the world’s hungriest countries: Last fall, the Financial Times estimated that Russia supplied as much as a third of wheat imports for the Middle East and Africa. Turkey, which is struggling with soaring inflation and a plunging currency, got 85 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine in 2021. The World Food Program, the planet’s largest humanitarian organization, bought half its wheat from the Black Sea region in 2021.

All this gives Putin — who never hesitates to use food as a weapon against civilians — disproportionate power over the world’s hungriest.

Wheat inflation hits lower-income countries harder for two reasons: Diets there rely more on carbohydrates, and food makes up a much higher proportion of overall budgets. In many low- and middle-income countries, food can account for close to half of household budgets, said Marc Bellemare, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota. In the United States, by contrast, it’s between 7 and 10 percent. “In the U.S., we will feel it a little bit,” said Bellemare. “People are going to bellyache about it, but it’s not going to be what it’s like in other countries.”

For hungry countries, where the social contract is shaky, high wheat prices have historically contributed to political uprisings. A short-lived change in prices can set off long-simmering anger. And that’s why governments are panicking. “When food security is threatened,” said Bellemare, “then political order is threatened.”

Sudan is a good example. In 2018, Sudan imposed a series of austerity measures. Bread prices tripled. By 2019, a wave of bread protests had ousted the country’s military dictator, longtime Russian client Omar Hassan al-Bashir. “The symbol of the protesters when they turned out on the street against Bashir was bread,” said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a famine expert. He quoted one of their slogans: “‘You are stealing the wealth of the country, and we can’t afford bread’ — which was largely true.”

In 2020, the Sudanese government spent $916 million on wheat and flour, of which 79 percent was from Russia and 2 percent from Ukraine. Sudan is now facing currency collapse, massive inflation and a government that lacks widespread popular support. “Sudan’s economy is in free fall,” said Kholood Khair, managing partner at Insight Strategy Partners, a policy organization based in Khartoum. “For me, it’s not a case of what does Russia/Ukraine look like in two or three years. What does Russia/Ukraine supply of wheat look like immediately, and in the next two to three months, when supply in Sudan is going to be running out?”

The situation in Sudan is so bad, said de Waal, that the inflation rate there actually went down — not because food got cheaper but because nobody could afford it: “There’s one thing worse than hyperinflation, which is when hyperinflation subsides because no one has any money.”

Lebanon is in a similar predicament, reeling from an economic collapse that the World Bank ranked among the worst of the past 170 years and that has plunged three-quarters of the population into poverty.

The Lebanese government, as is the case in much of the Middle East, subsidizes bread. In 2020, Lebanon imported 66 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and 12 percent from Russia. (Lebanon imports 80 percent of its overall food supply.)

When prices rise past a certain point, governments usually draw on grain reserves, stored in massive silos, to avoid having to buy at inflated prices. But when thousands of pounds of ammonium nitrate stored at the Beirut port exploded in 2020, killing more than 250 people and damaging 6,000 buildings, the blast also destroyed the silos holding the country’s only grain stocks — small and privately held, since Lebanon mostly relied on just-in-time ordering.

In late February, when Putin invaded Ukraine, the Lebanese government claimed it had enough reserves to last a month or two. But Sami Halabi, director of policy at Triangle, a Beirut-based research institute, didn’t buy it: Ramadan started April 2, and general elections are May 15. Political parties usually use elections and Ramadan as excuses to host lavish dinners and pass out meals to people. Since the invasion, the government has raised the price of subsidized bread twice. Halabi suspects that the government will keep bread prices more or less stable until the elections are over — then let them skyrocket. The worst-case scenario, and probably the most likely one, is a repeat of what happened last summer: blackouts, fuel shortages and runaway food inflation — fivefold over two years, according to the World Food Program — all compounding to create an unprecedented hunger crisis.

The well-fed world can do a few things to stop this inflationary cycle. The first is not to panic. Price volatility might be bad for eaters — but it’s good for agribusiness, investors, grain speculators and the “ABCDs,” the four transnational megacompanies that control the sourcing, shipping and storage of food (Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus). They like volatility. Inflation is also good for Putin: High wheat prices help finance the war.

“The concern is real,” Setzer said. “It’s going to be six to eight months before we really feel comfortable. But as long as we stay calm, we should be able to make sure that everyone has enough to get through the situation at hand.” In the meantime, Setzer recommended a few simple things anyone can do to take pressure off global markets and supply chains: Find local food producers. See if there’s a farm near you with a community-supported agriculture project. Try to reduce food waste. “I’m not saying you stop shopping at a grocery store,” she said. “But try to get comfortable with your local farm groups.”

The longer Putin can drag out a panic over food, the more havoc he can wreak in developing countries, and the better his bargaining position will be in Ukraine. “It would be a pretty far-fetched scenario that global food prices will go up so high that grain would become a weapon of war,” said Halabi. “But in many senses, it already is.”

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