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Stephen J. Scanlan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Ohio University. His research interests

Stephen J. Scanlan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Ohio University. His research interests include development and comparative social change, environmental sociology, social stratification and social movements. More specifically his published research has examined environmental justice and poverty in Appalachia; food deserts; gender and development; global hunger; and greenwashing and corporate environmental communication. Addition to research, he is on the editorial boards of the Journal of World-Systems Research and Teaching Sociology and is vice-president of the board of directors for Community Food Initiatives, an Athens, Ohio based non-profit addressing food security in Appalachia. He has multiple memberships in professional organizations including the American Sociological Association, the Appalachian Studies Association and the Association for the Study of Food and Society.

Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the global agricultural economy has experienced volatility. Russia and Ukraine, two important actors in the supply chain of the global agricultural system, have seen price escalation and even supply disruptions for some crops and fertilizers from both countries. In response to this situation, the Center conducted an exclusive interview with Associate Professor Stephen Scanlan on the possible war famine brought about by the Russian-Ukrainian war, in order to understand his answers on how the crisis in Ukraine will affect global food security and how the fluctuations in the world food system will affect China.

Stephen J. Scanlan: Russia-Ukraine War May Bring Continued Military Famine

War can have devastating effects on the global economy and especially the world food system that is a large part of it. Considering that the unprovoked Russian war in Ukraine involves two key players in this system, the conflict is likely to be no exception. The impacts will reach far past the borders of the combatants, having the greatest consequences for the world’s poorest citizens and countries.

“Military famine” as a concept is relatively new, but its presence is as old as the conflicts that humanity has been waging. Famines are largely human-induced catastrophes derived from social processes involving politics, power, and inequality that create devastating hunger. Simply stated, military famines result from conflicts that limit food availability and access through the disruption of production, distribution, markets, and trade; the destruction of farmland and water systems; or the displacement of agricultural workers from the fields. In addition, military famines occur when food is used as a weapon of war in that it is systematically targeted for destruction or when supplies are prevented from reaching those in need as with the denial of humanitarian food aid or the use of blockades. Furthermore, millions of people can be forced to flee their homes creating uncertainty among internally displaced populations and refugees abroad as to where there next meal is coming from. Finally, military famine can result from the persistent burden that militarization can place on the provision and acquisition of basic human needs—especially in the world’s poorest countries—along with the challenges that military rulers and despots pose for the well-being of their citizenry and basic human rights like access to food.

One does not need to look any further than tragedies in Afghanistan, Yemen or the Tigray region of Ethiopia for recent examples of military famines. Furthermore, as is the case with broader considerations, military famines occur in times where food is otherwise plenteously available further reinforcing the man-made and political dynamics of this phenomena.

Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine continues to evolve but the experiences of the people there reflect the characteristics of a military famine as suffering intensifies and uncertainties prevail. Although Ukraine will experience the most serious of consequences from the war and thus deservedly make it the center of concern, impacts will be felt well beyond its borders and therefore threaten the security of the world food system. Media outlets such as Bloomberg, The Guardian, National Public Radio, and The New York Times among others in addition to both the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme along with other agencies working on the ground have noted concern about the war and its consequences for the world food system among other challenges.

Global trade in and acquisition of food and agricultural products has been expanding for centuries, but the intensity of globalization in the latter half of the twentieth century has taken this to unprecedented dimensions. Agriculture is a central part of a global economy seemingly without borders in which food is commoditized like any other product that is bought and sold. Global agribusiness is at the core of these processes with a shift to industrial agriculture and large-scale production, market-driven decision-making, highly processed food, and expansion of global food imports and exports. Globalization has thus created interdependency where conflict or problems in one corner of the world affect others. The world food system amplifies this.

With an abundance of fertile land, Ukraine has been considered the breadbasket of Europe and the former Soviet Union and has increasingly played an important part in the global food economy. According to the World Bank, in 2020 agriculture accounted for over 9.3% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and was a $14.4 billion industry (by comparison, agriculture comprises only 4.4% of the global GDP). Additional WB data show that agriculture employs 16.0% of men and 11.4% of women in the Ukraine. If the conflict displaces workers who have to fight or flee the country, then output is certain to be affected.

Any disruption in Ukraine’s production activities will have a potentially crippling ripple effect in the global food economy. Several outlets report that Russia and Ukraine account for approximately one-fourth of the world trade in grains and halting that flow will greatly affect food security whether through direction human consumption or indirectly in the form of grain used as livestock feed. Consider wheat specifically, of which according to the UN statistical database FAOSTAT, Ukraine exported nearly $3.6 billion in this commodity in 2020 with countries in the global south being particularly dependent on its supplies. Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey were its largest importers and reduced availability is showing potential spikes in food prices like those during the global food crisis of 2007 and 2008. This will affect those who can ill-afford such shocks and possibly contribute to potential unrest. The country is also a large producer of maize, potatoes, sunflower seed, sugar beets and barley each of which having important trade destinations as well.

Because the combat is taking place on Ukrainian soil, that country and its people are certainly to experience the most devastating direct effects of the combat. However, when factoring Russia into the conversation as well, the global implications are certain to be even greater as its priorities shift, resources become stretched, and markets change as punitive sanctions play out. One of the biggest concerns regarding Russia is its production of fertilizer. Consider nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium (NPK) Fertilizer, of which Russia is the world’s leading supplier, producing 7.6 million tonnes and accounting for 30.3 percent of the total in 2019. Russia produces even more potash, ammonium nitrate, and urea indicating an even greater role in global agriculture with a total fertilizer production of 41.86 million tonnes for export in 2019 with a value of $9.85 billion. As The New York Times and other media outlets report, spiking prices and limited availability of fertilizer will likely harm farmers and delay the start of the growing season, therefore limiting global food supply in critical commodities. According to FAOSTAT, Russia annually produces wheat, barley, potatoes, maize, and sunflower seed by the millions of tonnes and regarding wheat specifically has close export ties with Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan with Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African countries rounding out its top ten trade partners. Given the overlap in countries dependent on wheat, grains, and other commodities and their byproducts from both Russia and Ukraine, the citizens of these countries have the greatest vulnerability as the flow of food becomes constricted and prices rise.

The horrible fighting plods along and as spring emerges and the planting season begins, the uncertainties of the global impacts will become better known. Even if other global food powers can fill in the gaps for countries most affected, what is certain to be the case is that Ukraine will suffer the most, leaving an uncertain future regarding recovery for both the land and its people.

Because it is integrated into the world food system, China is connected with any disruptions that occur within it. This includes challenges coming from Russia’s unprovoked war with Ukraine. According to FAOSTAT China is dependent on Ukraine in particular for a few commodities. These include barley, maize, sunflower cake, and sunflower oil for which Ukraine was its leading supplier in 2020. According to Bloomberg News, shortages are going to force the need for alternative supply chains and products or its own resources to fill the void.

China is in a far better position than most countries, however, and thus more capable of adapting to disruptions in the global marketplace. According to FAOSTAT, in 2019 China accounted for nearly 30 percent of the world’s GDP in agriculture with a value of over $1.0 trillion and 7.1% of its own GDP. China is home to the world’s largest economy in agriculture and its value is more than all of the member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development combined in addition to dwarfing entire regions of the world such as Europe and Central Asia; Latin America and the Caribbean; North America; South Asia; and Sub-Saharan Africa. China is thus dependent on global suppliers for staple crops or other basic needs to feed its population of 1.4 billion people.

Where China is more vulnerable, however, is in the acquisition of chemical fertilizers. According to FAOSTAT, in 2019 the country imported over 12 million tonnes, with potash, NPK fertilizers and anhydrous ammonia accounting for 94% of its demand. As with countries elsewhere in the world that rely on Russian fertilizer, an inability to acquire it will be detrimental to the availability of food and agricultural by-products. It is possible that other countries can fill the void, but prices are certain to increase with greater demand, which will also come with delays in access and other uncertainties.

Regarding such vulnerabilities, it is certainly a benefit to China that it maintains a mutually reinforcing friendship with Russia on political and economic fronts. However, if the war drags on and the trade relationship becomes strained the country and its citizens could increasingly experience ill effects.

In the end, the challenges posed by the Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine and its effects on the world food system and China specifically largely depend on the duration and scope of the conflict. The further it extends into the crucial spring planting period and the more citizens, the environment, and the land are affected, the greater the challenges it will pose for countries dependent on imports from Russia and Ukraine as well as global citizens most vulnerable to rising prices. It is important to recognize that the impacts of military famines linger long after the end of the actual fighting. Only then can the damage be assessed and the efforts at recovery begin with regard to accounting for the devastation of lives lost and disruption and destruction of production and distribution capabilities in the world food system.

Interviewers: Chen Liyuan, Pang Huixuan

Editors: Xu Houkun, Wang Xuetong


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