Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Didn’t Cause the Food Crisis. Capitalism Did

Yves here. This post points out that small-scale farmers produce more of the world’s food than big ag, and on less acreage. Global warming plus short-sighted, profit-driven practices have a lot to do with the mess we are in now. And this article does not touch on other misuses. For instance, we’ve pointed out since the inception of this site that the resource that will become scarce first is potable water. Yet arid California grows water-hungry rice, and worse, almonds (it takes over a gallon of water to produce one almond).

By Adele Walton. Originally published at openDemocracy

“Most farmers can no longer produce adequate food for their families,” says Vladimir Chilinya. “Profit-making entities control our food systems… including the production and distribution of seed.”

Chilinya is a Zambian coordinator for FIAN International, an organisation that campaigns for the democratisation of food and nutrition.

Worsening harvests, infertile soil and increasing food poverty are affecting the majority of small farmers across the globe, especially in the Global South. Wheat prices have surged by 59% since the start of 2022.

Last month, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres warned that the number of people living in famine conditions has increased by more than 500% since 2016, and more than 270 million people are now living in extreme food insecurity.

While Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated this crisis (Russia and Ukraine account for 30% of the world’s wheat exports, constituting 12% of traded calories), climate change and capitalism are the primary engines behind this global food emergency.

The IPCC has estimated that by 2030, global warming will have diminished the world’s average agricultural production by more than a fifth. In Zambia, the maize harvest for 2021/22 is expected to be down by a quarter, thanks to droughts and flash floods between 2019 and 2021, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan experienced their highest recorded temperatures in March and April since records began 122 years ago. India has since banned wheat exports (after the government failed to buy enough wheat to cover its food security programme), which has further exacerbated the global wheat shortage and soaring global food prices.

But the climate and food crises are not isolated phenomena. They are the result of a global capitalist system – and a neoliberal agenda – that has prioritised big corporate agricultural profits over people and the planet.

Corporatisation of Agriculture

This process really took shape during the so-called “Green Revolution” in India in the late 1960s. This movement was a collaboration between India and the US (with USAID and the Ford Foundation being key actors) and was dependent on agrochemical usage and intensive plant breeding.

High-yielding hybrid crops were introduced – the main one being IR8, a semi-dwarf rice variety – alongside the use of fertilisers, pesticides and lots of groundwater (these high-yielding crops required a lot more water). Calorific food was valued over nutrition, and these foods had costly inputs.

This shift towards big agriculture and more profitable monocultures made small farmers more dependent on expensive chemical fertilisers, forcing them into ever greater levels of debt. In India, 10,677 agricultural workers were reported to have taken their own lives in 2020, many of them farmers trapped by mounting debts resulting from the high costs of these farming inputs.

Unfair terms of trade and global lending – enforced by multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – are also to blame.

Structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), introduced by the World Bank following the debt crisis across Latin America and Africa after the 1979 oil crisis, coerced poorer countries into privatising their public sectors and reducing their welfare mechanisms.

Adhering to strict policy packages in nearly every key sector – from agriculture to education and healthcare – became compulsory in exchange for any future loans from the bank or the IMF.

SAPs meant indebted countries across the Global South had to convert from prioritising indigenous crops that the local population depended on, to producing cash crops for export. As a result, local populations and farmers became more vulnerable to food scarcity – due to the negative ecological effects and decline in food accessibility.

Zambia: Seed Privatisation

In Zambia, for example, the structural adjustment agenda included the privatisation and liberalisation of the seed system. It began with the liberalisation and deregulation of ZAMSEED in the mid-1990s, which led to a decline in support for farmer cooperatives. In addition, the priority of maize as a cash crop has led to a decline in crop variety, meaning the local population has fewer food sources available.

“Under recent policy changes, priority is given to maize production. This is one of the key drivers for monocropping, which is responsible for the reduction in varieties of available foods in Zambia,” Chiliniya from FIAN told openDemocracy.

FIAN is documenting how the corporate control of agriculture is weakening food security. Seed systems have gone from being cooperative-led (which gives farmers more agency and fair prices) to being corporate-led (which prioritises profits).

“Farmer-managed seed systems have been replaced by commercial seed systems,” Chilinya said. “Most smallholder farmers are unable to purchase seeds at the commercial price and hence they cannot grow any food.”

These commercial seeds are also more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. “Most people focus on cash crops at the expense of other crops that are more resilient to extensive weather changes. In the wake of extreme weather changes like those experienced in 2020 and 2021, the country falls into a food shortage,” added Chiliniya. According to the World Food Programme (WPF), 48% of the Zambian population is unable to meet minimum calorie requirements.

Kenya: Food Crisis

openDemocracy also spoke with food justice activists in Kenya, which is experiencing a severe food crisis. “Land degradation is affecting food production in Kenya because of the overuse of chemical fertilisers,” said Leondia Odongo, co-founder of social justice organisation Haki Nawiri Afrika.

As in Zambia, the disastrous legacy of SAPs is to blame. In 1980, Kenya was one of the first countries to receive a structural adjustment loan from the World Bank. It was conditional on reducing essential subsidies for farmer inputs, such as fertilisers. This process instigated a shift towards farming cash crops for export, such as tea, coffee and tobacco, instead of farming key staples for the local population, such as maize, wheat and rice.

“Agricultural inputs that were previously provided to farmers free of charge went into the hands of private entities under the guise of efficiency,” Odongo explained. “This has resulted in smallholder farmers being abandoned to the mercy of transnational corporations in the seed and agrochemical industry, which dupe farmers with information about seeds and chemicals.”

A recent report by Save the Children and Oxfam found that 3.5 million people in Kenya are already suffering crisis levels of hunger – and this is likely to rise to five million. Meanwhile, only 2% of the $4.4bn required in humanitarian aid (for Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia) has been funded.

Structural adjustment has made Kenya into a food exporter. In the country, malnutrition remains concerningly high, with 29% of children in rural areas and 20% of children in cities being stunted. Despite experiencing deficits which threaten its population’s food security, Kenya remains a vital food exporter, with major exports in tea, coffee, vegetables and cut flowers.

Keep It Small and Local

Despite occupying less than 25% of the world’s farmland, small-scale farmers provide 70% of the world’s food. In Kenya, Haki Nawiri Afrika is resisting the corporatisation of agriculture by assisting local farmers with technical knowledge. Teaching smallholder farmers practical skills allows them to reclaim agency over their land and crops.

In Zambia, FIAN is helping small farmers return to indigenous farming practices and seeds to build resilience and improve food security. By diversifying food systems and abandoning monocultures, small farmers can continue to provide enough food for their communities, and at lower costs.

These small farmer movements are up against ‘Big Philanthropy’, such as the controversial Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is replicating the Green Revolution corporate-first strategy.

Still, they hope their struggle to decommodify and rebuild a sustainable relationship with the land can help realise the UN’s second sustainable development goal: ending hunger by 2030.

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  1. digi_owl

    Cash crops function similar to oil and mining.

    It is colonialism without the use of an overt colonial military presence.

    This through the mechanism that you can always refuse, or restrict how much of, the exports you buy, and thus make the economy of the exporting nation tumble. Because it has been made dependent on the imports from your nation in order to sustain itself.

    Thus it is fully possible to engineer an exchange rate driven hyperinflationary spiral. And once that has gone on for long enough, you can always got to the UN to demand a military intervention on “humanitarian” grounds if the government has not already tumbled.

    1. JBird4049

      I am reminded again of the great 19th century famines in both Ireland and India; government policies backed by the British Army, legislation, and bureaucracy that led to the concentration of land ownership along with the destruction of local control of water and other resources including their former wealth; there was always enough food available to keep people alive despite the shortages especially in Ireland, but the wealthy land owners in Ireland for the rent and the grain merchants in India for export, seized all the remaining food. With the potato blight in Ireland and the droughts in India, the deliberately impoverished lower class natives who had been made politically impotent were blamed for their own starvation, evictions, disease, and death by exposure (the last was especially so in Ireland due to its climate).

      That the food, which in past crop failures had been held back at least partially, was mostly shipped to London with the landlords and grain merchants making great profits was generally ignored by the government and the newspapers. Not all of them and plenty of people, some of them important, complained loudly, but like today, enough of the elites made excuses and helped by the profits made by their fellows did slightly more than nothing to end the famines.

      Modern American libertarian ideology and Neoliberalism are both close copies of Victorian social and economic thought. This includes Social Darwinism and its child Eugenics slithering through all three. But this rant is really about how ideology and the excuses it creates changes in government policies that in the 18th century kept people alive to in the 19th century, stealing from, then murdering millions, so that a small class of people can become wealthier and another small class of apparatchiks can justify enabling the genocide. There are differences, but the rhythms of history from the 18th to the 19th centuries and from the early 20th to the early 21st centuries seem similar.

    2. GramSci

      Yes, but the US also has 800+ military bases scattered around the world. That’s actually pretty overt.

  2. Old Sovietologist

    Now 2% of the world’s population can provide the entire world with agricultural products, completely solving the problem of hunger on our planet. It is only because of capitalism that more than half of the world’s population still go hungry!

    Why are they starving? Because capitalism, having created the highest productive forces – the most modern technology and equipment, has become a brake on the further development of society. Its age is over, But it will not go away quietly.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The modern technology and equipment and the methods it requires and imposes are proving less productive than the highest level traditional methods from certain areas, and destructive in ways they never were.

      Only an unreconstructed Western Civilization Industrial chauvinist would call petro-cancerjuice farming with GMO seeds to be “highest” of anything except new and deadly dangers.

      The best results will come from a picky-choosy return to certain Best Peasant Practices combined with proven non-toxic modern methods, including a happy level of micro-mechanization when/where the Best Peasant Practitioners think it appropriate.

  3. nap

    “Yet arid California grows water-hungry rice, and worse, almonds (it takes over a gallon of water to produce one almond).”

    The linked article actually says a sample of California farmers “completely disagree” with the claim that it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond.

    On the other hand, it cites an LA Times report which quotes experts as saying that it takes more than 106 gallons of water to produce one ounce of beef.

    1. JBird4049

      IIRC, in California it is farming and not cattle that uses the most water and it is all the new almond orchards that is draining all aquifers. This includes digging wells that are too deep for local communities to dig themselves. This means that wealthy almond growers get the water and locals have to shipped in bottles or do without.

      This does not mean that cattle is not a problem. It just means that those almond trees dwarf everything else.

    2. GramSci

      Or, without rainfall, around 100 gallons of water to maintain a 10′ x 10′ patch of lawn.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      That is a misreading of the article. It very clearly states the water requirements for almonds and then has two individual farmers giving handwaves. That comment is footnoted but the actual citation is missing. The article further states that all nuts are similarly water intensive to produce but almonds get the heat due to how many are being grown in California.

      And I should have looked further. The “gallon per almond” was promoted by Mother Jones which wrote on this topic regularly in 2015, using the 2014 Park and Lurie estimate linked in the para below. It’s actually worse:

      Between 2004 and 2015, the average water footprint of one kilogram of raw California almond kernels was 5290 liters blue water, 570 liters green water, and 4,380 liters grey water (total = 10,240 l/kg kernels). At 1.2 grams per kernel (USDA, 2016), each California almond has an average water footprint of about 12 liters, of which the blue water portion is 70% greater than previous media estimates (Park and Lurie, 2014).


      12 liters is over 3 gallons.

  4. paul

    P Sainith railed hard and long in the india times and elsewhere, yet his words found only stony ground.

    Arable land is merely a strategic store of value in the UK these days as the heroic patenteer Dyson shows.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, Paul.

      Please see my comment and reference to Dyson. The scoundrel is one of many and has recently bought land off the Carringtons in Lincolnshire and Astors in Berkshire and along strategic corridors like the Ms 1, 11, 4 and 40. His holdings exceed 50,000 acres now.

      Craft brewer Brew Dog has just bought the Kinrara estate in the Grampians and plans to plant non native and commercial trees on it for carbon trading. An airline has done the same in Shropshire.

  5. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    As so often, your introduction summarises the issue well and echoes my observation. Declaration: My parents and I have a small holding in Mauritius and grow much of our fruit and vegetables on a third of an acre in Buckinghamshire.

    Even though our Mauritian holding has an irrigation canal, we have switched to more drought resistant fruit and vegetables and abandoned other crops.

    What we have noticed whether in the Thames valley and Mauritius is farm land, or even allotments in urban catchment areas, and flood plains being built on. In Mauritius, it’s often for foreign investors / tax dodgers. NC’s French contingent may be amused to hear that the president of the Provence region, Renaud Muselier, bought a few hundred acres of Mauritian farm land, some of the most productive on the island, to convert into a beach and golf resort / estate managed by Accor.

    It’s also noticeable that Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment and James Dyson are snapping up farm land, the former in the third world often as a quid pro quo for vaccines and other medical and educational supplies. Despite what the MSM howls in anguish about China and Gulf states buying farm land, the City of London and investors like Gates, the Bush family (in Paraguay now and formerly in Cuba) and descendants of the Belgian investors opposed to Patrice Lumumba are the bigger culprits.

    One development to be wary of is the recent set up of an agricultural bank by the Duke of Westminster, the first agricultural bank in the UK for a hundred years. If that venture performs well, the plan is to take it overseas. The Grosvenor family is well known for its ownership of much of Mayfair and Cheshire, but less well known for its, so far, urban developments around the world. Debt for equity swaps anyone?

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      A number of Americans live in climates just close enough to Mauritius, from a plant’s-eye-view, that crops growable in Mauritius might also be growable in certain parts of America. Since I live in Michigan, my curiosity would be purely idle.

      But people in Texas, California, Florida, etc. might find information about the drought resistant fruit and vegetable crops your Mauritius holding has been switched over to, if that information is not too proprietary to be released.

  6. eg

    I see where the World Bank and the IMF are still busy doing the work described in Hudson’s “Superimperialism” whereby the US opposes land reform and supports local oligarchies everywhere to foist food (and fossil fuel) dependency upon its vassals, turning their economies into resource extraction/cash cropping latifundia run for the benefit of US multinationals, and enriching foreign kleptocrats in the bargain.


  7. David

    It’s worth pointing out, I suppose, that the move to growing cash crops predates SAPs and similar initiatives. Development experts in the 1960s argued that African countries should quickly move away from subsistence farming, and change to cash crops for export, so that they could import what they needed to industrialise rapidly: Zambia would be the next Japan, or whatever. Food could be imported from somewhere, and anyway modern technology would take care of that. The first generation of African independence leaders, who were desperate to modernise their countries, and completely accepted and internalised western values and economic theories, enthusiastically embraced the idea. It might have worked, except for the deregulation of raw material prices in the 1980s, which destroyed the basic underlying economics of the idea, and put African countries in debt, obliged to borrow to import the food they had once produced. Even by the standards of development economists, it was a uniquely awful idea

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, David, for reminding us of that tragedy.

      A generation later, ANC members studying at western, mainly UK, universities, like Thabo Mbeki at Sussex thought it a good idea to adopt the neo-liberalism* running amok in the UK and US as if that was a panacea and sign of modernity. *The Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy.

      It was similar in Latin America. I remember the Argentine finance minister saying, in a 1994 interview with western media, that his country met the conditions for EU monetary union as if that was a good thing and, again, a sign of modernity, for the country and him saying that.

      It is odd that none of these leaders and their often western advisers / consultants has ever mentioned how the likes of the US and Germany, competing / catching up with the UK, and Japan and Korea, competing / catching up with the west, sheltered their infant industries behind tariffs, provided abundant and reasonably costed capital, and were not averse to stealing intellectual property to develop. #Don’t do as I say, but do as I do.

      1. David

        Thanks, Colonel. The go-to person on this question, known to many at NC, is the Korean-born economist Ha-Joon Chang. He makes precisely this point.

        1. hk

          I think HJ Chang is fundamentally misguided, even if he is pointing to the right problems. I think “free trade” fundamentally works, but only after tons of political problems are worked out so that the question of “states” weaponizing trade and related activities in various ways is ruled out completely. Free trade obviously “works” within the same country and Kansas playing tricks wheat “exports” to New Jersey, say, is not conceivable. But, to get there, a lot of political and social developments, many perhaps not desirable to the persons involved, had to take place. Free and “equal” trade lies beyond realm of economics, as are many other things.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            The purpose of a system is what it does. That is just as true of the free trade system as of any other system.

            The “tons of political problems worked out” as a fake diversionary promise offered to the prospective victims of Free Trade Aggression to con them into anticipating false promises which were never meant to be kept or even approached.

            Bill Clinton’s lying about “renegotiating NAFTA” to “solve some of those problems” was a demostration of that basic process.

            Free Trade is working exactly as always intended and if you are an owner/operator/ beneficiary of the International Free Trade Conspiracy, then you will of course say it works for you. Which it does.

            The only other people who believe in “free trade” are cargo cultists.

      2. hk

        The usual counterexamples given are New Jersey and Kansas, or the equivalent thereof (the argument is common enough that it’s not worth repeating.). Not raising this as an advocacy of the claim, but to point out a subtle change in the question this entails: free trade between states within US was, ultimately, a political, not an economic development, with a long, painful, and literally bloody history, and entwined in many other questions beyond the realm of economics. So what would need to happen in political dimension for UK and Cote D’Ivoire, say, so that the analogy to New Jersey and Kansas might become valid? I don’t think economists really thought about questions like this.

    2. JEHR

      It seems we need a universal extinction of all debts for everyone except the billionaires. I have come to believe that half of mankind is out to destroy the other half and is succeeding beautifully /sarc!


    Part of the explanation for the outsized food performance relative to the land use for small-scale farmers is that a large chunk of the commercial agriculture business grows produce that will never be used for food. Drive through the Midwest, you’ll pass seemingly endless acres of corn fields grown entirely for the myriad number of byproducts put into non-food products.

  9. Darius

    An area for further exploration is the role small, appropriate-technology farmers could play in conserving soil, soil carbon, water quality, and biodiversity, as well as feeding the people. Agroforestry has been well covered here. It is only slight hyperbole to say small farmers could save the world.

    1. tegnost

      Sadly the PTB are against that for the same reason they don’t want solar panels on every house…the payment stream flows the wrong way…

  10. Hayek's Heelbiter

    In 1948, the silent Indian spiritual master, Meher Baba, set up a spiritual retreat in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
    He stipulated that there must be arable land and potable water available on the site.
    That seems like a very peculiar requirement in triumphant post-war America.
    Did he foresee something that the rest of us could not?

    1. juno mas

      Yes, he did. To grow the mind/spirit one needs green tea/cannabis and that requires land and water. Smart guy that Baba.

  11. chuck roast

    And who can forget the Alliance for Progress. A tidy neo-colonial package in the guise of assistance and uplift, and right here in our very own hemisphere! In a nutshell the point was to modify the agricultural sector in countries that could feed themselves into mono-cultural, exporting, foreign currency earning machines. They could then use their foreign currency to buy the agricultural and value added food products from America that they formerly grew themselves. If they had any resulting balance of payment issues the IMF was johnny-on-the-spot with a big loan to further enslave the local populations. And more loans to pay off that loan. The local oligarchs great assisted this endeavor by consolidating the agricultural sector and always taking a bit of loan vig for themselves. Tidy indeed.

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