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Disaster Capitalism in Ukraine

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/05/2022 - 6:45pm in

A number of dominant agricultural commodity traders are set to make big money thanks to Russia’s invasion, reports Dimitris Dimitriadis

While 44 million people are “marching towards starvation” and Ukrainian food exports – enough to feed 400 million people in 2021 – are prevented from leaving the country, an industry of grain traders and middlemen is making a lot of money.

The invasion of Ukraine, which has conspired with Coronavirus and climate change, has created a perfect storm for global food insecurity. It has been a boon for agricultural commodity traders – an industry dominated by a quartet of companies commonly referred to as ABCD: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. 

The ability of the sector to capitalise on the global crisis has led experts to question the ethics of so-called 'disaster capitalism'.

The gains made by at least two of the agri-giants are sizeable. Share prices for Bunge and ADM have soared by an average increase of 11% since the outbreak of the conflict, easily outstripping the FTSE 100 which has risen by less than 3% over the same period. This is consistent with a longer-term share price increase of more than 50% in the last three years, as demand for foodstuffs exploded in response to pandemic-inflicted lockdowns. 

The ABCD, which control anywhere between 75% and 90% of the agricultural trade market, have been well positioned to profit from Ukraine’s export standstill and accelerating food inflation that global bodies say threaten famines in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries. 

Following the invasion of Ukraine, the world’s sixth-largest wheat exporter, food commodity prices soared to record high levels, with the FAO Food Price Index reporting a 13% jump in March. But the worst may be yet to come, as the UN warns that food and feed inflation could climb to 22% this year – that is, if the conflict continues to prevent Ukraine’s exports from being released into global markets.

This will impact not only nations with a strong wheat import dependence on Ukraine – like Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon – but also many countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are already plagued by conflict, climate change and acute hunger crises. 

But amid every disaster, lurks opportunity.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the overall market capitalisation – a total value of a company’s shares and a proxy for investor confidence – for agricultural commodity traders has risen by 10%. This puts it firmly among the winners’ club alongside the fertiliser industry, which has seen an overall increase of 27% – an uptick that is bested only by the coal, offshore oil drilling and alternative fuels sectors, according to market data.  

It is also little wonder that, as oil and gas prices have surged following the invasion. Oil giant Saudi Aramco just reported an 82% jump in profits – recording the highest net earnings since its listing in 2019. 

Bunge, meanwhile, the world’s largest oilseed processor and a grain and fertiliser trader, recently reported higher-than-expected quarterly earnings of $4.26 per share (up from $3.13 in the same period last year), after the conflict in Ukraine sent food commodity prices soaring.    

Its competitor, another supply chain middleman, ADM, also posted earnings of $1.90 per share, beating expectations of $1.41, adding that its profits for 2022 would confidently top last year’s – at $2.9 billion.    

Meanwhile, Louis Dreyfus reported a jump in profit for 2021 – which reached $697 million, up 82.5% from the previous year – on the back of recovering global demand for staple crops, but said the Ukraine conflict could have a “material impact” on its operations locally.  

Cargill, America’s largest privately held business, last year announced a net income of $5 billion, the largest profit in its 156-year history. While its earnings in the last few months of 2022 are not known, the company – which is controlled by a dynasty of billionaires – has not pulled out from Russia, where it has done business for nearly half a century. It also continues to serve the other side of the conflict: Ukraine.  

The ‘Gatekeepers’

This is emblematic of a market that has no “national loyalties” or “flags”, according to Dr Fadhel Kaboub, Associate Economics Professor at Denison University, adding that these traders do not tend to shy away from conflict zones. 

Instead, he says, their scale and resources allows them to incur the cost of doing business in wartime and operate at the grey periphery of sanctions. Food and medicines are not included in global restrictions.

Cagrill says on its website that “food is a basic human right” and that it does everything it can to “nourish the world”, adding that the region [Ukraine-Russia] “plays a significant role in our global food system”. 

Proponents of the agricultural trade industry claim that profits alone do not necessarily indicate wrongdoing or malfeasance. They add that the sector in fact helps restore stability in the food markets by using its scale and access to information to match demand with supply – in this case, shipping food and other commodities where they are most needed.   

But Kaboub says that the ABCD traders are “gatekeepers” of a world order that continues to prevent the Global South from developing its own food sovereignty, while giving big producing countries and traders immense influence and leverage over prices. 

“In a world where you have countries independently controlling their own food security, those companies wouldn’t have that much power,” he says.

“The ABCD traders are not just covering the cost of doing business, they’re taking advantage of a real crisis to surcharge.”

Some critics go even further and allege that agricultural traders not only capitalise on disruption but also often promote it through “predatory” practices that can accentuate market volatility. 

Kaboub pointed to a long and dark history of Wall Street speculators that in some cases have helped create food crises only to be allowed by the authorities to walk away with a “slap on the wrist” or a hefty fine. 

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme has urged that, unless the Black Sea ports of Odesa are allowed to operate and export food produced in Ukraine, the global hunger crisis could spiral out of control. 

As many as an additional 47 million people could face acute hunger if the conflict continues, the body says. That’s on top of the 276 million people who already found themselves in this dire situation at the start of 2022. 

The risk of famine has been compounded by droughts across the Horn of Africa, with countries like Ethiopia and Somalia – which heavily rely on wheat from the Black Sea – seeing the cost of a food basket rising by 66% and 36% respectively in April, according to the UN

There are only modest grounds for optimism. While using its Black Sea ports is out of the question – at least for the time being – Ukraine is assessing whether it can export its food supply via neighbouring countries like Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

However, transporting the wheat is proving a Herculean operation: Ukraine’s railway system is not (fully) compatible with that of its EU neighbours – meaning that trains are probably a non-starter. The fall-back is using trucks but that is bound to be much slower and more arduous. 

Until then, the hope is that other countries will increase their wheat exports and ease the shortages. But India, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, has been hit with an unexpected and prolonged heatwave , which is threatening the bulk of its crops in the north. 

“Experts don’t see prices coming down in the next six months and it could be potentially a much worse situation beyond then,” says Kaboub. 

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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Food Bank Britain

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 9:04pm in

Rachel Morris considers the malaise of modern Britain as the Conservatives initiate Austerity 2.0

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“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today”, said the Mad Hatter. Perhaps he wrote this year’s Queen’s Speech, as delivered by golden calf Prince Charles, and subsequent tweets by Her Majesty’s Government.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak suggested that the Government could help you with the cost of living crisis, if you start a small enterprise first. A jam stall, perhaps.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng shared his passion for nuclear power plants – not exactly a short-term fix – in the week when it was revealed that we’re set to receive glowing veg from Fukushima.

Most ministers repeated the bit from their propaganda manual about being laser-focused on “the people’s priorities”. Nothing like a bit of alliteration to drown out those noises emanating from your stomach.

While French people got a state-delivered energy price cap limiting increases to 4%, our 54% rises can surely only be deliberate.

There’s no question that we’ve embarked upon Austerity 2.0. But the ‘A’ word can’t be said out loud, because according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, Austerity 1.0 caused 130,000 preventable deaths.

That’s one in every 517 people. COVID has now killed one in 347, if you divide the 2020 Census population by deaths with COVID on the certificate (193,713 at 11 May).

Austerity has therefore been rebranded. The Conservatives have driven the more comfortable classes into needing food banks, so has started calling them ‘pantries’. This was exactly the approach of Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt who on 22 April declared a partnership with Hive Portsmouth, setting up ‘food pantries’ in her constituency to save households an “average £800 a year in food bills”.

The accompanying video makes the food bank look like Waitrose, with more gorgeous veg and eggs than I’ve seen anywhere in France. Mordaunt appeals for generous individuals to run them, off the Government pay-roll.

In an article for the Daily Express earlier this week, Mordaunt said that anti-Brexit “doomsters want Britain to fail”. If she doesn’t understand that Britain is already failing, perhaps the minister should spend an afternoon in the food ‘pantry’, when it’s open for business.

According to Mordaunt, Remainers must instead become Tinkerbells: they must close their eyes tight and believe in Brexit hard enough, so food banks – sorry, ‘pantries’ – will vanish. For most people, however, closing their eyes just makes the hunger more apparent.

Asset-Stripping

Closing his eyes is something well-known to Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who spends his days lounging on the green benches of the House of Commons.

Ultimately, the people in charge see widespread hunger and poverty as a game: an exercise imagined in public relations school – or perhaps a question on the Eton entrance exam – designed to prove how they can wriggle out of a tight spot.

And the latest frontier of this PR campaign has focused on Labour Leader Keir Starmer having a beer and a curry during a work event. The nation’s attention has been diverted away from yet more Downing Street party fines, a catastrophic Conservative local election performance, and the High Court ruling that the Government consigned elderly people to death during the early stages of the pandemic.

It is also deeply ironic that this ‘scandal’ focuses on food, when 4.7 million adults are currently suffering from food insecurity.

Indeed, there are fewer McDonald’s (1,358) in the UK than food ‘pantries’ (more than 2,200). But, according to Conservative MP for Ashfield, Lee Anderson, it’s poor people who are to blame for their growling bellies.

Meanwhile, Prince Charles can still utter the phrase “levelling up” in Parliament while sitting in front of a gold-encrusted wall on a gold-encrusted throne wearing gold-and-medal-encrusted clothing – saying that regional rebalancing will be achieved by “ensuring everyone can continue to benefit from al fresco dining”.

There’s a reason why the Government has run out of ideas about how to fix the country. Primarily, because fixing the problems would involve a recognition that they created the problems in the first place and – secondly – because the Conservative Party takes its instructions from its paymasters in the private sector.

Everywhere you look, the Government is privatising – or threatening to privatise – whatever hasn’t already been sold-off. Passports, driving licenses, Channel 4, alongside our crap-filled waterways. But this asset-stripping goes much further. The state’s role itself has been privatised.

If you want to challenge the lawfulness of a Government action, you must crowdfund it yourself. If you want veterans to have something to sleep on, you must support a charity like Forgotten Veterans UK, whose ambassador is – Penny Mordaunt.

There will come a time when too few can afford to support privately-funded efforts by the third sector, with time or money, and some of these needs simply won’t be met at all. What happens when there are more GoFundMe pages than people who can donate to them? When there are more charities than the charitable?

Up to 14.5 million people lived in poverty before the pandemic – one in every four or five – which is projected to rise to 16 million by 2023. And the Government’s response is indifference.

Last October, the Prime Minister told businesses that it wasn’t his job to fix their every problem. The Chancellor said he “can’t do everything” after criticism of his Spring Statement. Other ministers are saying similar.

We’re on our own now, shivering in a corner with the Trussell Trust. Only £3 million crowns get a lift in a Rolls Royce. The Government makes no bones about it: you’ll have to figure it out on your own. Perhaps you could use those bones to make a tasty broth? If you can afford to put the cooker on. But don’t think there’ll be jam with it. Not today.

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The ‘Madman Despot’ Theory Only Serves to Embolden Vladimir Putin

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 25/04/2022 - 7:00pm in

Dimitris Dimitriadis and Iain Overton explore how accusations of insanity serve to strengthen the Russian President’s hand in Ukraine

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The Russian President, if commentators are to be believed, is “deranged”, “possibly crazed”, and in the grips of “hubris syndrome” and “COVID brain fog”. But to what degree has this psychological profiling of Vladimir Putin inadvertently strengthened the tyrant’s hand?

Quite a bit, potentially.

In the MacManus theory – a concept published in 2021 by Roseanne W McManus, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, following a major review of leaders’ reputations for madness – it was found that perceived madness could be harmful in crisis bargaining. A widespread perception of madness was an advantage, especially with an autocrat backed by a giant military, she wrote.

Admittedly, some see Putin as anything but a wild dictator with a loose finger on the nuclear button. Former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has described him as “a rational actor” whose invasion of Ukraine is “horrific but not irrational”. But many others have depicted a man on the edge of lunacy, and such attempts cast a long shadow over his words and deeds. 

Such armchair psychoanalysis must be resisted.

These attempts to put Putin on the couch are, at best, speculative leaps that make him look more erratic, unstable and unpredictable than warranted. And this may be in his interest: because as long as the Western press – and to an extent its leaders – perceive him to be unhinged and fundamentally irrational, Putin will know that he can (probably) get away with more. 

Indeed, depicting the Russian leader as deranged is an exercise in speculation that arguably says more about his commentators than their subject. It suggests one of two things: either that they do not understand him – or that they do not want to. The former perhaps cannot be helped (we never fully divine the contents of another person’s mind), the latter is obviously more problematic. 

The framing of a despot as mad has a long tradition but is all too often reductive and offensive to people with real mental health challenges. The depiction can also produce grotesque, irrational foreign villains and therefore geopolitical mistakes.

Saddam Hussein was painted as erratic and unpredictable, despised by his own people. And when the 'weapons of mass destruction' lie was used as a reason to invade Iraq, much of the Western press took it at face-value – a case of collective confirmation bias owing to a widespread investment in Hussein’s madness.

Today, the truth is that Putin’s motivation in invading Ukraine is more nuanced and strategic than madness permits. And, while a great deal has also been made of his obscure ideological convictions, his antediluvian desire to reunite the two countries and his strange obsession with Kyiv (often described as the “mother of Russian cities”), these are not in themselves indications of mental instability – even if they are entirely wrong-headed.

In the end, Putin is reduced by some to a caricature of mental pathology and warped ideology.

The Russian Rationale

Some leaders knew all too well the virtues of being seen as slightly unhinged. Yet, when former US President Richard Nixon tried to persuade the world that he was mad – and wasn’t above pressing the nuclear button to stop communist aggression – no one bought it. Nixon was outed as a hard pragmatist. Why not Putin?

For all the unspeakable atrocities and war crimes that many say have been committed in the past two months, there was nothing fundamentally irrational about the invasion of Ukraine. Desperate? Maybe. Abhorrent? Undoubtedly. But not unthinkable, and certainly not deranged. 

The invasion must be seen in the context of a country running out of options. Russia is a petrochemical state – a pariah among an increasingly broad tent of countries committing to net zero and renewable energy. Global politics and climate change dictate that fossil fuels, which currently fill the Russian state’s coffers, are a dwindling source of revenue. Meanwhile, climate change, the same phenomenon that Russia is refusing to tackle, is threatening to devour three-quarters of its territory that lies in the arctic north. 

Invading Ukraine does not solve climate change but it could, in theory, win Russia immense geopolitical leverage over global food and energy markets. Indeed, Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, with reliable year-round access to the Black Sea, a key trade route.  

Known as the 'breadbasket of Europe', the country is also home to incredibly fertile ‘black earth’ (chernozem) covering an area larger than Italy – and vast, sprawling flatlands which, for decades if not centuries, have been part of the nationalist dream of Russian invaders.

This type of nationalism is not rooted in history or jingoism but hard-nosed pragmatism.

Together with Ukraine, Russia could control a-quarter of globally traded wheat, and even larger chunks of the global barley and maize markets – a dependency that threatens to bring countries in middle Africa and north Africa to their knees, with the World Trade Organisation foreshadowing bread riots, violence and social unrest. 

Meanwhile, Russia is already weaponising oil and gas – its main export – as a means of economic warfare. This is a response, in the Kremlin’s narrative, to Western sanctions and a stark reminder of just how dependent Europe still is on Russia to keep the heating on. Putin knows that Europe’s attempt to wean itself off Russian energy will be long and painful for its electorates, and he is pressing leaders where it hurts the most.  

It seems as if it will simply be a matter of time before he decides to do the same with wheat and other critical food stuffs, including barley and cereal. In a world in which climate change has rendered food security ever-more elusive, an autocrat who can credibly threaten starvation – at least among certain countries – or serious food upheaval, is a force to be reckoned with. 

While that may seem like a far-cry from the current realities of the conflict, it is in line with a broader, long-term strategic plan – one that a deranged mind would simply not be capable of hatching. But, as Niccolò Machiavelli remarked, “at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness”.

Unless Western journalists resist the sensationalist urge to depict Putin as a madman – and seriously engage with the nuances of Russian aggression – he may yet succeed.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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Putin’s War On Net Zero: Controlling ‘Europe’s Breadbasket’ to Prevent Russia’s Fossil Fuel Collapse

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 8:45pm in

Russian Government-backed scientific studies suggest that the war in Ukraine is the world’s first rear-guard military attack on the global climate movement, reports Nafeez Ahmed

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Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine may be far more intimately related to climate change than previously assumed.

So far, the invasion has been been largely viewed as an ideologically-charged blunder by an erratic dictator, inspired by neo-fascist fantasies of a return to Soviet-era glory.

While this is not entirely off the mark, an exclusive Byline Times review of scientific studies funded by the Russian Government in recent years suggests that the war amounts to a full-frontal assault on the global food system – aimed at capturing fertile land that can bolster Russia’s “future agricultural power” as its fossil fuel export economy declines due to accelerating global climate action.

This is supported by new analysis by Chatham House, the Royal Institute for International Affairs, which in early April concluded that the global energy transition away from fossil fuels threatens to derail Russia’s economic and geopolitical power as the world’s number one oil and gas exporter.

With fossil fuels bound to become increasingly obsolete in the years ahead, as the report suggests, control of land as a “strategic asset" for the production of key food commodities seems to have played a prominent role in the Russian President's war calculations in Ukraine.

The biggest existential threat to Russia through this lens comes from global net zero commitments on climate change. Now, Byline Times can reveal that this is corroborated by recent research papers tied to key Russian state institutions close to Putin.

One crucial paper in particular, which highlighted the direct risk posed by global climate action to Russia’s economy, was produced by a member of the elite Valdai Club founded in 2004 with Russian Government support.

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Net Zero: An Existential Threat

The Chatham House report connects global energy transformation directly to the war in Ukraine. It argues that Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian land grab may have been designed to compensate for Russia’s diminishing economic clout as its primary export commodities – oil and gas – experience unstoppable decline.

“For Russia, global efforts to realise more sustainable economies pose an existential threat to its own vision for economic growth,” it states. Net zero pledges by more than 130 countries together responsible for around 88% of global carbon emissions “signal an imminent decline in demand for Russian energy”.

With its fossil fuel leverage over Europe collapsing over the next decade, a war to control 'Europe’s breadbasket' could have been the answer – or at least, one answer to a range of geopolitical and ideological goals.

The report states: “As the world looks ahead to projected growth in demand for food, land is also becoming an increasingly strategic asset. Russia may well have factored Ukraine’s fertile land into its decision to invade as a means of bolstering its future agricultural power; other neighbouring allies, particularly Belarus and Kazakhstan – major exporters of potash and wheat, respectively – may further add to its sphere of influence if they choose to align with Russia in any future economic war.”

This analysis suggests that Putin’s goals in Ukraine are complex. While undoubtedly motivated by longstanding ambitions to reassert Russian power over former Soviet territories, the fundamental roles of energy, land and food are playing a larger role than previously assumed.

“In the face of the energy transition and declining fossil fuel export revenues, Russia will be looking with urgency for ways to maintain its economic and political power; the current situation shows that no strategy is off the table, whatever the consequences in terms of Russia’s ostracisation by the international community,” the report observes.

Food Instead of Energy

The idea of controlling land and food as a potential antidote to the demise of Russia’s fossil fuel economy can also be found in a research paper published two years earlier – the lead author of which is closely connected to one of the most powerful institutions in Russian politics: the Valdai Club.

The Kremlin-sponsored Valdai Club is an elite gathering hosted in Russia – widely described as the Russian ‘Davos’ – which regularly includes senior Russian Cabinet ministers, oligarchs, and industry leaders. Its annual meetings with members are attended every year by Putin himself.

The club includes many other influential figures in Russian politics and finance, including controversial figures such as Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese academic accused of being a go-between for the Trump campaign and the Russian Government during the 2016 US Presidential Election.

In his book Putin’s Propaganda Machine, Marcel Van Herpen – a Dutch security expert on Russia – describes the Valdai Club as a Kremlin soft power forum to “create a testing ground for the Kremlin’s foreign policy initiatives”.

The paper in question – published in the Climate Policy journal in 2020 – is authored by Dr Igor Makarov, head of the School of World Economy and Laboratory for Economics of Climate Change at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics (HSE). The HSE, which partly funded Dr Makarov’s paper, is one of the founding institutions of the Valdai Club Foundation, which runs the Valdai Club – and Dr Makarov himself is a contributing member of the club.

Dr Makarov’s study concluded that carbon emission reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement pose a direct threat to Russian economic growth to 2030, intensifying even more by 2050.

“Russia will not be able to sustain its current trajectory of fossil fuel export-based development due to climate policies worldwide,” the study states. This necessitates a “comprehensive development strategy” including economic diversification, with the largest areas for investment encompassing “manufacturing, services, agriculture and food production”.

In the study’s most stringent scenario of carbon emission reductions, “Russian fossil fuels exports would decrease dramatically for all categories of fossil fuels except oil products”.

The paper also points out that the fate of Russian oil exports will depend on the evolution of the world’s transport systems, noting the trend towards “tightening vehicle and fuel standards, development of public transportation and further progress in electric vehicles, especially in developed countries... would reduce their demand for crude oil and oil products”.

The study even flags up “progress in electric vehicles” as “the main factor” that could “result in additional risks for Russian oil exporters”.

Extraordinarily, this paper does not beat about the bush: Russia’s fossil fuel economy cannot survive the coming decades, it warns – and the only option is to rapidly diversify.

It states: “It is highly unlikely that Russia will be able to substantially expand its exports of fossil fuels that were the major driver of the country’s economic development in the 2000s. Restraints to exports that were previously observed on the supply side would shift to the demand side as the leading national economies tend to limit their consumption of fossil fuels.”

The way out suggested by this study is for the Russian Government to gently raise taxes on fossil fuel enterprises, while massively reinvesting in agriculture and food exports. But there is a problem: in recent years, Russia has faced mounting obstacles to further boosting its agricultural output.

Food as a National Security Tool

Other scientific papers commissioned and funded by the Russian Government reviewed by Byline Times throw new light on how Russian experts with state backing have perceived the inter-relationship between energy, land and food.

In 2010, Russia adopted its 'Food Security Doctrine' to achieve complete self-sufficiency in domestic food production. It made clear that Russian agriculture was integral to its wider national security strategy. By 2020, the doctrine was upgraded to achieve the goal of total independence from food imports.

But Russia’s food security strategy came at a cost – with domestic producers shielded from external competition, there was no drive to improve quality and reduce costs. As quality and competition declined – with the bulk of Russia’s food production controlled by a handful of oligarchs – the result was skyrocketing prices, exacerbated by the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. Putin openly complained about the price hikes and responded with price-caps policed with ever more heavy-handed state interventions. But this is only a short-term solution.

In December 2021, a scientific paper – partly funded by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation – warned that the “narrowness” of Russia’s remarkable agricultural recovery over the past 20 years, with a small number of producing regions accounting for the bulk of output, “fosters fragility, which suggests that a downturn in production among main producers may cause a spike in food insecurity”.

The study found that second-tier food producing regions in Russia “are not able to compensate for significant production declines in the top 10... The upshot is that Russia’s agricultural production base will remain narrow and fragile, a fact that impacts domestic food security and food security in its export markets”.

Just a few months before this paper was published, Russia’s Ministry of Agriculture had already slashed its official grain harvest estimate for 2021-2022 from 127 to 123 million tonnes. Its wheat crop harvest projection was slashed to 75 million tonnes, down from 85 million last in 2020.

The Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Department of Agriculture had also projected an even smaller wheat harvest of 72.5 million tonnes, with Russian wheat exports expected to decline from 38.5 to 35 million tonnes. Unusually dry weather was identified as one culprit of the decline.

Climate Impacts – and the Lebensraum Solution

Climate change is likely to further destabilise Russia’s food system in the long-run, but Vladimir Putin has seen a potential opportunity in this development.

Another paper funded by the Russian Ministry of Science found “a significant and mostly positive influence of global climatic variables, such as the CO2 concentration, El Niño and La Niña events on both harvests and yields”.

These findings are broadly consistent with wider scientific literature showing how hotter temperatures could contribute to increased agricultural yields in certain northern regions.

Putin has long seized on such findings to trump the benefits of global heating. As early as 2003, he declared: “An increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.”

But this is only part of the picture. Buried within the conclusions of the same 2022 Russian Government-backed paper is the following acknowledgement: "The other side of the global warming trend is droughts. The forecasted increase in climate aridity poses additional risks to crop yields. In our models, the July temperatures have a significant and strong negative influence on most of the specifications. The main risks to crop production in Russia are increased aridity in the southwestern regions, which are currently the main producers of agricultural products, and the increased negative impact of pests and crop pathogens, which may spread their habitat to other regions.”

An earlier paper funded by the Russian Government’s Foundation for Basic Research published in Studies in Russian Economic Development came to similar conclusions. It offered a somewhat familiar solution: increasing the land area subject to Russian agriculture.

This paper concluded that “the impact of climate change on agricultural productivity is estimated to be moderately negative (due to the fact that the main negative effects will be observed in the southern regions with the most developed agricultural production)”.

The hope was that this can be compensated by an increase in expected yields due to climate change in central and north-west regions of Russia. Even so, the study warned that “the negative impact of global warming on crop yields in the southern regions will hamper the development of agricultural exports”.

Grain exports from Russia’s southern regions due to deteriorating “agro-climatic conditions” could fall by four to five million tonnes before 2030, the paper warned presciently. Relying on Russian agriculture alone, then, as an antidote to the world’s declining appetite for Russian fossil fuel exports would be a major gamble.

“To overcome these negative consequences”, the paper said, “it is necessary to carry out certain structural and technological shifts” with state support. Among the shifts it identified were changing crop structures and tillage methods, but most crucially to “increase the area of reclaimed land”.

It also called for Russia to substantially increase its stocks of emergency grain reserves.

Yet with production falling from 2020 to 2021, it was unclear how either of these could happen. While the paper did not call for a land war, it set up the logic that might make this appear a rational option.

Thus, in the years prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russian experts connected to Government institutions were warning that the country's fossil fuel export-dependent model of economic growth was bound to unravel in 2030 and beyond. The biggest driver of this, they anticipated, would be a combination of concerted, collective climate action and accelerating technology disruptions including electric vehicles – pinpointed as a particular risk to Russia’s oil hegemony.

One answer to the coming crisis was to massively ramp up other economic sectors, especially Russia’s other chief exports: food. But Russia was already in the midst of a domestic food system crisis.

Enter Ukraine.

Europe’s Breadbasket

These factors provide some indication of why Vladimir Putin may have decided to invade Ukraine at this time.

The suggestion is not that the Russian President personally read all of the studies documented in this article – but they surely reflect the tone of discussions going on at a high-level across the Russian Government.

Putin's strategy is consistent with many of these analyses. All in all, they help to explain how the perception of an imminent convergence of energy, food and economic crises intersected with his ideological vision of an expanded Russia and a reshaped Europe – culminating in the decision to launch an invasion of Ukraine. If Putin had waited any longer, the chance to reassert Russian power would have evaporated.

According to historian Lizzie Collingham, author of Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food: “People of the West are amazingly unaware of the importance of Ukraine to Russia, not only as a strategic location on the map of Europe but as the main competitor and potential contributor to Russian grain production.”

Ukraine is the former breadbasket of the Soviet Union and today is among the top three grain exporters in the world – with the capacity to feed half a billion people if not more. The country is the world’s top sunflower and sunflower oil producer and exporter, the fourth-largest potato producer, the fourth-largest exporter of maize, and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat – as well as a major producer and exporter of barley, corn, rye, and soybeans.

With 42 million hectares of agricultural land consisting of some of the most fertile soils in the world, its agricultural growth potential is significant.

Together, therefore, Russia and Ukraine play critical roles in global energy, food and fertiliser markets – with their exports representing more than a tenth of all the food calories traded in the world.

According to the Chatham House report, Russia and Ukraine collectively account for just over one half of global trade in sunflower oil and seeds, around a quarter of all traded wheat and barley, and around a sixth of traded maize and rapeseed. They are also “critical suppliers to food-deficit countries across North Africa and the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia”.

Russia itself is a major fertiliser supplier, accounting for “one-sixth of global trade in potassic fertilisers, more than one-tenth of nitrogenous fertilisers, and around one-sixth of mixed fertilisers”. Russia also dominates natural gas exports for the production of nitrogenous fertilisers across Europe.

“Who controls wheat supply can shape global politics,” Dimitris Dimitriadis and Iain Overton observed in these pages last month. “And if Putin’s end goal is to gain a dominance on global food markets – alongside reliable, year-round access to winter ports and key trading routes – Ukraine could well be the means”.

This appears to be a multi-pronged strategy: derail the clean energy transformation with a huge geopolitical, economic and raw materials supply shock; drive up fossil fuel prices indefinitely to facilitate immediate Russian energy firm profits but more importantly to make feasible the exploitation of expensive unconventional resources in Siberia; consolidate control of a strategic source of future agricultural power integral to both Europe’s and the entire world’s food system; allow continued climate change to increase northern agricultural yields to compensate for a brewing food crisis in the south, potentially buttressed by leveraging Ukraine’s agricultural potential for expanded food imports.

Given Russia’s 'hybrid war' approach, it is likely that we are witnessing a complex, shifting and not entirely consistent military, geopolitical and economic strategy for Russian resurgence – launched in response to intensifying warning signals of imminent decline. Central to that decline is the promise of accelerating global climate action on a scale never before contemplated.

Seen through this lens, Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine may well be, in effect, the world’s first organised state assault on the global climate movement. And it may not be the last.

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Wheat Wars: How the Conflict in Ukraine is Afflicting North Africa

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/03/2022 - 9:20pm in

Dimitris Dimitriadis and Iain Overton consider the ways in which violence in Ukraine may provoke social and economic unrest across the globe

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As the conflict in Ukraine continues to run its devastating course, the chaos of war is spilling beyond its casement. The reverberations of the fighting now seem to be travelling down the Black Sea, into the Middle East and Africa.

Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of Europe, but it is not only Europe’s food security – and, in large part, political stability – that is at stake. When it comes to critical food imports, such as wheat and maize, Europe is relatively sheltered from the conflict. Because, while the same cannot be said of energy and fertilisers – the bulk of which originates in Russia – it is countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region that are much more vulnerable to the inadvertent food costs of this war. 

Many countries in MENA import vast quantities of wheat from Ukraine and Russia; they also consume more wheat per capita than the global average and, as such, are vulnerable to the knock-on effects of the fighting.

Global wheat prices have soared to record highs over the last month. Russia’s invasion has made wheat coming from the region either extremely costly or entirely inaccessible. Trade routes have been blocked, infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed, and exports have ground to a near halt. Suppliers continuing to trade face prohibitive insurance premiums – part of the cost of doing business in wartime – and freight costs.

Compounding these issues are a raft of Western sanctions against Russia that have made trading with the country a much more complicated exercise, despite the fact that food does directly not fall under the restrictions.

If Vladimir Putin’s aim was to undermine global food security, Russia could have hardly picked a better target. Together, Russia and Ukraine account for around 30% of the world’s traded wheat. With the conflict raging on, an estimated 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 16 million tonnes of maize are currently held in the two nations combined. Millions more tonnes are at risk; the harvest season for Black Sea wheat runs in the summer, and planting typically takes place in April. This year, the black fields of Ukraine may well run fallow. 

Just how bad this proves for food markets will hinge on the duration of the conflict. But even if it ended tomorrow, the risks to global food security are unlikely to dissipate. Farmers have been fleeing the conflict in droves and infrastructure has either been decimated or claimed by the invader. In addition, most of the country’s wheat production comes from eastern Ukraine – exactly where the conflict has been most intense. Patching up this breadbasket is going to take time.

Time, though, is a luxury that countries like Tunisia and Egypt cannot afford. The latter is the world’s largest importer of wheat and around 60% of its cereal imports come from Russia and Ukraine. The former is among the top buyers of Ukrainian wheat, accounting for half of its imports in 2019. 

“Bread is the thing that fills the stomachs of the poor and the working classes,” says Fadhel Kaboub, associate professor of economics at Denison University.

For decades, a vicious cycle of import dependency has not been broken. Kaboub traces it back to the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) which “forced farmers in the Global South to switch to cash crops which are very water and energy intensive, and gave governments dollar and Euro revenues to pay for energy imports”. 

This, he adds, sustained an external debt trap and meant that poorer countries never developed the food sovereignty that would have shielded them from conflicts.

If anything, their import dependency has intensified. Consider Egypt, whose population has been outpacing increases in domestic production. Now its Government is facing a sky-high bill of $763 million that it may need to add to its bread subsidies programme, following the import disruption.

On the one hand, Egyptian officials have said that bread subsidy reforms may come up in the upcoming budget, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not gone to any great lengths to hide his contempt for the programme.

On the other hand, the Government seems to be desperately trying to contain the fallout. On top of banning staple food exports, it has capped the price of unsubsidised bread – which has soared in recent weeks – and said that its wheat reserves are enough to last for the next four months. It is also paying local farmers more to stimulate local production and diversify its sources of wheat. 

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Tunisia is in a similar squeeze. Even before the conflict, the country was facing severe flour shortages amid difficulties in securing import contracts and paying for shipments. This has in turn undermined its credibility as a trading partner, with “some suppliers now refusing to ship before payment is made,” according to Kaboub. 

Timing is not on the country’s side, either. Ramadan, which is typically when food consumption is the highest, is just around the corner and expectations of more shortages have led to panic buying.  

The country is cornered in another way, too. It will need to commit to “deep reforms” and public spending cuts if it wants a rescue deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). So far, axing its own bread subsidy has not been openly raised in the negotiations. 

But that may not come as a surprise. “Since the 1980s,” Kaboub says, “the IMF has done away with the ‘shock therapy’ type interventions of removing bread subsidies. What has replaced that is shrinkflation, whereby the size of the loaf is gradually reduced and its price is gradually increased. We’ve had that in Tunisia for decades.” 

Both countries, he adds, will ultimately need to “build resilience” and switch out of “deficient economic models”. In the short term, they might be tempted to cut bread subsidies to take some pressure off their exploding budgets. But doing so would also cause widespread hunger and possibly pave the way for social unrest.

‘Bread, Freedom and Social Justice’

History tells us that food prices and political instability often go hand in hand. And where food inflation is coupled with rising literacy rates and unprecedented access to information, it can mean the difference between unrest and revolution. 

Consider the year of European revolutions: 1848. The ‘hungry ‘40s’ were a time of privation, famine and disease. In 1847, a Prussian Minister said: “The old year ended in scarcity, the new one opens with starvation. Misery, spiritual and physical, traverses Europe in ghastly shapes – the one without God, the other without bread.”

Trade had come to a near halt, grain crops had been decimated, food prices were through the roof. Protestors in Paris would soon give authorities a choice: “Bread or lead”.

The 1840s were also a time of relative enlightenment, with literacy rates rising rapidly around Europe in the first half of the century. And while the revolutions were largely acephalous and uncoordinated, widespread printed news and presses enabled the dissemination of political ideas across different nations which, in turn, fomented dissent.

This dual role of food and revolutionary information was also central to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Those events, which would unseat a number of tyrants, started with food riots in Tunisia and Algeria, but also coincided with the widespread dissemination of Wikileaks highlighting endemic corruption. Political scandal came at the same time as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a warning: food prices were reaching record levels.

Arab regimes responded by increasing subsidies – a tactic that autocrats often rely on – but grain prices kept climbing and the release of vast amounts of incriminating and revelatory information on the embattled regimes led people to take to the streets. A popular chant during the uprising in Egypt was: “Bread, freedom and social justice”.

Over a decade later, those chants are more muted but there are familiar grounds for concern. Food prices have recently reached a new all-time high, topping the peaks of February 2011. This pre-dates the Ukraine conflict, so the revised outlook is even bleaker for some of the world’s largest importers of wheat. There has also been a swelling of urban centres in both Egypt and Tunisia – and any increases in the price of bread will stoke existing tensions and discontent.

In Tunisia, thousands of people have already taken to the streets to protest the rule of President Kais Saied, who seized power last year. The country’s economy and democratic transition may be hanging in the balance. The shockwaves of the conflict in Ukraine could not have come at a worse time. 

The longer the conflict in Ukraine draws out, the more pressure these regimes will come under. Whether they or their people crack, remains to be seen.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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The Flawed Logic of Extreme Australia Free Trade Deal Optimism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 28/03/2022 - 9:31pm in

Ben Ramanauskas critiques the outlandish ideas of influential Brexit economist Professor Patrick Minford

Several weeks ago, Professor Patrick Minford of Cardiff University – one of the most influential economists in pro-Brexit circles – claimed that the UK’s free trade deal with Australia would be worth £69 billion to the UK economy, the equivalent of 3% of GDP. These views have been parroted by the Daily Express, under the call for people to “stop moaning about Brexit”.

Minford bases this claim on a number of outlandish assumptions – not least that Australia will be able to provide all of the UK’s food, leading to a decrease in food prices by 2%, thus making UK farming unviable, leading to a drop in land values, and meaning that we start putting land to ‘better use’ by building houses and factories.

With all due respect to Professor Minford, this is absolutely bonkers. Primarily, he offers no evidence for these flawed assumptions other than his own economic modelling, which he expects us to accept as being more reliable than the analysis conducted by the Department for International Trade and other organisations.

Minford attempted a response to my initial critique last week. Although it was unconvincing, failing to address any of my points, the fact that he doubled down reveals that he doesn’t understand modern international trade.

Minford is either ignorant of how modern international trade works, or he has chosen to deliberately not believe it. The majority of his arguments as to why a free trade deal between the UK and other countries would bring huge benefits stem from an old-fashioned and rather simplistic view of the economics of trade.

Minford’s economic model is based on the classical understanding of economics and trade first elucidated by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. It was Smith who showed that the reason nations become wealthy is not the gold they hoard but because they engage in free trade, while it was Ricardo who developed the concept of comparative advantage.

Both Smith and Ricardo are correct, but this is not the full story. Comparative advantage is important, but as history has developed so has our understanding of trade and economics. When assessing the potential benefits of trade deals, economists use something called a gravity model – showing that, as with objects in space, size and distance matter.

Therefore, countries are more likely to trade in high volumes with countries or blocs that are large, and are close to them, than they are with countries that are far away and small. This is one of the reasons why the Government’s own analysis suggests that the deal with Australia will only offer modest economic gains.

Minford seems to have real issues with the gravity model as he seems to genuinely believe that it is a device that is biased in favour of the EU and is being used by ‘Remoaner’ civil servants to undermine Brexit and diminish free trade between the UK and non-EU countries.

A further sign of his outdated thinking is found in his response to my article in which he claims that the gravity model must be wrong due to the huge economic benefits which resulted from changes in trade policy. Minford is right, the end of the Second World War saw the dawn of the international rules based system and brought into being organisations committed to free trade and liberalisation, some of which were the earlier forms of institutions such as the EU and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The reason why we saw huge economic growth in this period is precisely because of this liberalisation, with tariffs and subsidies replaced with free trade.

However, it is disingenuous to point to that era of liberalisation and compare it to a free trade deal with Australia. Tariffs on the vast majority of non-agricultural goods are already very low. As such, a free trade deal with Australia – or any other country for that matter – which simply lowers tariffs on a few products, is unlikely to bring huge economic gains. Minford is not the only person who has this outdated view of international trade, with Spectator political editor James Forsyth arguing that the Government should temporarily cut tariffs on non-agricultural products in order to tackle the cost of living crisis.

This is not to say that trade deals are not worth signing – far from it. We should just not expect deals which focus on tariff reduction to bring huge economic benefits. Rather, the UK should seek to tackle non-tariff barriers in trade negotiations and at the WTO. Dismantling other barriers to trade could bring significant economic benefits to the UK and the rest of the world.

Free trade is great – it has brought wealth and prosperity to the UK and many other countries around the world. The Government is right to want to strike new trade deals and promote free trade, but it should do so based on reality, not the outdated and fantasy economics of the likes of Patrick Minford.

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Looting the Land: Is Ukraine’s Black Earth a Reason for Putin’s Invasion?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 23/03/2022 - 12:19am in

Now sabotaging Russian tanks, Ukraine’s rich soil may be the prize that Putin seeks from his violence, write Dimitris Dimitriadis and Iain Overton

One of the salient features of the conflict unfolding in Ukraine are images of Russian tanks stuck in the thick, black earth of their opponent’s territory. Many people have taken glee at these instruments of Putin’s war being disabled by the very land they seek to conquer, but such images speak to more than just poor military equipment and planning.

For, while Ukraine’s muddy terrain seems to be controlling its invader’s tank operators, the ultimate control of that land – and specifically the country’s precious black soil – is at the centre of Vladimir Putin’s dreams of Russian expansion. 

Last week, the Russian leader reportedly laid out his terms of a ceasefire with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reports say that whereas Putin’s rhetoric around the invasion of Ukraine has been emotional and ideological in recent weeks, and at times confusing and conflicting, the red lines for his peace deal are ultimately pragmatic: he wants land.

As the BBC reported, “the assumption is that Russia will demand that the Ukrainian Government should give up territory in eastern Ukraine”. Coincidentally – or not – eastern Ukraine is also home to the bulk of the country’s most productive land.

Putin is eyeing the sprawling flatlands that lie west of Russia’s borders, as well as Ukraine’s warm-water ports that offer direct access to the sea. These are not the ambitions of a madman – they are ruthless and hard-nosed demands that could help guarantee Russia’s food security and long-term financial and geopolitical position.

Putin may well feel that he cannot wait much longer to snatch these prizes from Ukraine. Climate change is already causing profound disruption to three-quarters of Russia’s territory in the arctic north. The world’s response to global warming has also raised questions as to whether fossil fuels, which account for almost half of Russia’s exports, are an assured long-term bet for the Russian economy. 

But there are other reasons why Putin may have selected this time to instigate a land-grab. An often under-reported prize of Ukraine – something that untold numbers of people have fought and died to control over the centuries – is its black earth, or chernozem (чернозём in Russia). Such earth is deemed to be the richest soil in the world, and stretches from Moldova all the way east into Siberia, before coming to an end near Irkutsk. Ukraine’s topography – neither too flat nor too rolling – is also ideally suited to stable and reliable harvesting and land cultivation. 

This thick black earth today covers more than half of the country’s land mass. Out of the country’s 42 million hectares of agricultural land – an area larger than Italy – 32 million are typically cultivated every year. This is equivalent to roughly one-third of the arable land in the entire European Union.

Ukraine, formerly the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, is now a major crop producer for the world market. Roman Leshchenko, Ukraine’s Minister of Agrarian Policy, last year said the country could, quite literally, “feed the world”. Ukraine typically accounts for 12% of global wheat supply and around a-fifth of global maize production, according to ING Bank and the US Department of Agriculture. In 2021, Ukraine’s wheat exports were worth around $5.1 billion.

It is impossible to know what truly motivated Putin to unleash hell in Ukraine, but winning back the former Soviet breadbasket could well have been a factor.

Putin may have also been concerned that, in a matter of years, this Ukrainian land could have been sold off to foreign corporations – a possible outcome of land reform policies initiated by Ukraine’s pro-Western government. Russia, and its army of oligarchs, would have been outbid; excluded from the spoils.

One academic wrote back in 2013 that, in Ukraine, “Land is considered as the last resource that was never fully privatised in the 1990s, as were other business such as the metallurgy and chemical industries.”

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The following year, Russian-backed separatists took vast swathes of Ukrainian land in Luhansk, Donetsk and Crimea.

In a world dominated by technology, the value of land may seem arcane. But, to Russia, it is a precious resource. In 2020/21, about a-fifth of global wheat supply originated in Russia, bringing in more than $7.1 billion last year. With Ukraine, Russia could control around a-quarter of globally traded wheat, and even larger chunks of the global barley and maize markets. Ukraine is also the world’s largest exporter of sunflower seeds and its by-products, accounting for nearly half of global supply in 2020/21. The proportion rises to three-quarters if the two countries are taken together.  

Wheat alone is responsible for around a-fifth of global human calorie intake. Rising bread prices can also be a harbinger of conflict and social unrest. Who controls wheat supply can shape global politics. And if Putin’s end goal is to gain a dominance on global food markets – alongside reliable, year-round access to winter ports and key trading routes – Ukraine could well be the means.

Contested Ground

For Ukrainians, this is nothing new. For decades, if not centuries, the country’s land has been abused and exploited at the hands of invaders, foreign companies, oligarchs and Government elites.

Ukraine was at the heart of Hitler’s Lebensraum in the Second World War: to take control of Ukraine’s fertile land and use it to build a German empire. And there was the Holodomor, the artificial famine that Joseph Stalin caused in Ukraine back in the 1930s. To some, the black earth was as much a curse as a blessing.

Two decades ago, the Government put in place a moratorium, preventing the buying and selling of land but allowing long leases. The reason, it claimed, was to protect the interests of farmers and preserve the value of the land. It achieved neither.

Farmers lost out. They ended up entering long leases with often predatory terms, earning a fraction of what the free market would have dictated, with many of them sliding under the poverty line.

But the moratorium was a boon for foreign companies, large domestic businesses and corrupt Government officials. Land could not be sold but it could be leased, which opened the system to abuse. Contracts for leases were auctioned off or obtained via favouritism. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has claimed that at least half of Ukraine’s state-owned land was illegally privatised by previous governments.

Foreign companies were hardly kept out, either. By 2020, Ukraine had ceded more than 3.3 million hectares of agricultural land to foreign investors. No country, other than Indonesia, tops that figure. Among the top investors were US private equity firm, NCH Capital, Cyprus-based UkrLandfarming and the Luxembourg company, Kernel Holding. State-owned funds from Saudi Arabia and China, and the Renaissance Group, a Russian company, also held significant leases.

To make matters worse, agriculture became more and more intensive and extractive over time, with adverse effects ranging from significant soil erosion and contamination to loss of biodiversity. A report warned that, unless drastic reforms were made, up to 40% of Ukrainian farmland was at risk of becoming infertile.

A year ago, in 2021, the moratorium was lifted. More than 42 million hectares of farmland became available to buy and sell. While foreigners were still excluded from ownership, there were plans for a national referendum. ‘Should they be allowed to buy our land?’ Ukrainians would be asked.

This must have disquieted the Kremlin. Since 2014, Russians have faced more stringent barriers than other foreign nationals in terms of land ownership in Ukraine – a response to Russian aggression in Crimea. These restrictions were poised to remain in place. Even if they would have been lifted – a slim possibility given Russia’s status as an aggressor – an open land market would have, at the very least, meant more competition.

Even ahead of the moratorium being lifted, pro-Russian voices in Ukraine opposed any suggestion of land reform. Consider former President Yulia Tymoshenko, who warned that lifting the moratorium on land sales would pave the way to civil war. Or the pro-Russia party, the ‘Opposition Platform – For Life’, which was part of an obstructionist faction that introduced more than 4,000 amendments to the land reform bill and repeatedly filibustered parliamentary proceedings. 

Land reform has been decried by Kremlin loyalists and Russian media as more evidence of Ukraine’s increasing dependence on the West. RT went as far as to call it a “crime against their own country”, adding that it would harm the interest of farmers. The head of the self-proclaimed breakaway state, the Donetsk People’s Republic, said that land reform was an attempt to “regain the fertile lands of this region”. 

None of these views should, of course, be read as a direct proxy for the Kremlin. What was on Putin’s mind when he invaded is anyone’s guess. But Ukraine’s seemingly endless black, rich earth – now the scourge of Russia’s tank battalions – almost certainly played a part in the calculations of invasion.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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The Politics of Porridge

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 21/01/2022 - 9:35pm in

The Politics of PORRIDGE

With inflation now at 5.4% and the cost of living soaring with it, the humble oat has become an avatar of moral virtue in a right-wing culture war, Sian Norris reports

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Is there a foodstuff that holds more political and social metaphors than the humble bowl of porridge? 

From staple peasant food to the gruel demanded by hungry orphans; from a word associated with prison to an aspirational-detox-wellness-glowing-green-eating-clean-eating luxury (posh porridge for dogs now only £50 a bag!), porridge’s most recent incarnation is as a right-wing meme to attack those living in poverty and a way to fix the cost of living crisis. 

The politics of porridge was in the spotlight again after the energy company OVO was forced to apologise for a blogpost that advised consumers to save energy by tucking into a bowl of hot oats. The company said it was “embarrassed” by its “poorly-judged advice”.

The message that poverty can end if the poor eat porridge is one repeatedly voiced by politicians and activists on the right whenever hunger or the cost of living crisis is in the news. 

Take this 2017 tweet from political commentator Isabel Oakeshott, who complained that parents which didn’t provide their children with breakfast were “failing woefully” and should consider buying a “bag of porridge for £1; will last a family all week”. The tweet came a month after reports that up to three million children would go hungry in the school holidays. 

The journalist Marcus Stead also waded into the porridge discourse when he tweeted that we should “stop all this nonsense about people not being able to ‘afford’ to give their children breakfast… A bag of porridge to feed a family for a week costs £1”.

Back in 2014, Baroness Jenkin had to apologise after saying that hunger stemmed, in part, from losing cooking skills, concluding that “poor people don’t know how to cook”. She went on to say that she had “a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p” – the implication being the masses could and should follow her example.

A quick keyword search for “porridge” on Twitter reveals how widespread the belief that poverty can be fixed through oats is.

“Food poverty is a myth, it only exists through choices,” reads one tweet that details a shopping list of porridge, yoghurt and tinned peaches. Another tweeter agrees that “food poverty is a choice… feckless, thick parents”. “What is food poverty?” asks another. “The choice to have a bowl of porridge oats at 7.5p per serving or a bowl of chocolatey sugary cereal at a much higher cost per serving?”

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Let Them Eat Porridge!

In the right-wing, libertarian mind, porridge has become the cure-all for food poverty: it’s cheap, it’s good for you and it is imbued with a nostalgia of sturdy old-fashioned British grub. Never mind that this nostalgia seems rooted in Dickensian poverty.

But the commentary on porridge hides an inconvenient truth about the cost of living crisis and the costs of being poor, at a time when inflation has hit a 30-year high of 5.4%.

Let’s take the price analysis first. Whether your bowl of porridge rings in at Baroness Jenkins’ 4p or Oakeshott’s £1 a packet, the cost of porridge goes beyond the oats. It requires electricity or gas to heat the milk or water, it requires a pan to cook it in, it requires time and it requires a topping such as honey, fruit, jam or syrup (plain porridge is no one’s first breakfast choice).

People living in poverty are more likely to be on prepaid gas and electric meters, meaning their energy costs tend to be higher as they miss out on the best fixed rate tariffs. Five minutes on a gas hob clocks up a few kilowatt hours, unlike pouring “chocolatey sugary cereal” into a bowl. 

Around four million households in England are classed as fuel poor, as are 25% of households in Scotland, 12% in Wales, and 18% in Northern Ireland. Now, with energy costs set to soar, a further two million homes are at risk of falling into fuel poverty. This comes at a time when food costs are already going up, including the cost of porridge, and the removal of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit took up to £1,040 a year out of the poorest families’ budgets.

The rising cost of fuel means that low income households are set to spend 18% of their income on energy bills. Suddenly, 4p a bowl isn’t so realistic.

Then there’s access to a hob or microwave to make the porridge in the first place. Nearly 125,000 children are currently living in temporary accommodation such as hotels or hostels. People living in temporary accommodation often have to share cooking facilities or have no access to cooking equipment at all – a situation worsened by the Coronavirus lockdowns. In a survey by Shelter, a third of respondents said that they struggled to prepare food and eat properly during lockdown because of inadequate cooking facilities. 

Speaking in 2019, a homeless mother shared how she couldn’t even go to the food bank to get porridge or tinned goods to feed her daughter “as there was nothing in our accommodation to cook with. We were living off fast food, or what friends could give us”. She and her daughter were housed in a hotel for nine months.

Women with histories of gender-based violence who are housed in mixed-sex spaces have spoken of their discomfort of sharing facilities with men, meaning that they are less likely to take advantage of communal cooking spaces. How can you cook porridge when the kitchen is a threatening place, or when you have no kitchen at all?


Food or Fuel?Human Cost of the Energy Crisis
Sian Norris

The Joy of Food

In the UK today, around 1.8 million children are now growing up in very deep poverty, meaning that the household’s income is so low that it is completely inadequate to cover the basics. This is an increase of half a million in the last decade.

Food poverty is not an individual failing or a choice – it’s not a question of picking Sugar Puffs over porridge. It’s a combination of poor housing, rising energy costs, the cost of food and the time needed to cook and prepare healthy meals. 

In one ironic way, Baroness Jenkin was correct in that there is a lack of cooking knowledge. Such ignorance spans wealth demographics, not just families living in poverty. Cooking rates are highly gendered – only 46% of men cook for themselves every day compared to 71% of women – and 2014 statistics say one in 10 British people don’t know how to cook. There is a need to provide practical advice on how to cook healthy and nutritional meals across the board. 

But cooking skills are meaningless if you can’t afford the oats, and the honey or jam, and when facing a choice between food and fuel. They are meaningless when there are no facilities to cook with or no accessible space to cook in. 

While porridge with honey or fruit is a nutritious and warming breakfast, it is just one meal. It’s hard to believe those preaching the benefits of oats would think of feeding their (real or hypothetical) children the same dish, day in, day out, creating a misery out of mealtimes.

Even children living in poverty deserve a tasty treat, don’t they? 

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