The Battle for Wheat

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

That is all we needed, folks around the world must be thinking to themselves right now. After Covid-19’s trail of millions of deaths, economic hardships, bankruptcy of multiple businesses, high unemployment, disruption in the supply chains, soaring prices of commodities and food, the US proxy war against Russia in Ukraine is likely to impact the basic food requirements of millions of people around the world.

India bans wheat export to ensure food security. Pic – Business Standard

It never rains, it pours – we are all familiar with this old saying. Misfortunes never come alone. It is generally accepted by the authorities and the nation that keeping the economy afloat will always be an uphill battle in Mauritius; but the island is blessed with frequent rainfalls that maintain the greenery around and keep the agricultural sector going. In two months’ time, prices of tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes, ginger, garlic and other vegetables will be less of a strain on consumers’ budgets.
In India, it is either too little or too much, a real land of extremes. After suffocating heat up to 46° in New Delhi, which sent common folks gasping for breath, thick clouds threaten to break into torrential rainfalls and flood towns and villages. Tons of water unleashed angrily and spiralling out of control are a familiar sight to locals, a prelude to the monsoon season. No good news as well in the north of Pakistan where the heat skyrockets to 50°, and the land is predicted to be uninhabitable for human beings to survive in the decades ahead.

Figuratively, the old adage – it never rains, it pours – also means at this moment a deluge of sanctions falling on Russia. It leaves us wondering how many more sanctions the EU and the US have in store for Russia. Western countries never run short of ideas on how to isolate, weaken and finish off a country they perceive to be a threat to their hegemony on the world stage.

Operation 2000. The Fall of Mariupol

Russia showers a string of bombings on the sprawling Azovstal factory complex where about 2000 Ukrainian soldiers are hiding away, many of whom are from the ‘Nazi’ Azov Battalion. The Ukrainian authorities and western media have up to now lauded the bravery of the soldiers to resist to their last breath.

As I am writing these lines tonight, Tuesday 17th May, news of the surrender of the 2000 soldiers has been released. The identity of a first batch of 265 men is being checked. Contradictory information on the decision of the Kremlin is being issued. First, the safety of the soldiers is said to be guaranteed by President Putin. Then, Russian authorities are quoted as stating in blunt terms that Azov soldiers are “beasts disguised as humans”, which seals their fate before any trial. At best, Ukraine will be relieved if there is an exchange of prisoners. A serious cause for concern is that the soldiers will apparently be taken to Russia for trial. Negotiations going on presently may determine whether the ‘Nazi’ battalion will be condemned to death or not.

Needless to add that journalists of mainstream western media look disappointed at the fall of Mariupol into Russian hands. Western nations have sent weapons, planes, drones, financial aid and men to Ukraine, and the forces have managed to sink two Russian warships. The surrender is therefore viewed as a defeat of the Western alliance with Ukraine against Russia though it is not going to be explicitly admitted in western political and media sphere. For the past week western media spokespersons have been hopefully anticipating a possible victory for Ukraine. With a sullen expression on their faces, they are lauding the humanism of President Zelensky for asking the army to surrender. The truth might be that the former comedian-turned-president is now feeling the heat from public opinion to put an end to the fighting.

What will Putin and his key aides decide? Since 2014, after the coup in Ukraine, 14,000 people were killed in the Russophone region of Donbas, 50 people were burnt alive, hospitals and schools were bombed, and one million refugees crossed over to Russia. Now among the Ukrainian soldiers who have surrendered, there are said to be American, British, and French soldiers. Negotiations are likely to be tough.

End of Special military Operation and the battle for wheat?

On 14th March the Secretary General of the UN warned about the threat of a collapse of the world food system which will impact millions of people. Six million tons of wheat are blocked in the Ukrainian ports of Odessa and Mariupol as access to the Black Sea is under Russian control. Out of its 41.5 million hectares of agricultural lands, Ukraine has lost 30% of the surface area since the conflict. Eritrea, Somalia, Tanzania, Mauritania, and Turkey are 100% dependent on either Ukrainian or Russian wheat.

Russia was the world’s top exporter of wheat in 2021, Ukraine ranked fifth. At an average price of $255 a ton from Ukraine and Russia, the price of wheat has soared to $400 in the US, and at a forbidding price of $485 in France, which makes it hard for poorer nations to purchase from the two western countries. Up to 90 million tons of wheat were consumed in India last year out of a total production of 109 million tons. While India has been the world’s second-largest producer of the commodity, most of it is used domestically. Its share in the global wheat exports has been only around 1%. High internal demand for wheat prompted India to ban its wheat export; Slovakia did the same, and Indonesia banned palm oil exports. Countries are prioritizing national interests first. Hence the scramble for wheat worldwide.

Finally, it all depends on whether the “special military operation”, as defined by Putin for Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, will stop or not. Russia seems willing to halt the operation and invites Europe not to head towards political suicide by boycotting Russian oil. It can be a face-saving exit for all stakeholders. Will Europe listen? France promises more weapons to Ukraine. Overzealous to please its American mentor? Or is the bell tolling for US hegemony?

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 20 May 2022

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