By Prof Arun Tiwari
Russia and Ukraine contribute more than a quarter of the world’s wheat, supplying billions of people with roti, bread, pasta, and a variety of pastry products. The countries are also key suppliers of barley, sunflower seed oil, and corn, among other products. Ships sail through the Black Sea carrying grains and oil seeds to the world markets – wheat for Middle Eastern and African countries and oilseeds for India especially. With a military conflict that blockaded the ports, trade halted. Commodities are a live trade and material movement, and prices are directly linked. Even a few days of disruption in the supply chain creates a supply deficit, raising the price.
In July 2022, the collective effort of the United Nations and the local power, Turkey, ensured a safe corridor for ships carrying agro-produce from three Ukrainian ports – Odesa, Yuzhny and Chornomorsk. Safe sailing of ships in the Black Sea also benefitted Russia in exporting food and fertilisers to foreign markets. For one full year, it proved a good deal. As the staple food from Ukrainian ports reached markets in developing countries, prices stabilised and the World Food Programme could send supplies to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
In India, edible oil prices did not shoot up to the great comfort of both consumers and traders as beyond a point price increase leads to shrinkage in supply. But then on July 17 this year, Russia walked out of the arrangements – called the Black Sea Grain Initiative in diplomatic parlance – and no one knows when normalcy would return. It appears a long-drawn Sumo-wrestling bout. Could the Ukraine War be prolonged if European countries really stop buying Russian oil?
Is the passage of food-carrying ships called normal? The world is a constant flux of interrelated events. A thick and active web of causes and effects keeps creating events and resolving them, thereby creating new events. It is foolish as well as myopic to consider the safe passage of food ships over the Black Sea as an event of historic importance.
Why the Black Sea is unsafe is the issue! Or is it really the issue? Or is the perennial dependence of African nations on the import of their grains the issue? The failure of Indians to grow sufficient oilseeds in their vast country is the issue. Do diplomats decide the fate of the millions of hungry poor or do their leaders? Who is running this world? The Russia-Ukraine problem is a European problem. Why should it affect people living in Africa and Asia by increasing the prices of their food? But this again is not a new phenomenon.
The two World Wars in the 20th century were born in Europe before dragging the entire world into turmoil. Even the Covid-19 pandemic had a strikingly similar pattern to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. So, where are we and what next? There is a pattern in which events happen but every time, there is also change. The world is changing. It is now connected. And this is not because of some faith, or creed, or empire, but due to technology.
The Internet available on mobile phones has transformed the way people live, work, earn their livelihoods, and organise themselves. Money flows over mobile phones and people can work at distant locations and transact business without physically travelling or meeting each other. This is one transformation.
It has happened, it is palpable, and no one will eventually be able to escape it. The second transformation is the convergence of biotechnology and information technology. It is now possible to see what is happening at a very small scale, a billionth of a metre, called nanoscale. Our fingernails grow about a nanometer every second. That means they grow 86,400 nanometres per day, but even less than a millimetre is too little for us to detect. Of course, over a week we must trim them. So, a new understanding is gained of how plants absorb nutrients from the ground, consume water, and convert energy into material, which eventually becomes fodder and food. Materials display different properties at the nanoscale – a few atoms together in proximity.
It is now understood how seed sprouts and plants grow using energy from water, air, and sunshine. And this understanding has led to control over the phenomena.
It is now possible to grow watermelons in deserts by deploying precision irrigation by proving only the needed quantity of water to the plant. Paddy can be grown without flooding the fields. Sugarcane can be grown using less than half the water now used. The siege of food in the Black Sea is only a symptom. It is a man-made crisis and like every other man-made thing it will be over by a set of events that would emerge out of this impasse. The real siege of food is by climate change and the iron grip of trade over agriculture. Large areas of arable lands in Africa were not cultivated so that the food grown in Europe can be sold to African people and their resources could be taken in exchange.
But even this had consequences and industrialisation pushed the planet into irreversible climate change. Now, we can see floods in great cities wreaking havoc. The rains are short and torrential. The cycle of water delivered by clouds has been skewed, becoming both unpredictable as well as erratic. So, how do we handle this siege of food? More than three-quarters of the global population – and that means six billion people – are at risk from crop failures and hunger from climate change.
They inhabit the global south, spanning sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. It is the world of smallholder farmers who have been poor and vulnerable and aloof from the swipe of the magic wand of the technology that swept through the developed world bringing prosperity and comfort. It is time to take technology where it is needed the most. If timely actions are not taken, which means now, even the people who have relatively high incomes would slide into poverty as food prices increase.
It is ludicrous when policymakers sitting in their modern ivory towers give a call for a switch to less-thirsty crops and ask rice farmers to grow crops that require less water such as maize or legumes while they would not even change the brand of the biscuit they savour. So, rise Africa, rise Asia, rise southern hemisphere, and embrace technology into your livelihoods. If there is a real siege, it is in the minds of the people. Rest all is temporary. Like passing clouds, as it has gathered, so will it disperse.
Prof Arun Kumar Tiwari is an Indian missile scientist and author.