What happens when bread is scarce and grain exporters speak out

When it comes to bread, the conversation can get politically charged very quickly.

From the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, rising prices and food shortages fueled conflict, toppled rulers and toppled regimes.

In the throes of a once-in-a-century pandemic, headlines in many wealthy countries are screaming empty supermarket shelves, panic buying or the sudden craze for sourdough among middle-class home bakers. Poorer countries like Ukraine, a major breadbasket, have restricted grain exports and Vietnam, the world’s third-largest shipper of rice, has banned exports of its flagship product.

The coronavirus has done more than disrupt supply chains, it has reignited a discussion about self-sufficiency tinged with nationalism. At least 10 countries have introduced restrictions on overseas sales of grain or rice since mid-March, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute tracker, and although many of these actions may not not hold, the fact that such threats have been made serves as a wake-call to governments.

As Joseph Glauber, senior researcher at Washington-based IFPRI, said, “Food is a pretty emotional subject when there isn’t enough of it. And even for some developed economies that rely heavily on rice or grain imports, like the islands of Singapore or the UK, the problem could become even more politically urgent.

“Being rich is no longer a guarantee that you will be able to get the supplies you want in tough markets,” said Tim Benton, director of emerging risk research at the Chatham House think tank in London.

Food experts agree that today there are more than enough grains in the world and stocks of essential commodities. What causes some shortages of products such as pasta in retail outlets are distribution bottlenecks triggered by lockdowns. Fear, however, could prompt some countries to further strengthen their agricultural sectors.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University of London, sounded the alarm in his 2020 book ‘Feeding Britain’ that the UK has a flawed system in which it imports large quantities of crops that are ‘he could cultivate. Singapore announced the establishment of a task force to increase local food production by 2030.

“We are going to see more nationalistic food systems and attempts at food self-sufficiency,” said Rami Zurayk, professor at the American University of Beirut. “But I think it’s mostly political, sending signals to people that the state is actively seeking to protect them and doing all it can to ensure food security. For many countries, food self-sufficiency is elusive.

The last time the concept of “food sovereignty” was brought up was during the food crises ten years ago, when arid countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia discovered that the vast financial reserves built up by the oil sales did not guarantee access to food. Now the nationalists are considering an opportunity to score points.

With multilateralism under siege and populist leaders overseeing agricultural powers from Brazil to India, the debate may continue to gain momentum. In Canada, the self-proclaimed Quebec nationalist and premier of the province is making noise about growing fruits and vegetables at home to become more self-sufficient.

A group of food industry figures urged countries to keep trade flows open in a bid to prevent a dramatic increase in world hunger, while the United Nations said states should work together to avoid global hunger. “Beggar-thy-neighbor policies”.

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There is also a political logic that explains why many countries initiate the rhetoric of withholding food. Romania and Kazakhstan are former communist countries that have boosted their grain exports in recent years, but talks of keeping food in the home still strike a chord with memories of the food shortage during communism. and in the early 1990s.

The chest pounding occurs against a background where the world’s big hitters seem to be protecting themselves. US President Donald Trump criticized China for not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus and even before Covid-19, protectionism was a common refrain.

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And there are reasons to be concerned about food security. In the three years leading up to 2010, when major grain exporters like Russia panicked over limited food supplies and exports in response to poor harvests, it spiked prices.

Political and economic instability ignited across Africa and Asia as people struggled to cope; and Arab uprisings swept across the Middle East, ultimately leading to the refugee crisis that upended traditional politics and strengthened anti-establishment forces in Europe and beyond. Malnutrition has spread.

Organizations, including United Nations agencies and the European Union, said in a report released Tuesday that social and political unrest around the world is on the rise again as the coronavirus crisis fuels discontent amid food shortages, job losses and blockages.

“It’s a hammer blow to millions more who can only eat if they earn a salary,” said Arif Husain, senior economist at the World Food Program. “It just takes one more shock – like Covid-19 – to push them to the limit. The G-20 agriculture ministers pledged to cooperate closely and take concrete steps to guard against any unwarranted restrictive measures that could threaten food security, they said in a statement Tuesday.

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