With the progress of the situation in Eastern Europe and the unfolding of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the world's attention has returned to this end of the Eurasian continent. This war is undoubtedly very involved. When talking about the impact of the situation in Russia and Ukraine on the world, in addition to military, sanctions, refugees and oil and gas resources, many analysts also pointed out that Russia and Ukraine are both very important food exporters. , so the current war will also have a significant impact on the worldwide food problem. In fact, the current (March 2022) wheat price surge in the international market has, in absolute terms, caught up with the level of the global food market crisis at the beginning of the 21st century.
On the surface, the current food crisis is only affected by some abnormal geopolitical factors, and after everything stabilizes, the "granary" in Russia and Ukraine may bring the food problem back to normal levels. Yet this line of thinking ignores some of the longstanding structural issues surrounding international food trade. What is rarely mentioned is that the special status of the so-called "granary of Europe" and even the "granary of the world" of Russia and Ukraine is not the result of natural resources, nor is it a tradition since ancient times, but rather a result of the relatively recently formed world food system. part. Moreover, in this pattern, the situation of Russia and Ukraine has also undergone tremendous changes. It once changed from a granary to a grain shortage, and then restored its status as a granary in the past few decades. How did this historical change happen? We first need to understand how the world's food system emerged today, and what the crisis in that system means today.
The so-called food system simply refers to where and how food is traded and consumed in the world economy. In so-called pre-modern societies, local food production and consumption were highly unified. On the one hand, there is a large agricultural population engaged in self-sufficient production, and on the other hand, trade - especially long-distance trade - has not yet developed, and trade has always been dominated by luxury goods. It can be said that for most of human history, there was no so-called international food trade.
All this began to change after the emergence of modern capitalism. We are familiar with the conditions for the development of capitalism, including free labor available for hire, as well as pre-accumulated capital. Such simplistic descriptions undoubtedly tacitly acquiesce that the market will automatically provide cheap and sufficient food for the consumption of urban workers. But this condition does not fall from the sky. For the emerging capitalist industry, the domestic agriculture is not always able to solve the development needs of the country. The development of urbanization and industrialization, as well as changes in rural production relations, have led to a continuous decrease in the agricultural population and an increase in the number of non-food producers living in cities. This has undoubtedly created an unprecedented huge demand for food. At the same time, the division of labor in capitalism is not only domestically, but also internationally, and a "world economy" emerges. Western Europe, especially the United Kingdom, gradually developed capitalist industries, while its dependencies, such as Ireland and eastern Europe, were first reduced to a more disadvantaged place for the supply of living means, the so-called "granary". This was already evident in the so-called pre-modern period, that is, before the dominance of capitalism, but it only began in the nineteenth century as a significant international market phenomenon.
As the earliest major capitalist country, Britain encountered a long-term food problem. Throughout the Industrial Revolution, British agricultural production stagnated, which undoubtedly constrained the development of capitalism. During the crucial century between 1700 and 1850, British cereal production grew by a mere 0.27% per year. Naturally, this was far from enough to meet the needs of the British Industrial Revolution. Great Britain was able to export a small amount of grain for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but after 1800 it became a steady grain importer.
If in the first half of the 19th century, the old British forces could still use the Corn Laws to greatly restrict the import of British grain and the development of the entire world grain trade, then after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the British The bourgeoisie bought cheap food from all over the world, and from then on, the modern food system took shape rapidly. In the 1860s, nearly half of Britain's wheat imports came from Germany and Russia (including Ukraine), with the Americas (mainly the United States) contributing another 30%. Over the next half century, the importance of the New World grew, and Germany gradually withdrew from the grain export market as it industrialized. For more than a decade before the First World War, the only major grain exporter on the European continent was Tsarist Russia, which provided about 15% of the UK's wheat imports, while the Americas provided nearly 60%.
The international food system formed in the half century from the repeal of the Corn Laws to the outbreak of the First World War was maintained by the main industrial country, the United Kingdom, as the import center. The core of this system is that there are a few industrial countries that rely on the export of food from colonies or underdeveloped regions to maintain their industrial accumulation. This situation was broken in "World War I". The disruption of trade, and the ensuing revolutionary movement and civil war in Russia, contributed to the first definitive world food crisis since the Industrial Revolution and the dismantling of Britain's central food system.
The country that began to take over the granary status of Tsarist Russia during this period was the United States. In order to save Europe from revolution, the United States consciously exported large quantities of grain to Europe not only during the "World War I" but also in the reconstruction period after the "World War I". At that time, the United States set up a special food management department, and its leader was the later President Hoover. Hoover declared that America's grain exports were meant to fight both famine and anarchy (revolution). The United States can play such a role because of its superior resource base, but the most important thing is its government's active intervention policy. For example, the US government saves food during this period and mobilizes the public to participate in various dieting campaigns, such as no meat on Mondays, no wheat on Wednesdays, and so on. At the same time, the U.S. government, for the first time in the world, used massive subsidies to manage agricultural production. Soon, the United States accumulated a large amount of grain surplus, which could not be sold. Hoover even began to sell grain to Soviet Russia.
It can be said that during this period, the United States has established a prototype of a new international food system, which is based on the subsidy intervention of a few countries in agriculture, centered on the large-scale production of food surplus in some countries and regions, and the rest of the system. Localities absorb such food surpluses. During the relatively stable and prosperous period after World War II, this American-centered international food system began to be formally established. However, what is different from the "World War I" is that the American system after the "World War I" bought American grain from European countries. After the "World War II", the United States used the Marshall Plan and the European Reconstruction Plan to gradually let (non-socialist) Europe gradually Replicating the US model of subsidy intervention, making Europe an exporter in the international food system.
If it's not Europe, then who's going to buy American (and European) surplus grain? Due to both internal and external factors, the world's food importers have gradually become a large number of third-world countries that were once self-sufficient. In terms of international factors, the United States and a few other countries have food surpluses that need to be sold through food subsidies; in terms of domestic factors, after the third world countries achieve independence, they all have urgent requirements for industrialization. However, as discussed earlier, industrialization and urbanization will inevitably increase the demand for food, which often exceeds the increase in domestic food production. In a few countries, such as China, this growing demand for food is met by a strict planning system and urban and rural planning, that is, putting the rice bowl in one's own hands, but an inevitable consequence is the so-called "tightening the belt and making construction", there will be a period of hard work. In most Third World countries, without a thorough agrarian revolution and rural collective construction, without a Communist Party organization leading the revolution to victory, it is very difficult to "copy China's homework". The approach taken by these places is often to use the international market to solve the problem, that is, to import large quantities of seemingly cheap American grain.
This of course was a seemingly low-cost solution to industrialization that escaped the revolution in rural production relations. This international food system achieved relatively stable international food prices from the 1950s to the early 1970s. But cheap international food also often has a devastating impact on food production in the third world, which is not conducive to cultivating one's own food production, and is gradually subject to the international food market (and the United States). This imbalance also heralds a crisis in the system, as the food exports of a few countries are not always able to meet the food demand of the whole world, and the international market is always in some kind of tight balance. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, net grain imports in East Asia doubled and net grain imports in Africa tripled, while net exports from the Americas increased by only 85 percent during this period.
While this long-term crisis trend was still developing, an "external" factor began to enter the international food system in the 1970s and brought a major shock. This factor is the Soviet Union, which owns the territory of Tsarist Russia that was once the "granary". Before that, the Soviet Union was basically independent from the capitalist world, but in terms of grain, the Soviet Union was basically an exporter for a long time. In the 1960s, for example, the Soviet Union's net grain exports were about the same as the whole of Africa's imports. However, this situation changed quickly after the Soviet Union began to focus on improving the level of residents' food consumption. In the construction of a socialist welfare society, the Soviet people began to move closer to Western-style consumption of meat, eggs, and milk. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, per capita caloric intake in the Soviet Union had reached the level of the United States, and meat consumption exceeded that of the United Kingdom. This required the country to use more grain as feed, and the Soviet Union became a major grain importer in the 1970s and quickly surpassed imports from Africa and East Asia. The former granary seems to have turned into a food shortage. This development path is a new challenge to the existing food system in the center of the United States. This sudden shock also triggered the second time in the 20th century in the early 1970s. , but also the first major international food market crisis after World War II.
The U.S.-centric international food system adjusted accordingly over the next two decades. On the one hand, the United States has greatly increased food exports, and Western Europe, which has long needed to import food, has successfully learned from the United States and transformed itself into a food export region. This market supply has alleviated the impact of the Soviet Union’s entry into the international food system to a considerable extent. . On the other hand, the Soviet Union experienced drastic changes in the early 1990s, and the "shock therapy" adopted by the Soviet leadership brought a huge and irreversible blow to society and the economy. In the prolonged depression that followed, the standard of living of the Russian people (and most of the former Soviet Union) plummeted, which also directly affected food consumption in these regions. Take Russia as an example. After the upheaval of the Soviet Union, Russia's grain production did not increase much for a long time. It was purely due to the decrease in domestic consumption that Russia was able to become a grain exporter at the beginning of this century.
These two conditions contributed to another period of relatively stable international food markets from the 1980s to the end of the first decade of the 21st century. However, its crisis trend is also slowly accumulating. An important manifestation is that, for various reasons, the United States is increasingly unable to support the international food system alone. For example, during the crisis in the 1970s, the United States alone accounted for half of the world's grain market. At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States still accounted for 30%, but this proportion is still shrinking. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, international grain markets were again markedly unstable, with the United States accounting for less than one-fifth of the world's grain exports. Without a central force to maintain it, the existing international food system that has lasted for more than half a century can be said to be slowly disintegrating. This is similar to various international orders based on American hegemony.
Fundamentally, an American-centric international food system is unsustainable. A few developed countries have food surpluses, while most other countries have lost their jobs due to cheap international food, and are able to maintain their industries and cities mainly by purchasing food surpluses from a few countries. This kind of market balance based on a high degree of imbalance is quite fragile. Even if the factors that are deliberately stuck are not mentioned, the gradually increasing food demand in the third world is difficult to be stably satisfied by the food supply in a few places. Not to mention, both North America and Western Europe in the 21st century saw a trend of reducing food supplies at one point. An important reason is that a large amount of agricultural land is used for the production of biofuels. This was one of the reasons for the food market crisis at the end of the first decade of this century.
As has been the case over the past few decades, the old system is still functioning, and the problems exposed by the crisis of the 1970s have not been fundamentally resolved. In the past 2010s, an important new situation has emerged, that is, the re-emergence of the former Soviet Union, in which Russia and Ukraine have played an important role. After the food crisis in the early 2000s, Russia and Ukraine doubled their wheat exports within a few years. This growth in exports is based on substantial growth in domestic production, while domestic consumption remains modest. In just a few decades, Russia's wheat exports have caught up with and surpassed that of the United States, and to some extent has restored the name of the "granary" of the Tsarist Russia period.
Judging from this trend, will a new Russian-centered (or Russian-Ukrainian) food system be formed in the world? Even aside from the crisis caused by the now-prominent geopolitical instability, that is unlikely. As mentioned earlier, Russia's grain exports are based on low domestic consumption. Even in recent years, Russia's domestic grain consumption has not recovered to the level of the early 1990s. That is to say, once Russia's living standards are improved, even if the consumption standards of the late Soviet Union are partially restored, Russia's grain exports are likely to shrink significantly. At that time, who can remedy it? Moreover, the existing petroleum agriculture itself is unsustainable, and its production process consumes a lot of fossil energy and causes significant damage to the environment. From an ecological point of view, it is not feasible to support the entire international food system through large-scale and intensive production of fossil energy in a small number of areas.
So, can the world jump out of the cyclical changes of granaries and food shortages and truly solve the food problem? First, the role of technology is limited. The production of food is undoubtedly greatly influenced by science and technology, but the problem of food goes far beyond the technical level. Past history tells us that technology alone will not solve the food problem, whether it is the Green Revolution of the twentieth century, or the various new biotechnologies that have emerged later. We are not living in Malthusian prophecy. In fact, global food production can fully meet the overall needs of human beings, but the specific international production and distribution system makes this difficult to achieve.
Therefore, we need to fundamentally rethink the international food system itself over the past two hundred years. The emergence of large-scale international food trade is historically the first result of the imbalance of capitalist development, and the emergence and maintenance of the food system will intensify this imbalance. As the first capitalist industrial country, Britain urgently needed to obtain a stable food supply from other societies, and the first international food system that emerged from this effectively supported the stable capital accumulation in Britain and some other countries in the second half of the nineteenth century. . In the second international food system led by the United States, the cheap supply of American food has promoted the capital accumulation of many countries in the Third World for a considerable period after the "World War II", but it has made it difficult for these places to solve the food problem by themselves. new crisis. It can be said that the food system is an important system for the accumulation of global capital, and the food problem is a long-term crisis trend inherent in the development of global capitalism.
This is not to say that the only solution is to cancel the food trade, but to cultivate the ability of various regions, especially the third world, to control their own rice bowls. The more they can protect their own agriculture and farmers, the more they can keep their rice bowls on their own. in their hands, so as not to be swayed by the international food system. At a minimum, this requires that, in these places, the state does not view food production, agriculture and farmers from a short-term economic perspective, but instead takes it as a strategy for overall development and takes food sovereignty in its hands. In fact, China is a good example. Although it also participates in international grain trade, in general, in the long process of industrialization and urbanization, it has successfully achieved independence from the international food system. This is inseparable from the thorough rural revolution in New China and the leadership's long-term emphasis on food security. If China gradually enters the international food system in the future, then China's rice bowl may be as unstable as a large number of third world countries.
People take food as the sky, and the world is the same. The second goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal is to eliminate hunger by 2030, but now it seems that there is little hope. The task before the world - especially the many food-starved underdeveloped countries - is urgent. It is conceivable that, as the decline of American hegemony becomes more and more obvious, various world orders centered on the United States will inevitably usher in unprecedented shocks in the future, including the international food system. In the past, when the food system worked relatively well, the world failed to eradicate hunger and malnutrition. For example, in 2019, just before the outbreak of the new crown epidemic, nearly 700 million people in the world were still trapped in hunger. When the world situation is more unstable, the global climate change is intensified, and the food system is getting worse and worse, more hunger, and even famine, may appear. Whether we can blaze a new path in the coming decades to truly save all of humanity from hunger is a profound challenge we all face together.