The war between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted the world’s dependence on wheat supplies from both countries. The European Union has recently published a study presenting a sample of 25 African countries that depend on wheat supplies from Russia or Ukraine; 21 of them import most of this cereal from Russia.
Between 2018 and 2020, Africa imported $3.7 billion worth of wheat from Russia (32% of the continent’s total import) and $1.4 billion from Ukraine (12% of the continent’s wheat import). ).
African countries should diversify their sources of this cereal for two main reasons. It is an essential food in the diet, so its absence could cause famine and political instability. Furthermore, Africa’s dependence on Russian imports will influence political and military decisions.
The wheat in political decisions
In the two votes in the United Nations General Assemblies related to the Russian invasion in Ukraine, this dependency could have influenced decision-making. In both cases, a surprising number of countries supported Russia or remained neutral, probably in an attempt to avoid conflict with a good supplier.
Over the centuries, the origin of wheat supplies has influenced the strategic and political decisions as well as the security of many countries. In the 5th century BCE, authorities from the ancient Greek city-state of Athens turned to parts of Egypt, Sicily, Syria, and the Black Sea to fill Athenian granaries, a pattern that has often been repeated in history. World history.
Nazi Germany dealt with food shortages with the Hunger Plan, a policy of seizing food in the Soviet Union for German soldiers and civilians.
During the Cold War, the United States used its advantageous position as one of the leaders in wheat production to influence policymakers and consolidate support between states. Exports of this grain accompanied US military deployments around the world. And, in 2022, the geopolitics of wheat is once again in the spotlight due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As foreign affairs experts with a focus on Africa’s political economy, trade and agriculture, we would like to highlight the dependence of many African countries on wheat supplies from these two warring nations and highlight the need for import diversification. of this cereal on the African continent.
world wheat supply
Russia and Ukraine are among the ten largest wheat producers in the world (mostly located in the northern hemisphere) and among the five largest exporters. Together, both countries represent 27% of world cereal trade.
In the days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world price of food was on the rise. Several factors affected this increase: harvests were below average, transportation costs increased, and supply chains suffered disruptions due to covid-19.
The war has aggravated global uncertainty, destabilized the agri-food market and further increased the global prices of food and agricultural materials such as fertilizers.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, concerns about disruptions in wheat supplies, especially in the Black Sea region, have pushed wheat prices up significantly. Between January and February 2022, global wheat prices increased by 2.1%, which may have knock-on consequences given the importance of bread in daily diets around the world.
The impact in Africa
The increase in food prices poses a double threat as it raises the levels of food insecurity and poverty.
Wheat is a cereal that is consumed throughout the African continent. Between 2000 and 2009, only in sub-Saharan Africa its consumption increased by an average of 0.35 kg/year, which makes it exceed corn and rice. In addition, it became a staple food and a crop of great importance due to rapid population growth, increased urbanization and changes in food preferences. In Africa, consumers use wheat to prepare simple and quick foods such as bread, cookies, pasta, noodles and porridge.
Even some countries such as Morocco, Egypt and Sudan are supplying bread to disadvantaged communities to alleviate hunger and malnutrition. However, although the consumption of wheat is widespread on the African continent, the cultivated fields are relatively few compared to the large producing regions, especially those in the northern hemisphere. The reasons vary between extreme weather conditions, water scarcity, poor soil quality and poor irrigation systems.
The lack of producing regions in Africa has resulted in dependence on imports to meet the need and demand for wheat. In 2020/2021, for example, the import of the cereal in the continent reached 54.8 million metric tons, while production totaled 25.7 million tons.
This situation highlights the need to diversify wheat imports in African countries and to invest in expanding local production capacity.
As an example we have Egypt, the country with the largest import of Russian and Ukrainian wheat. The nation will use its own reserve of this cereal, with a supply estimated to last until the end of 2022, with the hope of securing other imports before then. If Egypt fails to secure other imports, the escalating cost of wheat could severely affect the Egyptian government’s ability to maintain bread prices due to its subsidized status.
The current government has warnings in Egyptian history of what to expect if bread prices continue to rise. In 1977, President Anwar Sadat attempted to raise bread prices, sparking deadly protests that did not subside until the decision was reversed. These warnings that are part of their own history, along with the historic protests of the Arab Spring, are difficult to ignore.
Several national, regional and continental organizations have recognized the urgent need to increase wheat production in Africa to avoid these scenarios. Due to the war between Russia and Ukraine, the African Development Bank intends to raise US$1 billion to help 40 million African farmers use climate-resilient technologies and increase their yields with heat-tolerant varieties of wheat and other crops.
In the two votes in the European Union General Assembly demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, only slightly more than half of the African votes were in favor of Ukraine, while the others either abstained or voted in favor of Ukraine. against the resolution. Most reports on Africa’s split votes focused on politico-military alliances and political and ideological leanings. However, the power of food, particularly wheat, has been largely ignored.
The Russia-Ukraine war has shown, above all, that many countries on the African continent need to diversify their wheat imports and invest to become self-sufficient. It must be done urgently in order to protect oneself from global crises, whatever their origin.
This article has been translated with the collaboration of Casa Africa. Translation: Lilian Navarro Molina.