There couldn’t have been a better place than Russia to discuss about the food and energy challenges that Asia in particular and the Global South in general face today. This article was prepared for the Valdai Club’s 13th Asian Conference.
Russia literally is the granary of Asia; and Russia is the powerhouse of the world. In Asia, country after country depends heavily on imports of food stocks like wheat, corn, maize and edible oil on the Black Sea region, one of the six food baskets of the world.
Major Black Sea region countries produce 12 per cent of all food calories traded globally; control 29 per cent of global wheat exports, 19 per cent of maize exports, and a whopping 78 per cent of sunflower oil exports.
It might not be an exaggeration to say that more than a billion stomachs in Asia and Africa go hungry without food supplies from Russia and a couple of other countries in the region.
India, the largest country in the Global South, has been able to achieve self-sufficiency in food production over decades of meticulous planning. Yet, it too depends on imports from the Black Sea region for fertilisers and edible oils.
Situation in other countries in Asia is different. Countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia, with massive populations to feed, have heavy dependence on Russia for food-grains. For example, almost 55% of Bangladesh’s wheat imports happen from Russia and surroundings.
Additionally, in recent decades, Asia witnessed a process called “meatification”. Per capita meat consumption has jumped five-fold in Asia in the last four decades. Countries like India, China and Indonesia have become major exporters of animal husbandry, poultry and fishery. All the above meat production industry requires feed, the main components of which, like corn and soybean, come from the Russian region.
In the last few years, pandemics and geo-political factors have triggered a major food crisis. This crisis, dubbed the worst the world has seen since World War II, is severely impacting low-income countries and communities in Global South. Some 50 countries depend on Russia for their food supply, particularly for wheat, maize and sunflower oils. Majority of these are poor and import-dependent countries in Asia and Africa.
Maximo Torero Cullen, chief economist of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), wrote that “One of every five calories people eat has crossed at least one international border”.
This crisis is leading to two scenarios – one, countries turning to self-reliance or looking for alternative sources of food; two, emergence of new supply lines.
Return to traditional food practices, like millets in India’s case, is one new development. The UNGA has adopted the India-sponsored resolution declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets. Yet, availability and production of millets is a far cry for many countries.
Certain alternative sources of food imports are emerging, like Australia and Canada for corn, and France and the US for wheat.
However, supply chain disruptions caused in the last few years meant shortages of fertilisers and pesticides even in these countries and the consequent shortage of production and corresponding rise in costs.