This article was first published by Lykeion and is reprinted here with permission.
- The global agricultural system as it exists today is a manifestation of 100 years of geopolitical competition.
- The world produces enough food to feed everyone, but hunger is rising, people are getting fatter, and we waste 40% of the food we produce.
- The future of the world will be determined by changes happening in global fertilizer markets and grain markets.
The Importance of Food
Food is the essence of geopolitics. There is no more basic human need than securing access to food and water, and, as a result, there is no more important geopolitical imperative for national governments than to ensure their people do not starve. A government that fails to provide food security will not stand long.
This idea is more deeply embedded in your consciousness than you probably realize. Let’s get biblical for a second. Yeah, I said biblical - where else do you get content on the geopolitics of the Bible other than at Lykeion?
In Genesis 41, Joseph is twiddling his thumbs in a jail cell until he is summoned by Pharoah to interpret a vexing dream. Joseph explains to Pharoah that the dream means Egypt will experience 7 years of plenty – followed by 7 years of famine. Pharoah listens – and appoints Joseph to oversee an export ban on Egyptian grain so that 1/5th of the food gathered during the 7 years of plenty is saved for the 7 years of famine. Joseph ends up being right – and manages Egypt’s agricultural sector so well that the Israelite population of Egypt explodes. Eventually, a new Pharoah rises over Egypt and becomes afraid of the Israelite numbers and decides to enslave them and drown their first-born boys. Ok, we won’t digress much more…
There are two extremely important insights to glean from the story of Joseph and his amazing technicolor wheat tariffs:
- The first is that for most of human civilization, access to food was not assured. Even after the Neolithic Revolution (when agriculture became a thing) and the emergence of large-scale human societies in the crescent of civilization of the Middle East – based largely around rivers as they are more predictable than rain – leaders lost sleep at night over what they would do if a famine occurred.
- We are all used to going to the grocery store and getting non-GMO organic free-range elk meat whenever we fancy it. Most humans that have ever lived have not enjoyed the predictable and stable access to food we treat as commonplace in the Western world.
- The second is that when agricultural yields increase, so does population. That can mean all sorts of good things – economic growth, artistic expression, technological innovation – but it can also mean more conflict. Human brains have been conditioned for millennia to worry about scarcity – so that even when we are rich in resources, we tend to compete for them anyway.
- Remember all that dumb toilet paper hoarding when the pandemic lockdowns first started? The same impulse is behind the depressing fact that the world produces more than enough food to feed almost 1.5 times the global population – and yet global hunger has been on the risefor years.
A Broken System
The global food system today is broken. For decades, a combination of rising incomes, record harvests, liberalized trade, and lower food prices helped decrease global hunger rates significantly. Global progress was so good that in 2015, the United Nations set a goal of eliminating world hunger by 2030. But then things changed.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN was off to a rough start. In 2015, almost 630 million people were chronically undernourished according to the UN, which defines undernourished people as individuals whose food intake falls below the minimum level of dietary energy requirements. "630 million people" sounds like a lot, but it actually reflectedreal progress, as it was equivalent to a 23% decline from undernourishment levels in 1990-1992. That number, however, increased to 690 million in 2019.
- COVID-19 badly exacerbated the situation, as an additional 161 million fell back into hunger. As a result, roughly 1 in 10 people in the world are undernourished today, and that figure is going to rise sharply due to the Russia-Ukraine war. But hold that thought – we’ll come back it in a few.
“So what?” the callous among you might be thinking. Hunger has been a global problem since humans were walking on two feet – that’s not a sign the global food system is broken. It’s just a sign that hunger has been a problem that we’re gradually solving, with ups and downs along the way.
Let’s add in two more mind-blowing statistics:
- Even as hunger is increasing, people are getting fatter. Worldwide obesity rates have tripled since 1975. More than 1.9 billion adults are overweight. Almost 40% of people in the world over the age of 18 years old are overweight. I live in Louisiana, where according to the Centers for Disease Control, the self-reported obesity rate is 38%. Sheesh!
- And perhaps the most depressing of all: an estimated one third of the world’s food is lost or wasted each year. The USDA estimates that food waste in the US is equivalent to 30 to 40% of food supply, corresponding to roughly 133 billion pounds of food, or $161 billion. According to an EPA estimate from 2010, the average American wastes 219 pounds of food every year.
To recap: The world produces enough food to feed everyone, but hunger is rising, people are getting fatter, and we waste 40% of the food we produce. Can you think of another industry in which that kind of waste and these kinds of irrationalities could continue indefinitely, especially given the importance of it to our survival?
The FAO estimates that, to satisfy the growing demand driven by population growth and dietary changes, global food production has to increase by 60% by 2050. You could get most of the way there by just eliminating waste, building better infrastructure, and increasing yields with modern technology in developing markets.
Hopefully, you are now convinced that the global food system is broken. The question then becomes – why is it broken… and what does this have to do with geopolitics? The answers to those questions are one and the same. The way global agriculture works today is an expression of a unipolar geopolitical world.
Our global food system – which has been wildly successful at increasing production and decreasing human suffering – is a manifestation of the rise of the United States as a dominant global power, one whose interests were best served by liberalizing global trade and exporting its agricultural products abroad to developing countries. It is not a coincidence that geopolitics – the discipline of understanding how nation-states will behave based on their imperatives and constraints (read the primer if you haven’t!) – emerged around the same time that a revolution was taking place in global agriculture.
So, let’s review a little bit of history to understand precisely how we got here – and then look ahead with clear eyes, full bellies, CAN’T LOSE.
Revolutions, Demographics, and Calories
The Industrial Revolution, sparked by the advent of steam power in late-18th century Britain, was a tremendously important period in history. Fromroughly 1760-1840, mechanical production led to massive increases in capacity and productivity. The political fallout was transformative. The politics of identity broadened from one’s village to one’s nation. The American and French Revolutions birthed new republics. New nations emerged in Italy and Germany. Europe’s hunger for markets led to the Opium Wars – and the eventual collapse of the Qing Dynasty. The United Kingdom, after winning the Napoleonic wars, gave the Mughal Empire the coup de grâce and created the basis for modern India. Vast multiethnic empires fell one by one, replaced by more homogeneous nation-states. It is difficult to overstate just how much the Industrial Revolution changed the world.
The Industrial Revolution, however, would not have been possible if it were not for its less mentioned precursor: the Agricultural Revolution of the 16th and 17thcenturies.
- The Industrial Revolution was not just driven by technological change - it was driven by a massive increase in global population. This increase was enabled by the Agricultural Revolution, which meant there was more food to support larger population centers than at any prior point in human history. It also meant that young people had to find new work.
- More efficient food production made it less important for young workers to stay and help on the farm. Instead, they flooded cities, going to work in factories in industrial mega-cities, leading to the creation of regional and eventually global markets. The chart below shows cereal yields in the United Kingdom going back to 1270 (the 20th century increases in crop yields overshadow the doubling of yields from 1600-1700 that changed the world).
This Agriculture Revolution wasn’t the result of any one thing. Like all good revolutions, it was a combination of multiple factors. English farmers started rotating their crops with things like turnips and clover instead of leaving fields fallow, the Dutch engineered improvements to the plough, John Locke and his right to life, liberty, and property led to exclusive ownership of land, national markets emerged, selective breeding of crops created higher yield and more resilient crops. Perhaps most significant of all was the eventual use of new kinds of chemical fertilizers, like phosphates, potash, and nitrates. I am probably missing a few, but the important thing to understand is how these developments led to a surge in global agricultural production and with it, population. In 1700, roughly 6 million people lived in Britain – by 1900, the number had climbed to 37 million (+6x increase).
This surge in global population posed unique challenges for national governments, which, just like Pharoah, acutely felt the need to make sure they could ensure security of food supply to keep their burgeoning peoples under control. Geopolitics was one of the ideas that emerged in this era to help understand the relations between new kinds of states.
As Professor Nick Cullather has explored in his book The Hungry World, two equally influential ideas emerged around the same time as geopolitics: demographics and calories.
- Demographics is the study of population data to understand how different subgroups of national populations behave or act. Governments facing populations orders of magnitude larger than their predecessors needed to understand demographics to better provide for/control their citizenry.
- The “calorie” had a similar purpose – it was a unit of measurement designed to allow governments to conceptualize food supply at a national and eventually a global level. Wilbur Atwater, a US Department of Agriculture scientist, believed that calories would “determine the food supply of the future.”
The concept of food calories was indispensable for the global food system as we know it today. Even in the late 1800s, most food humans consumed was from their local markets. The idea of the calorie however meant food could be detached from local customs and tastes, and defined in terms of calories per capita – and governments began to see their job as ensuring an adequate supply of calories to their populations.
Food and War
Geopolitics was developed in a European framework – which makes sense. The United States did not have any rivals on its borders – it had already taken what it wanted from Spain in the 19th century, and neither Canada nor Mexico posed a real threat. As a result, the US’ primary concern wasn’t with balancing against competitive neighbors, but with how to control a geographically vast nation. European states, meanwhile, exist in far closer proximity and were competing both in Europe and around the world for global power. The US ended up adopting European geopolitics when it intervened in World War I – and Europe, in turn, adopted US approaches to demography and calories because it became dependent on US food supplies during the war.
When World War I broke out, it threw Europe into a panic. Because so much of that destructive conflict was waged on European land, it fell to the US to balance the increasingly large European demand for grains with its own domestic requirements. One of the first things the US did when it entered the war in 1917 was to create a national food authority under the leadership of Herbert Hoover. Where European governments had conceived of food primarily in terms of domestic order, Hoover understood that US agricultural production was critical to the US war strategy – and for assuring US security after the war. It was Hoover who saw food as a potential vulnerability – but also as a potential instrument of US power.
Hoover, of course, became president after the war – and he saw food as a potential weapon to be wielded against US enemies. In the post-war environment, those enemies were nationalism, fascism, and communism. Hoover believed that lack of food led to anarchy – and anarchy was what led to the embrace of destructive ideologies like communism and fascism. If the US was to keep the peace after World War I, it needed to use its agricultural power to make sure the masses didn’t embrace those enemies’ ideologies.
There was just one small problem: even after the war, food production was rising too much and too fast for domestic markets to metabolize it, driving food prices down. US agricultural power was increasing, but ironically, US success was driving its farmers out of business. By the mid-1930s, still in the midst of the Great Depression, the US government was buying cattle from farmers and literally shooting them – with a goal of keeping 8 million cattle off the market and ensuring prices wouldn’t keep on falling. England was doing the same with pigs. In Brazil, coffee was burned in train boilers. Millions of bushels of grains sat lonely in silos in countries like Argentina, France, and Canada.
The answer to this problem was to find a way to export surplus food abroad. In 1936, a League of Nations report raised the idea that it was a human right to consume 2,500 calories per day. This wasn’t just for the benefit of the starving consumers – it was also for the benefit of the producers, whose economic futures became tied to exporting 2,500 calories per day per person abroad.
Eventually, Asian countries started absorbing surplus from countries like the US, Canada, and Australia, which allowed farmers in those countries to sell their surplus food for profit. This solved the problem of domestic food prices going down due to increased production and better yields, and allowed countries that could not hope to be self-sufficient – the living embodiments of Malthus – to access enough food to allow them to industrialize and join the civilized world. As of the middle of the 20thcentury, American farmers got to make a buck, global hunger could be reduced, American science and power would become respected globally – and the developing world would not turn to fascism or communism.
The importance of food only increased in the context of the Cold War. The decisive battleground between the liberals and the communists was the developing world. When laying out US foreign policy in 1949, then President Harry Truman talked about bringing science and industrial progress to “underdeveloped areas” (i.e. bringing them food). Democracy was not just about resisting communism – it was about combatting hunger in developing markets. And Truman said the US was the only country capable of bringing the combination of industry and science to the victims of poverty in the world.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating – the above is a declassified map of which countries entered the US’ new “Technical Cooperation Administration” just 3 years after Truman’s four-point speech. These were some of the main ideological battlegrounds of the Cold War, and these battles were not fought on the battlefield, but in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia, in the tropical savannas of Brazil, in the alluvial plains of Punjab. Rural poverty was seen as the critical weak point of the world to communist pressure – and that development would become the primary weapon for fighting the Cold War.
When Nixon eventually took over, he saw the “Green Revolution” as a geopolitical victory for the US – a consolation prize after having failed in Vietnam. We could drone on for many more pages on this subject – like the US using food aid as leverage against India when the latter was critical of the Vietnam War, or the way the Soviet Union was forced to begin importing massive amounts of grains in the 1970s (one of the key reasons why Russia has invested so heavily in becoming a major grain exporter in the last few decades) – but the key point is the global food system today is a reflection of US power, and that as US power declines relative to other national actors, that system is beginning to unravel at the seams.
Where We’re Going
It is possible to draw a straight line between US food production in WWI, to the creation of the FAO and the UN, to US Cold War food policy, right up to the creation of the World Trade Organization in January 1995. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed in on itself, and the US suddenly enjoyed an unrivaled and unipolar moment in global power. The WTO enshrined the geopolitical agricultural policies of the US into global trade flows. Global agricultural trade grew as transportation became cheaper. Low tariffs allowed food exporters like the US to find even more markets to sell to.
In other words: the global agricultural system as it exists today is a manifestation of 100 years of geopolitical competition. It works when all countries agree to buy in – that is, it works when protectionism is discredited, trade is liberalized, and a single power (in this case, the US) guarantees the security of global trade. It is a system for a unipolar world.
Of course, this is true of almost every commodity and manufactured product in the world today. The strain of that system is the reason why car manufacturers are dealing with semiconductor shortages, and why I still haven’t received the new dishwasher I ordered over a year ago. The difference is that you don’t eat microchips or stainless-steel appliances. A nation can survive even if the price of manufactured goods is rising or if the latest Tesla model is late to hit the market. But a nation cannot survive food shortages.
The fear of potential food shortages also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because rising food prices and fears of supply cause governments to enact more protectionist measures to protect their own security of supply, exacerbating the situation for other countries.
- Even before the Russia-Ukraine war, countries like Indonesia, Argentina, China, and Vietnam were dabbling in protectionist food policies.
- A generational drought in parts of South America’s most important agricultural regions and COVID-19 disruptions were already conspiring to send food prices to new records – the FAO’s Food Price Index recorded a new record high in February… before the war started.
This is why the longer the Russia-Ukraine war goes, the more the global food system buckles.
- Russia is the largest exporter of fertilizer and the third largest exporter of cereals in the world. By itself, it accounts for 18% of global wheat exports.
- Ukraine is an important exporter of wheat, corn, and barley, as well as the top global exporter of sunflower oil.
- Russia has already announced a temporary ban on wheat, rye, barley, and corn exports until June 30.
- Ukrainian commercial ports have been closed since the war started, and it is unclear if Ukrainian farmers will be able to plant their spring crops this year due to Russia’s ongoing and increasingly bloody war in Ukraine.
But before we get to the doom and gloom portion of the show, let’s offer some good news. The world is on the cusp of another agricultural revolution.
- In defiance of all the greatest doomsday prognosticators of the last few centuries, from Pharoah to Malthus to Ehrlich, the world continues to find ways to boost food production. The advent of the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and Big Data should help even more, as farmers can program fertilizer and water to feed crops at specific times to reduce waste and boost yields.
- Gene editing should help yield disease and drought-resistant crops, and both vertical farms and synthetic meats offer unique new possibilities to increase production while decreasing waste. Global hunger, food shortages, malnutrition – these are all solvable problems.
Furthermore – while climate change poses unique problems for agricultural yields, it also poses potential opportunities. According to the FAO, agricultural yields due to desertification, urbanization, and climate change will significantly reduce possible crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. It will, however, open new possibilities for Europe, Canada, North America, and South America. The portions of the map in red above are also the parts of the world where population growth is still happening, which means in a certain sense, Hoover’s vision of the world still applies. If the countries in green want to keep the world from falling apart, using their agricultural production to feed the populations in red is a surefire way to prevent political upheaval and the tens of millions of refugees who might leave in search of better lives.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the opposite is happening.
- As a multipolar world emerges, countries that are dependent on food imports are hoarding food, protecting their domestic agricultural industries, and boosting their military capabilities to defend their access to food imports.
- China, Japan, and South Korea, for example, all rely on food imports to sustain their populations, and there is little prospect for them to grow enough food to feed their populations enough, let alone to satisfy their preferences.
- As in the Cold War and the World Wars that preceded it, food is not exempt from global geopolitical competition, and great powers often use food as leverage over a potential rival or even as a weapon to compel countries to do what they want.
That is particularly bad news for countries throughout the developing world that have been purchasing food from abroad for years. Take sub-Saharan Africa for example. Africa contains over 65% of the uncultivated arable land left in the world today, the equivalent of some 600 million hectares of land. And yet the African Development Bank Group estimates that net food imports in Africa will grow from $35 billion 2015 to over $110 billion by 2025 and that undernourishment will increase by 33% over the same time period. The reason is fairly simple: a combination of population growth, bad policies, weak political institutions, and abysmal infrastructure has led sub-Saharan Africa obtaining “just 20 to 30% of yields possible if crop management and resources were optimized.”
Furthermore, many sub-Saharan African nations have focused on cash crops like cashews, coffee, and cocoa, rather than on the staples their populations require, depending on imports for the latter. That’s how free trade is supposed to work – countries are supposed to specialize in growing or making what they are best at, and to sell those products abroad and to buy what it needs with the profits from that trade. It is a pleasant idea, but the deeper the world’s globalization recession and the more multipolar geopolitics looks like a zero-sum game, the worse the situation for those countries which have seen their populations grow not because their geography can handle populations of that size, but because they could always count on importing whatever they needed.
The top importers of Russian cereals include Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Sudan, and Nigeria. Among the top importers of Ukrainian cereals are China, Tunisia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan. These are some of the countries most acutely exposed to the emerging global food crisis due to the Russia-Ukraine War. Beyond the war, however, waits a complete upending of a global food system that has been a century in the making.
Great power competition may get all the headlines, but if you really want to understand how the geopolitics of the world is changing, drill down deep into the intricacies and dynamic changes happening in global fertilizer markets and grain markets. That is where the future of the world will be determined.
This was a long one, so thanks for reading through!
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Jacob L. Shapiro is the Director of Geopolitical Analysis at Cognitive Investments, Geopolitics Editor at Lykeion, and Founder/Chief Strategist at Perch Perspectives. You can follow him on Twitter @JacobShap.