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Sensemaker: Nightmare of wheat

Sensemaker: Nightmare of wheat

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Boris Johnson said he wouldn’t resign, despite publication of a report on 16 parties that broke lockdown rules at Number 10.
  • US Senate Democrats said they would spend ten days trying to find common ground with Republicans for a background check law for gun-buyers after Tuesday’s massacre in Texas (more below).
  • A 26.2 metre wave surfed off Portugal two years ago by Sebastian Steudtner, 31, was confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest ever ridden.

Nightmare of wheat

Glance at a world map, and you might barely notice the Black Sea. The ancient Greeks called it Πόντος Εὔξεινος, the hospitable sea, but that rings hollow as the war in Ukraine enters its fourth month. It may be the centre that cannot hold.

A fleet of Russian warships and submarines patrols the waters off Ukraine. Given nearly all grain exports from Ukraine are shipped via Black Sea ports, that’s a huge problem. David Beasley, head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), warns that the world has weeks not months to act before poorer countries face starvation, death and mass exodus. 

Overnight, Russia’s defence ministry reportedly claimed it would open a corridor to allow ships to leave the Black Sea ports. Not a moment too soon – but only if Russia can keep its promise.

Ukraine is the breadbasket of the world. Its flat plains and deep black soil allow it to grow enough food for 400 million people. And the Black Sea, as we explain in this week’s Slow Newscast, is the start of its conveyor belt. In around thirty days a container ship can get all the way from Odesa, on Ukraine’s east coast, to Busan, a port city in South Korea.

In peacetime, Ukraine accounts for 50 per cent of the world’s sunflower oil exports, 18 per cent of barley, and 12 per cent of wheat. That wheat share might seem small. But Ukraine caters mainly to poorer countries.

These figures don’t tell the full story: if a country relies on Ukraine for wheat imports and depends on wheat imports more generally, it is in the danger zone. Libya, Lebanon and Laos are at this intersection.

The Lao people don’t eat much wheat (Laos has the largest sticky rice consumption per capita in the world). But Lebanon and Libya are especially vulnerable to the Russian blockade because, respectively, wheat products make up 36 and 33 per cent of their daily calories. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer in tonnes, is another country in trouble.

You don’t have to be a consumer of Ukrainian wheat to feel the impact of its choked supply. “This conflict doesn’t seem like a world war now,” says Scott Reynolds Nelson, a historian and author of Oceans of Grain. “But it is in a way: transmitted by food prices.” The likes of Syria, where the cost of basic foods has risen by 800 per cent since 2019, can ill afford further price shocks.

Beasley envisions a scenario in which Odesa and the other Black Sea ports fail to reopen. Price hikes and food shortages, he says, would create a “ring of fire” stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, and taking in central America, the Middle East, Asia too. 

It could be the Arab Spring on steroids, coming at a time when 276 million people are already heading towards starvation. Mass migration, destabilisation, and death are plausible outcomes: the UK transport secretary Grant Shapps has said a failure to reopen the Black Sea ports could lead to a global famine that might kill more people than the war itself.

Luckily the world has woken up. 

The European Commission estimates Ukraine needs to export 20 million tonnes of grain by the end of July, not just to feed the world now but to empty its silos ahead of the next harvest. It has proposed “solidarity lanes” to make it easier for Ukraine to export grain overland to EU ports; these lanes would ease checks and free up all kinds of transport to help with a task the Commission has called “gigantesque”. One estimate suggests the Commission will have its work cut out to transport by other means what’s usually carried by container ships.

If workarounds don’t do the job, the Black Sea ports need to reopen. That, on the face of it, requires one of two things to happen: 

  1. Russia allows vessels out; or 
  2. the West muscles its way in.

Russia said overnight it would allow foreign ships to leave Ukrainian ports, but the making and breaking of promises of humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol suggests restarting grain shipments won’t be straightforward.  

Odesa was founded by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, who established the city as a grain centre in the 18th century. It has an almost mythical status among Russians that will hardly have been lost on Vladimir Putin, who spent much of the pandemic absorbing a quasi-mystical version of Russian imperial history. He hasn’t conquered Odesa, but as long as he threatens it from the sea he might think he has a chance.

Western military intervention seems unlikely given Nato’s reluctance to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but what looks like humanitarian assistance might tempt maritime war.

An EU official has previously told Tortoise they are working with Turkey and the UN to try to set up a sea corridor in the Black Sea, not necessarily with Russia’s consent. Civilian vessels would sail the gauntlet of drifting sea mines out of Odesa, then hug the coastlines of Bulgaria and Romania – both Nato countries – down to Istanbul.

The official didn’t suggest the Black Sea channel would be enforced militarily. But this week Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, suggested it could be protected with ships or planes. That would raise the risk of a direct clash between Nato and Russia, something the West has been at pains to avoid. Russia’s deputy foreign minister has said a Western escort of grain-carrying vessels would “seriously exacerbate the situation in the Black Sea”.

Beasley, from the WFP, told Tortoise the world has 60 days to reopen the Black Sea ports. That was three weeks ago. Perhaps someone, somewhere, believes Putin might look into his heart and think of his two-year-old brother Viktor, who died of diphtheria and starvation in the siege of Leningrad. No one would bet on it.

Odesa was the focus of this week’s Slow Newscast. Listen in the Tortoise app. It was reported by Nina Kuryata and James Harding, and produced by Xavier Greenwood.


Santa Sunak
The UK’s chancellor is to spend around £10 billion helping households with the soaring cost of energy, and to pay for much of it with a windfall tax on oil and gas profits such as the £12 billion reported by Shell and BP between them for the first quarter of this year alone. Never mind that two weeks ago the Johnson government was ruling out a windfall tax as anti-investment and quintessentially Labour. Times change. Events happen, and lockdown party scandals have to be moved on from. Details of Sunak’s revised energy assistance package come later today but he’s expected to raise and maybe double an earlier pledge of £200 per household, and turn it from a loan into a grant. The Institute for Fiscal Studies points out that anything going to all households is inherently regressive, and that cash injections on this scale could fuel inflation. One Tory MP told the FT: “Most of us are resigned to the fact that [Johnson] won’t be going but that we’ve lost the next general election.” We’ll see.


Russification 1.0
Putin has ordered that Russian passports be fast-tracked for Ukrainians in newly Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine, whether they want them or not. A decree he signed on Wednesday doesn’t make holding a Russian passport compulsory, but does make it easier to apply and to get Russian citizenship into the bargain. Kyiv denounced the decree as a flagrant violation of international law – a bit like the invasion itself – but the Moscow-appointed deputy leader of the Kherson region said it showed Russia was there “not just for a long time but forever”. The playbook is familiar from Moscow’s antics in eastern Luhansk and Donetsk after its incursions there in 2014. But Russian-speaking minorities are not the same thing as pro-Russian minorities, especially in the south. The insurgency is only just beginning.


Revenge porn software
A big problem for victims of image-based sexual abuse (revenge porn), aside from the obvious ones, is that once images and videos are online it’s a whack-a-mole task to remove them from the internet. The process can be traumatising and, for many, futile. PimEyes, a facial-recognition website, says it’s making it easy to search for images of yourself to protect your privacy, including pornography – for £29.99. But as CNN reports it throws up some knotty ethical issues. Cher Scarlett, a software engineer, initially used the site to see why Facebook might be tagging her face in relatives’ photos and was shocked to find images from when she was sex-trafficked as a teenager. After a lengthy dispute with PimEyes she has managed to opt-out of the service, but some explicit images still appear tagged with words like “abuse” and “torture”. Although Scarlett could and ultimately did use the service to find and remove images, the site’s opt-out model means that without this sort of proactive effort, stalkers, employers or anyone with a headshot could also find those images with the click of a button. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

How to stop shootings
Ban guns. It’s that simple. Two days on from the mass shooting in Uvalde, Washington is going through familiar motions leading, it’s safe to assume, nowhere. And part of that is the recycling of defeatist talking points in the conservative US press. The WSJ has an editorial on “young men, guns and guardrails” in which it blames recent mass shootings on “a deeper [social] malady than gun laws can fix” and asserts blandly that “the problem of how to stop mass shootings by disturbed young men is one of the hardest in a democratic society”. This is not true. WSJ editorials aren’t usually bland. They’re usually stilettos. But this one is blind too. The UK is a democratic society that banned handguns after the Dunblane massacre in 1996. It’s seen one mass shooting in the 26 years since, and that shooting wasn’t carried out with handguns. So bans work. US gun advocates say their constitution rules out any such thing in America, but that’s not true either. Amendments can be amended – and abolished. It’s all part of democracy. Voters just have to want the change.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

China cuts
Xie Zhenhua has obviously been reading Sensemaker. Two days ago we said his Cop26 pledge of peak Chinese carbon emissions by 2030 would be hard to keep. Yesterday in Davos he said, au contraire, that China was moving to beat its own targets, not only for peak carbon but also for carbon neutrality, for which the self-imposed deadline is 2060. Good luck with all that. Seriously. The Paris goals are way out of reach without this sort of overachievement, but all the important Chinese indices – coal, oil and gas usage; coal, oil and gas imports – are going in the wrong direction.  

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Xavier Greenwood

Katie Riley

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, AP/Shutterstock

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