Planet Hunger: Inside the Global Food Crisis
WITHOUT ENOUGH FOOD, there is only hunger, chaos, and violence. Russian President Vladimir Putin not only knows this better than anyone, he has also weaponized it. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he has deliberately disrupted the country’s wheat supply, triggering a global food crisis. Ukraine is the sixth-largest exporter of wheat in the world, and — by blockading Ukrainian ports, blowing up rail lines, stealing grain, and killing farmers — Putin has effectively taken about 20 million tons of wheat off the market. Global wheat production is about 850 million tons, so this is hardly enough to cause a global famine. But it is enough to cause the price of wheat to jump more than 60 percent already this year. In the U.S., where the average American spends less than 10 percent of their income on food, this will hardly be noticeable. But for people in the developing world, many of whom spend 40 percent or more of their income on food, that could mean the difference between eating and going hungry. High food prices have already had a devastating impact in poor nations, pushing 20 million people into starvation in sub-Saharan Africa alone, and sparking riots in Sri Lanka.
This crisis, however, is in some sense artificial, given that it is not driven by any actual shortage of food in the world. Even with the Ukrainian wheat off the market, there is still plenty of grain to go around. The issue is all about how much it costs and how it is distributed. And Putin is not the only one who is exploiting this situation. Commodity traders make money off wild price swings, shippers make money off people desperate for grain, fertilizer manufacturers make money off farmers desperate to maximize their yields, and proto-fascist politicians are happy to exploit rising food prices as evidence of the failure of democracy.
Behind the immediate food panic, however, a much bigger and more worrisome crisis looms. “The war in Ukraine has shown how fragile the food system is,” says Thomas Jonas, the CEO and co-founder of Nature’s Fynd, a company that uses fungi to make meat and dairy substitutes. Simply put, the way we grow and distribute food is deeply fucked up. More than 40 percent of the food grown in America is wasted, the majority left to rot and the remainder tossed out by finicky consumers who decided they didn’t like the sauce on their pasta. Here in the U.S., we use hundreds of millions of tons of corn and soybeans to make fuel for gas-guzzling cars and trucks. We slaughter animals in factory farms that are both inhumane and breeding grounds for pathogens and bacteria. Fertilizer runoff clogs rivers and lakes with nutrients, producing algae blooms and aquatic “dead zones.” In the western U.S., aquifers are being drained to irrigate water-intensive crops like rice and almonds. In northern India, one of the prime food-growing regions of the country, groundwater is being pumped out so fast that the water table is falling by about three feet a year.
And now it’s about to get a whole lot worse. For one thing, the world population is projected to grow from 7.9 billion today to nearly 10 billion by the end of the century. To meet the expected demand for food by midcentury alone, global agricultural output will have to rise by more than 50 percent. How is that gonna work? The World Resources Institute took a hard look at the way things are going, and estimated that it would require clearing at least 1.5 billion acres of forests, savannas, and wetlands for new farmland, an area nearly twice the size of India. Meanwhile, food productivity is already in decline due to rising temperatures and extreme weather. One recent Columbia University-led study found that crop production today is 21 percent lower than it would have been without climate change. Another study, in Nature Food, projects that an alarming decline in staple crops like corn and rice — which, along with wheat, provide half the world’s calories from plants — may begin as early as 2040. As Donald Ort, a professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, put it to me recently, “The largest single global change that threatens food security is high temperature.”
People queue to buy bread outside a bakery in Beirut, Lebanon April 12, 2022. MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS/ALAMY
In this sense, Putin represents a danger to the world that is far greater than an immediate spike in wheat prices. Putin’s empire is financed by Russia’s vast reserves of oil and gas, which are the main reason why the planet is warming so quickly. And a hotter world is a hungrier world. “Putin is a chaos agent,” says Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present. And nothing says chaos quite like millions of hungry people on a rapidly warming planet.
The tragedy is, it doesn’t have to be this way. America is the Saudi Arabia of food. We could cure world hunger in six months if we wanted to. But our food system is not engineered for the greatest good. It is engineered for the greatest good of those who control the food supply. Or, as Oxfam’s director in Somalia, Senait Gebregziabher, once put it: “Famines are not natural phenomena, they are catastrophic political failures.”
Ukraine has some of the richest soil in the world. It is dark, aerated loam full of worms and bacteria that make crops happy. Farmers have been growing wheat there for centuries, and shipping it around the world via the Black Sea ports. As a result, the region has long been coveted by Russian leaders. In 1768, Russian tsarina Catherine II sent more than 100,000 Russian troops into what is now Ukraine. Her goal: to capture the region and use control of wheat to dominate Europe. “Odessa became a grain-exporting boomtown and made the tsars who followed Catherine and their landowning nobility rich,” writes historian Scott Reynolds Nelson in Oceans of Grain, a new book about how the wheat trade shaped the world.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became an independent state and grain exports boomed. In 2021, Ukraine accounted for nine percent of world wheat trade. Much of the grain goes to poor countries in the developing world. For example, Eritrea gets nearly half of its wheat imports from Ukraine. Lebanon gets 70 percent. And whatever wheat these countries don’t get from Ukraine, they get from Russia, which has become the largest exporter of wheat in the world.
The one lesson that Putin absorbed from Russia’s long struggle for control of the Ukrainian wheat fields is that whoever controls the wheat fields controls the stability of Europe and, by extension, much of the Western world. That was true in the 18th century, and it’s true today. The corporatization of the world’s food supply and the increasing dependence on processed food mean the demand for wheat has been rising steadily. Bread, noodles, pasta, cookies, crackers — they require the unique gluten qualities of wheat. Wheat is the fuel for our fast-food planet.
When Russia’s invasion began, the Ukrainian wheat fields were one of Putin’s first targets. Russian troops occupied farms, destroyed machinery, and blockaded ports where grain was shipped. Putin and his cronies were not coy about their intentions. Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said in April on Telegram that food is the Kremlin’s “silent but menacing” weapon. “We will not deliver our products and agricultural products to our adversaries,” Medvedev said. Or to put it another way: You can join us, or you can starve.
Ukrainian soldiers pass farm equipment destroyed by Russian tanks on May 14, 2022. JOHN MOORE/GETTY IMAGES
Ukrainian farmers have not given up. As the bullets fly around them, many of them are still at work in the fields, wearing armored vests and plowing around bomb craters, struggling to get seeds in the ground. But for Putin, the blockades and the interruptions of grain shipments have already had the intended effect, causing price spikes in developing nations that depend on Ukrainian wheat and sparking wider fears about a global food crisis. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said that Ukraine-related shortages could help “tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity.” The result could be “malnutrition, mass hunger, and famine in a crisis that could last for years.”
Food prices and inflation have already contributed to riots and protests in Indonesia, Pakistan, Peru, and Lebanon. In Sri Lanka, scarce food, combined with price increases, blackouts, and gas shortages, led to mobs in the streets and calls for political change. In Iran, violent protests erupted after the government raised the prices of bread, cooking oil, and dairy products. Iranians’ situation is made worse by tough U.S. sanctions and a tyrannical, corrupt clerical regime. If living standards continue to fall, there could be a revolution similar to the aborted uprising of 2017-18.
For Putin, this is all good news. Chaos and hunger give him leverage against less-corrupt leaders who can’t stomach starving children for political gain. As Ruediger von Fritsch, a former German ambassador to Moscow, told Der Tagesspiegel: “Putin is hoping that disruption of grain supplies will lead to a migration crisis with starving people fleeing to Europe. This will destabilize the EU and push them to soften sanctions on Russia.”
It doesn’t help that the food system is ripe for Putin-style disruption. Exhibit A: the commodity traders who pumped up food prices that led to the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010 and 2011. Wheat, corn, rice, and other basic foods are priced and sold as commodities on global markets, no different from oil or gas. And while big producers and consumers use long-term contracts to buy and sell commodities, traders are more active on spot markets, and thus capable of driving short-term price spikes. In the book The World for Sale: Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources, authors Javier Blas and Jack Farchy suggest that in 2010, Glencore, a big commodity and trading company, used information it had to hype up fears of a grain shortage and prod the Russians into imposing an export ban on wheat. The Russians obliged, and the price of wheat skyrocketed. What Glencore failed to disclose, however, is that the company had bought up corn and wheat futures, putting itself in a position to profit from the jump in prices it had helped manipulate. “Between June 2010 and February 2011, the price of wheat more than doubled,” Blas and Farchy write. “Glencore was perfectly positioned to profit from the crisis it had played a role in stirring up. The company’s agricultural trading unit reported earnings of $659 million in 2010, the best year it ever had and well above the earnings of Glencore’s oil and coal traders combined.”
It’s one thing to make a little money in a shady commodities deal. But this shady commodities deal had big reverberations. Rising food prices in 2010 and 2011 ignited protests that swept dictators from power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, and a protest movement in Syria spiraled into one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts in the region’s history. Rising food prices may not have caused all this chaos, but as Putin well knows, it was certainly a big part of the equation.
Fifth generation wheat farmer Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) on his 1800 acre farm in Big Sandy, Montana. PHOTO BY MELINA MARA/"THE WASHINGTON POST"/GETTY IMAGES
On the high plains of Montana, the rows of green winter wheat growing in the parched brown fields look like rows of money. Here, the food panic feels a lot like a gold rush. This is a global tragedy, to be sure, but if you have wheat coming up out of the ground, there is money to be made.
In places like Big Sandy, at the foot of the Bear Paw Mountains, where Montana wheat grows best, the green fields of winter wheat are still a few weeks from harvesting. Meanwhile, the spring wheat planting has already begun. Everywhere you go, you see tractors crisscrossing the fields, dust billowing behind them, pulling the machines that push the wheat seeds into the ground.
On a recent Sunday morning, one of those tractors is being driven by Montana Sen. Jon Tester. He is one of the only working farmers in Congress, and his family has been working these same fields on the high plains for 110 years. His farm covers 1,800 acres, on the small side for Montana. He works it mostly himself, with help from his wife, Sharla, and his son, Shon. Most every Thursday evening, he flies from Washington, D.C., to Montana, works in the fields through the weekend, then flies back to D.C. on Monday morning.
At about noon, Tester pulls his tractor over, and he and I sit in the middle of the wheat field and talk about what it means to be a Montana wheat farmer in the middle of a global food freakout. He is a rough-looking man, with a Fifties-style flattop haircut and three fingers missing from his left hand, from a nasty encounter with a meat grinder when he was nine years old. He is wearing a raggy gray sweatshirt that says “Hellgate” across the front, and worn leather boots.
The high price of wheat is nice, Tester says, but the price of diesel and equipment is rising fast too, so it doesn’t feel like much of a gold rush. “In the short term, it’s great,” he explains. “In the long term, it’s bad. Long term, wheat prices drop off and equipment prices stay up.” He calls Putin “a complete buffoon,” and he is worried about hunger causing political chaos, which plays into Putin’s hands. “When you’ve got hungry people,” he says, in a masterpiece of understatement, “that’s never good.”
But what he’s really worried about is rain. Last year, Tester says, was the worst year his family has seen on the farm since at least the 1940s, thanks to drought and weird hailstorms, and an invasion of grasshoppers that ate everything. And this year, Tester is worried that it will be just as bad. The region is in extreme drought again. In fact, he is worried about more than that. He is worried that something has fundamentally changed in the climate of Montana, that the days of growing food on this high-plains desert are coming to an end. In that sense, this global food crisis is just the beginning of hard times to come. “Montana wheat fields can feed the world,” he says, watching a pair of antelope grazing on his wheat in the distance. “But to do that, we need a little rain.”
The best evidence of how fucked up our food system is sits in the gas tank of your car. Roughly 10 percent of the fuel in your tank is ethanol distilled from corn, which is blended into gasoline at refineries on the theory that it is cleaner than gas and helps the U.S. reduce our dependence on oil imported from the Middle East. In fact, turning corn into fuel is one of the great political scams of our time, one that has been supported by every president for the past 30 years (most of whom have, not coincidentally, taken money from ethanol companies), and that demonstrates that the wrath of SUV-driving voters upset by high gas prices is far more terrifying for American politicians than the silent suffering of people who can’t afford to feed their children.
Here is the problem: Converting corn to fuel is tremendously inefficient use of land that could be better devoted to other purposes — like growing food to feed hungry people. In fact, the U.S. and Europe could immediately replace the lost grain exports from Ukraine’s breadbasket by cutting their biofuel production in half. In the U.S., 38 million acres of land — an area larger than Illinois — are devoted to growing corn to help fill the gas tanks of SUVs. By comparison, grain and vegetable crops take up about twice that amount of farmland. You could feed 150 million people on the land that the U.S. devotes to corn-ethanol production. “It doesn’t make any sense,” Tester says. “The history books probably won’t be very kind to us for taking food and putting it into oil.”
Ethanol was first touted by President Jimmy Carter as part of the solution to the energy crisis of the 1970s. It was formalized with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which created a Renewable Fuel Standard, which now mandates that 15 billion gallons of ethanol be blended into fuels each year. This spring, as fuel prices spiked, President Biden turned to ethanol once again, upping the limit of ethanol that can be mixed into gasoline from 10 to 15 percent, in a desperate attempt to show he was taking action to fight high gas prices without doing anything that would inconvenience the drivers of gas guzzlers.
The insanity of the corn-ethanol scam has been clear for a long time. And while the political power of the corn lobby is largely responsible for it, they have been aided and abetted by venture capitalists and entrepreneurs eager to sell the idea that growing fuel on farmland was a revolutionary idea. “Corn ethanol is just a platform, the first step in a much larger transition we are undergoing from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy,” Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla told me 15 years ago, sitting in his posh office in the hills above Palo Alto. Next-generation corn-ethanol plants, Khosla argued, would be much more efficient and environmentally friendly. He pointed to a company called E3 BioFuels that just opened an ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska. The facility ran largely on biogas made from cow manure, and fed leftover grain back to the cows, making it a “closed-loop system” — one that requires very few fossil fuels to create ethanol.
But the endeavor was over before it ever began. The company never recovered from an explosion early on in its operation. E3 Biofuels declared bankruptcy just months after we talked. A company called AltEn reopened the plant in 2015, this time using corn seeds to make ethanol. But it turns out nearly all seeds used in industrial agriculture in the U.S. are covered with pesticides, which polluted the air and water in the region. The plant shut down in 2021, but left behind a toxic nightmare. Bees are dying, people are sick, and residents of Mead are locked in an epic battle to clean up the mess. “There’s no punishment,” one Mead resident told Grist. “They just get away with it.” (The company did not respond to requests for comment.)
In Europe, renewable mandates have had even more perverse effects. For years, fuel producers have received special credits for biofuels, including imported palm oil. The consequences have been both predictable and devastating: In Indonesia and Malaysia, millions of acres of rainforest have been clear-cut and turned into palm-oil plantations. Now, the EU is seeking to implement new policies that will accelerate this trend and promise as much as 20 percent of the continent’s farmland to growing crops for fuel. The result is likely to be more deforestation, higher carbon emissions, and higher food prices. As writer Michael Grunwald puts it, “The only thing most biofuels do well is funnel extra cash to farmers.”
Cash, in fact, is the real crop for most farmers in the developed world. “Farming’s not The Grapes of Wrath,” says Vince Smith, an agricultural economist at Montana State University. “Farmers in Montana are typically managing $7 or $8 million of assets on the farm.” Big farms mean big lobbies that push for subsidies that support commodity crops, like corn and wheat and soybeans, that are grown at massive scale. In 88 countries, governments provide $540 billion a year in agricultural support. In the U.S., Smith explains, subsidies are doled out on a per-acre basis, which means the bigger your farm, the more help you get. According to Smith, 50 percent of all subsidies go to the largest 10 percent of farms. Twenty percent go to the largest one percent of farms. “If you’re a small farm in Mississippi operated by African American producers,” Smith says, “you get very little at all.”
The risk to food security from rising heat begins with basic physics and biology. Like humans, plants live in their own Goldilocks zone. They respond to temperature just like humans do. Except they can’t crank up the A/C if it gets too hot. Yes, plants can move to more suitable climates over time, especially those that regenerate by seeds that blow in the wind or get dispersed by birds. Given enough time, entire forests can migrate to cooler climates. But individual plants, once they take root, are stuck. If it gets too hot, they are in trouble.
Heat increases the metabolism of plants, just like it does in humans. It raises their heart rate, in effect. And that speeds up everything, including the need for water. Plants are between 80 and 95 percent water (humans, in contrast, are 55 to 60 percent water). Water is key for all basic functions, including photosynthesis. Some plants are more efficient than others in dealing with limited water, but the water-heat relationship is absolute: The hotter it gets, the more water they need. “Plants are water-pumping machines,” one biologist tells me.
When it gets hot, plants do more or less what humans do — they sweat (in plants, it’s called evapotranspiration). Instead of sweat glands, plants have tiny openings in the underside of their leaves that release water vapor, similar to pores in human skin. A mature house plant, for example, can transpire its weight in water every day (if humans sweat that much, we’d have to drink 20 gallons of water a day). Even small changes in temperature mean big changes in sweat. “To get a sense of how important temperature is, if you go from 25 to 35 Celsius, you more than double the amount of water needed to maintain a given level of growth,” says David Lobell, an agricultural ecologist at Stanford University. Because of how fast it grows, corn is a particularly big sweater. A single acre of corn in Iowa can sweat about 4,000 gallons a day — enough to fill a residential swimming pool in less than four days.
Heat impacts plants in other ways. It changes the timing of blooms, which can put them out of sync with pollinators. Rising heat makes plants more vulnerable to afflictions like Aspergillus flavus, a fungi that produces a poison that can kill you with one bite. As heat rises, arsenic is sucked up out of the soil by the roots of rice plants, making the rice toxic. Heat also amps up the life cycle of pests that attack many plants. Instead of maturing in 28 days, caterpillars might mature in, say, 21 days. More rapid maturity means more generations of pests in a season, amplifying the damage they can do.
The solutions to creating more heat-tolerant crops is not as simple as it might seem. After all, scientists have tools now that allow them to cut and paste DNA as easily as I can cut and paste the words on this page. You might think that if we can put the proverbial fish gene in a tomato to keep it from freezing, then someone can insert a cactus gene in corn to allow it to withstand extreme heat. But heat-resistance is not a trait, like blue eyes or the color of a flower petal. “Understanding how heat impacts plants is like trying to understand how the body responds to Covid,” Meng Chen, a plant-biology professor at UC Riverside who is working on how plants sense and respond to fluctuations in temperature, tells me. “Understanding it means understanding everything about how a plant lives and grows, because temperature affects virtually every aspect of a plant’s life.”
Alexis Racelis, an associate professor of agroecology at University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, is skeptical about genetically manipulated plants for a different reason: Even if they can work and solve heat-related problems, the seeds of the modified crops will be locked up by big seed companies, furthering the corporate control of farmers and our food supply. “Even if the seed companies come up with some kind of breakthrough, it is not going to help the people in the developing world, where they are starving,” Racelis tells me.
Other researchers are exploring the genetic diversity acquired in thousands of years of domestication. Corn, for example, evolved in a hot place (southwest Mexico). There is surely some sequence of genes that makes some varieties of corn more resilient to heat than others — but how do you find them? “We can find genes for simple traits, but for anything complicated like yield or heat tolerance, it’s just not going to happen,” says Seth Murray, a plant breeder and geneticist at Texas A&M University. “There’s so many different genes in the genome, and they’re all interacting. We would have to grow more corn plants than there are stars in the sky, and measure all of them to figure out the function of all the genes in the genome.” Instead, Murray searches for traits like heat tolerance by planting roughly 7,000 genetic variations of corn and using drones to see which varieties grow best. It’s a way of exploring the genetic diversity that is buried in various strains without having to map the DNA itself.
Another solution to growing food on a hot planet is to move indoors. A few years ago, I met a guy named Jonathan Webb at a tech conference in Idaho. He had a dream about building a giant high-tech indoor farm in Kentucky to turn central Appalachia into the ag-tech capital of the U.S. The dream would create jobs and grow food more efficiently, and with a far smaller carbon footprint, than the old-fashioned way of sticking a seed in the ground, hiring illegal immigrants for the harvest, then loading the yield into 18-wheelers and trucking it all the way to a supermarket near you. I thought it was a noble but crazy dream, given that Webb had a background in solar, not as a farmer. He knew as much about growing tomatoes on a commercial scale as I did.
Tomatoes being grown in AppHarvest’s Morehead, Ky. facility. APPHARVEST
Flash forward five years: Webb and I are walking through a 60-acre high-tech indoor farm near Morehead, Kentucky. His dream had become real: AppHarvest, the company he started shortly before we talked, has gone public and now has a market cap of $300 million. “The old way is broken,” Webb tells me. “This is the future of food.” It felt like a jungle inside, but a well-organized one. Seven-hundred thousand tomato plants grew on scaffoldings, their roots in pods of water. Three-hundred sensors monitor microclimates across the farm, maintaining proper light and humidity. The farm uses 100 percent recycled rainwater. No chemicals, no pesticides, no agricultural runoff. LED lights provide sunlight on cloudy days. Temperature is controlled. And this whole system is cloneable, and will only become more efficient over time. When I visited, Webb was overseeing the construction of two other indoor farms in Kentucky, one to grow berries, another for greens. It is, above all else, a way to make climate partly irrelevant. It’s not hard to imagine a future of high-rise vertical farms.
But vertical farms are not going to feed starving people in Yemen anytime soon. For that, food will have to be grown the old-fashioned way, by sticking a seed in the ground and praying for rain. “People will shift crops around, try new varieties,” Racelis tells me one afternoon as we drive around the farms in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. “But in the end, there is no getting around the laws of physics and biology. When it gets too hot, things die.”
In Montana, I watch Tester climb into his $300,000 tractor and head out into his fields with his $200,000 seeder. The seeder looks like a trailer armed with 50-some big hypodermic needles that inject wheat seeds into the ground. It’s a masterpiece of mechanization, capable of seeding 100 acres of wheat in a single afternoon. Tester’s whole rig, in fact, is a technological wonder: The cab of the tractor has filtered air, a sound system, and a cushy, ergonomic chair. You can plant 100 acres and feel like you never left your living room.
But Tester’s rig also underscores a big truth about modern agriculture: The scale of farming may have changed, and the tools we use more sophisticated, but the process of growing food hasn’t changed since the dawn of history. Tester is doing basically the same thing as farmers in Egypt did 5,000 years ago, putting a seed in the ground, hoping it grows, and that nothing kills or eats it before you can harvest it.
As I drive away from Tester’s farm, I see the senator alone on his tractor, planting wheat on the high plains of Montana, just as his family has done on this piece of land for more than a century. It’s an iconic sight, as American as apple pie. It’s tempting to take comfort in this continuity. But this is a new world we’re living in, one without a rain cloud on the horizon, and miles of drought as far as the eye can see
There are lots of things we can do to make ourselves less vulnerable to food shocks and shortages. Growing more local food would make us less dependent on global supply chains; diversifying what we eat, so we are less dependent on wheat and corn; not wasting land to turn food into fuel, so that the land can be used to grow food for people who are hungry; using better data to understand exactly how much water and fertilizer crops need, so farmers can reduce the waste; fermenting foods from fungi and developing cell-based meats, so that cheap proteins can be grown with far less land and water use. We’re going to need all of these solutions — and many more — to feed the world in the coming decades.
Putin’s weaponization of wheat is a tragedy for hungry people around the world who depend on cheap food to survive. But it is also a wake-up call for the rest of us. Just as the invasion of Ukraine has sparked a movement to get off oil and gas to strip Putin of the source of his power and money, this Putin-driven food freakout should spur the need to change our food system to prepare for the climate-driven shocks that will reshape our world in the future. As with fossil fuels, the political inertia and financial power of the Old World are the biggest roadblocks to change. But the stakes couldn’t be higher. Food is not just a necessity; it is the basis of life itself. A civilization that can’t feed itself is a civilization that is not long for this world.