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Threat of food crisis looms large over Asia

As long as war continues, food will be used as a weapon by nations without exceptions

The shadow of a helicopter is seen on the field of wheat in Kyiv region amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine on July 14

The shadow of a helicopter is seen on the field of wheat in Kyiv region amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine on July 14. (Photo: Sergei Supinsky/ AFP)

Published: July 18, 2022 10:27 AM GMT

Updated: November 16, 2022 11:46 AM GMT

With wheat supply from Ukraine, Europe’s bread basket, and oil flow from Russia, the second largest producer, almost dried up, the cost of living has gone through the roof in Asia. The impact is felt far away from the battlefield on a scale larger than expected.

For Asia, where the Covid-19 pandemic first appeared, a food crisis is beyond its current means. Hundreds of migrant and unorganized workers, who are the backbone of the Asian economy, are yet to be fully rehabilitated.

Food, like oil, can become a strategic weapon during wartime and this time, it is going to hit oil-importing Asia hard.

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Already, Saudi Arabia – the largest oil producer which considers Asia as its biggest market – has hiked prices of oil for its Asian customers by $2.10 a barrel from June to $6.50 recently, above the benchmark it uses, further plaguing Asia with rising food prices and increasing inflation.

With Ukraine’s ports in the Black Sea blocked due to the conflict, no wheat is forthcoming from Ukraine. Hundreds of millions of people and many donor agencies, including the UN Food Program, worldwide bank on the wheat produced in Ukraine.

Except for India, the world’s eighth largest wheat exporter, most Asian nations depend on imported wheat, putting them at higher risk.

Global wheat prices are up 53 percent since the standoff started in East Europe on Feb. 24, and jumped a further 6 percent last month when India said on May 13 that it would suspend the export of wheat because of an alarming heat wave. 

India’s decision was aimed at curbing the prices of wheat in the domestic market. The din earlier resulted in more than 4 lakh tonnes of wheat for Bangladesh, India's top wheat export destination, being held up in the eastern state of West Bengal.

A kind of food nationalism has come to the fore among major food-exporting Asian nations. They have tied food to their national security and foreign policy.

On June 22, India’s Food Secretary Sudhanshu Pandey said many countries are knocking on the doors of India, requesting the import of wheat.  “We would not like to discuss… This is a matter of foreign policy,” Pandey said, according to the Indian Express newspaper.

India with a 4.1 percent of total global wheat export share in 2020-21 was trying to fill the gap created by Russia and Ukraine, who together account for more than a third of the world’s grain exports.

Despite being the highest producer and the second largest exporter of sugar, India has also come up with curbs on its exports – again to arrest the rising prices in the domestic market.

Nearly 50 countries, including Asian and African nations, depend on Russia and Ukraine to get 30 percent of their wheat imports and for nearly 30 nations this is even beyond 50 percent.

Chicken rice, the beloved de-facto national dish in Singapore, has become costly and limited in supply because of the ban imposed by neighboring Malaysia, from where the city-state sources nearly a third of its domestic supply.

Singapore imports 73,000 tonnes of chicken from Malaysia annually.  According to poultry farmers in Malaysia, the chicken feed has become costly as prices of wheat increase worldwide.

The Singapore government has asked consumers to look for alternative meats while the authorities are exploring new markets for fresh chicken. The ban covers live poultry, whole carcasses, chicken nuggets, patties, sausages, and chilled and frozen meat.

Malaysia has banned the export of 3.6 million chickens a month so as to help stabilize domestic prices. Despite self-sufficiency, Malaysia is facing a severe shortage in poultry production due to dependence on imports of feed over a shortage of wheat, an active ingredient to make feed.

Chickens in Malaysia are getting less to eat, growing slower than normal, which results in a paucity in the availability of birds.

The decision by Indonesia – the world’s biggest producer, exporter, and consumer of palm oil – to halt the export of crude palm oil has threatened global vegetable oil supplies. The ban, imposed to stabilize cooking oil prices in the country, was later rolled back on May 19.

Palm oil is used for thousands of products, from food to personal care objects and biofuel. It is a key commodity for making toilet soaps, shower gels, hand washes, shampoos, oral care products, and processed food products like biscuits, noodles, and frozen desserts. It is cheaper compared with other edible oils, and hence hotels, restaurants, and caterers use it heavily.

As the cost of food becomes dearer around the world, The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) food price index, a tool to measure prices of traded food staples globally, came down in May for the second consecutive month after posting a record high in March.

The specter of the food crisis in Asia will stay on for a long time as there is no plan to bring agricultural production from Ukraine and Russia back to the global food system.

Pope Francis said in the Vatican on June 1 to not use wheat, a staple food, as “a weapon of war!”

“I earnestly appeal for every effort to be made to resolve this issue and to guarantee the universal human right to food,” the 85-year-old pope said at the conclusion of the General Audience in the Vatican on June 1.

As long as the war continues, food will be used as a weapon by nations without exceptions. But the price is paid by the marginalized Asians who have no role in the conflict, which calls for concerted efforts by the Asian Church.

For the tiny minority Christians in Asia, most of them economically weak, it is beyond their means and capacity to tackle the lack of food or poverty in Asia in any serious manner. However, as leading educators, the institutions of the Church in Asia need to alter their systems and methods to focus on the poverty in Asia.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.


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