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All this Ukrainian nationalism bothers me – it seems outdated and irrelevant. Peasants in the fields, folk-songs at harvest, the motherland: what has all this got to do with me? I am a post-modern woman. I know about structuralism. I have a husband who cooks polenta. So why do I feel this unexpected emotional tug?
– Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005), p. 82.
Pity the protagonist of Marina Lewycka’s comedic novel, whose quiet life as a lecturer at Anglia Polytechnic University comes to a crashing halt when her émigré father embarks upon a series of misadventures. Nadezhda is regardful and loving, but struggles to see things from the old man’s point of view. Even the famine of 1932-1933, known as the Holodomor, holds little sway over her consciousness and yet, despite such closed-mindedness, her heart cannot slam the door to the past quite as readily. Rural and folkish though it may be, there remains something about Ukraine that touches this woman’s avowedly post-modern sensibility.
Nowadays, we’re all Nadezhda. At least, that is the impression conveyed by the news media, so prevalent is the disorientation that Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian exports should hold the influence that they do. Partly, this is born of a sense that the usual metrics by which national economies get ranked aren’t up to scratch. Notably, Russia’s economic heft is often said to be roughly on a par with Spain’s in GDP terms, a comparison that is not intended as flattering to the latter.
Unwilling to eat the usual polenta, if you will, security analysts Michael Kofman and Andrea Kendall-Taylor published a compelling article in the November/December 2021 issue of Foreign Affairs, arguing that GDP measurements were dangerously off. To properly measure Russia’s economic strength would require more than one yardstick, including a recognition of the vast surface area the federation encompasses. Of equal significance to the GDP issue, moreover, is the false supposition that the pre-war flow of commodities – manufactured goods, certainly, but also edible raw materials like fruit & veg, grain, corn, and meats – will not only continue uninterrupted but are uninterruptible.
Supercharged with neoliberal rhetoric, this idea went relatively unchallenged over the three decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, either because it suited emerging powers to go along with it or because they did not yet possess the means, motive, or opportunity to contest it. But now the war in Ukraine has done away with the conceit, leaving open the question of what sort of economic or trade reconfiguration should arise in response.
If he were among us, one wonders whether Nadezhda’s father would come up with something fit for purpose. His character is an earthy one, bestowing much faith in the awesome power of tractors to raise productivity. At first glance, therefore, he would probably shrug and say that if the Russians and Ukrainians have turned ploughshares into swords, there’s no reason why friendly countries can’t compensate. Simply place an order with the John Deere or Massey Ferguson corporation and ship the tractors where they’re needed most.
This ‘roll up your sleeves’ premise carries some appeal and, make no mistake, North American and Western European farmers will do their best to deliver. But the breadbasket of Europe earned its nickname for a reason. In a good year, it is the fifth largest wheat exporter in the world, providing almost all the wheat that gets sold, for instance, in Lebanon and Pakistan (not coincidentally, food prices in those two countries have reportedly risen eightfold). A deal for the resumption of grain exports from Odessa might or might not be honoured, but will be too late in either case for prices to come down far enough. For one thing, the eye-watering cost of freight and insurance premiums in a war zone will be passed on to the traders and, by extension, to the consumers in developing countries.
Then too, there is the fact that Ukrainian agriculture won’t return to pre-war production levels for a long time to come, partly because of manpower shortages but also because Ukrainian fields have been blasted and firebombed by the invading forces. Improved farming technology, in other words, requires preconditions in Ukraine that aren’t present yet. Coming to the same realisation, Nadezhda’s father would probably start writing a new book, less focused on production and more on consumption, less about Ukraine specifically and more about people’s expectations of natural resources.
It would be a story that, so far, hardly anyone is telling: of interruptions in supply chains leading to the necessary cessation of the West’s overfed lifestyles, of regard for the food on one’s plate and gratitude for the labour expended in getting it there, and of readiness to support fragile but retainable ecosystems no less stoutly than an embattled nation state. In short, our era calls for constructive ideas that can reform daily routines, along with the societies that encourage and grow from them.
The moment has never been more opportune for a move in this direction. At a time when the World Food Programme is having to look elsewhere than Ukraine for 50% of its grain sources and has estimated that 47 million people are facing severe food shortages, food wastage cannot remain a subject of mere curiosity. After all, only about half the world’s grain harvest ends up on dining tables, the rest going into animal feed or biofuels.
According to The Economist, 431 million tonnes of grain were fed to pigs in 2019, which is about 45% more grain than the Chinese ate during that same year. Admittedly, some of that animal feed does find its way into the human food cycle, because the animals themselves end up within it. But this observation is misleading, because the majority of calories present in animal feed do not get passed on. In fact, for every 100 calories of grain fed to a cow, just three are recovered in the form of beef. Chickens are more efficient at digestion and, for that reason, their drain on food resources is considerably less than bovines, even if not low in itself. Despite its image as an untouched land, Canada is fully integrated into this system, with 28.8 million tonnes of feed consumed by livestock in 2020 according to the Animal Nutrition Association.
Not that Canada is more at fault than other developed countries. Roughly 40% of the wheat grown in EU countries is earmarked for cattle, while a third of the maize grown in the US goes the same way. In short, old-fashioned feeding practices remain endemic and, regrettably, there are no immediate solutions to this state of affairs. Alternative forms of feed are available and have proven use value, but the animals don’t grow as quickly or as fully. With grain exports from Ukraine at all-time lows, substitute feed will have to be used in any case, meaning higher meat prices further down the line. All of which sounds rather dire, until one notices the false premise: that the world’s populations are expected to continue consuming animal-based products on a continual basis instead of embracing plant-based alternatives on at least some occasions.
Cutting back on animal-based products, above all meat, would reshape the way in which grain circulates in national and global marketplaces. Imagine if this were to happen at scale. Initially, the price of grain and other plant-based foods would increase to reflect the higher demand, but the need for grain as animal feed would decline because fewer people would be eating meat as an end product. As these two changes begin to balance out, the prices of plant-based foods should stabilise and then start to go down.
If nothing else, this would provide some relief to strained household budgets. In fact, lowering one’s consumption of meat will have that effect even before the wider economic implications become apparent. The probability of a recession will also decline, because there will ultimately be less animal husbandry and so the land given over to pasture can be repurposed for growing more efficient agricultural produce, leading to increased supplies of the same. Oversupply is unlikely to be an issue because the El Niño and La Niña phenomena mean that global grain harvests are becoming appreciably smaller, ensuring that excess produce will almost definitely find foreign buyers.
Then there are the knock-on effects for developing countries. Egypt is currently the world’s largest grain importer and its government is actively promoting modern irrigation methods over traditional practices, the aim being to boost domestic harvests in order to meet 65% of domestic needs by 2025. It’s a tall order, and yet the prospect of food shortages in the most populous Arab country would be even more greatly diminished if, instead of waiting for the war in Ukraine to be over, Egyptians could be assured of increased supplies from elsewhere. A groundswell of public opinion that sees cutting down on one’s meat intake as a form of collective self-interest would be a step in the right direction. If food practices remain unchanged, on the other hand, then the prospect of civil unrest may grow higher as people’s patience reaches breaking point.
In today’s world of climate change and extreme weather events, entrepreneurial genius is needed as never before and yet it would be a mistake to think that people must invent their way out of food insecurity. True, lab-grown meat and edible insect farms offer transformative alternatives to that which comes from an abattoir and both of these are well along the way at the present time of writing. But is it truly necessary to go so far? Surely the best solution lies not in meat alternatives, as such, but rather in a collective decision to cut out or reduce the consumption of ‘normal meat,’ leaving farmers and the market to do the rest on their own.
Step-by-step approaches to suit one’s preference are available. Meatless Monday, for example, is an international campaign whose premise is written into its name, while another model may be found in Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2019 book We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Neither of these campaigns, it should be disclaimed, are part of an international conspiracy to end meat-eating once and for all. At the most, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be available as a rallying moment and, were it to be so taken, momentum would likely build all the faster.
History furnishes abundant precedents. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1833, most notably, British people put up with higher commodity prices throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, knowing that those prices would have been lower had the slave trade continued. Not every Briton could have been fully convinced by the arguments for abolitionism, it must be admitted, but a point of total agreement throughout the whole population was no more attainable than it was necessary. The point stands, therefore. A people can sacrifice their everyday needs or change the definition of those same needs in pursuit of a moral good.
Daniel McKay is associate professor in the English Department, New Mexico Military Institute. His essays have appeared in online outlets such as Breaking Asia, Overland, Southeast Asia Globe, Geopolitical Monitor, and The Defense Post. Lengthier works are available through the usual scholarly databases. His scholarly book, “Beyond Hostile Islands: The Pacific War in American and New Zealand Fiction Writing,” will be published by Fordham University Press in 2024 as part of its “World War II: The Global, Human, and Ethical Dimension” book series.