President Joe Biden on Wednesday hailed American farmers as the “backbone of freedom,” pledging hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of support and calling on them to offset a global grain shortage caused by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“You're literally the backbone of our country, it's not hyperbole,” he said, speaking at a family farm in Kankakee, Illinois, where, earlier in the day, he stood in front of a tractor and gazed over growing waves of grain. “But you also feed the world. And we're seeing, with Putin's war in Ukraine, you're like the backbone of freedom.”
Russia’s 11-week-old invasion of Ukraine has imperiled global supplies of wheat, corn, barley, oilseeds and cooking oil, and it has disrupted fertilizer supplies. World food prices have risen nearly 13% in the wake of the invasion, the White House says.
Biden has announced a number of interventions for American farmers. Those include support that would allow farmers to plant two sets of crops in one year; access to technology that would allow for less fertilizer use, and the doubling of funding for domestic fertilizer production, to $500 million.
Biden told the gathered farm community that blame for the crisis rested on Putin, whose navy is blocking Ukrainian exports from Black Sea ports.
“But we’re doing something about it,” Biden said. “And our farmers are helping ... on both fronts, reducing the ... price of food at home and expanding production and feeding the world in need.”
The head of the European Investment Bank (EIB) this week sounded the alarm, saying that Ukraine is sitting on a staggering amount of wheat it can’t export.
"Ukraine is a rich country,” EIB President Werner Hoyer said. “Ukraine is the wheat basket of Europe, and it's sitting on €8 billion (U.S. $8.5 billion) worth of wheat right now from last year's harvest. They cannot export it; they have no access to the sea.
“This is one of the key issues that we must address, because they are industrious people,” he added. “They are sowing like crazy right now, and they will expect probably a good harvest, maybe 70% of last year's harvest, in a couple of months — and then what to do with it? So these are issues that need to be addressed immediately, in addition to the social needs and the daily problems that Ukrainian citizens face.”
The European Union’s top diplomat warned of global impact.
"They are causing scarcity,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said of the Russian military, which invaded Ukraine on February 24. “They are bombing Ukrainian cities and provoking hunger in the world.”
Already the effects have spread across the world. Last month, farmers in Sri Lanka participated in strikes over rising food and fuel prices. That movement ultimately resulted in the resignation of the island nation’s Cabinet and prime minister.
And the crisis is likely to hit hardest in parts of the world where resources are already stretched thin, analysts said.
“This is a real reversal for the global economy,” Desmond Lachman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA. “And those are the countries that are impacted the most — countries that are very reliant on food and energy imports are really going to get hit very hard. And politically, it's going to be extremely difficult for those countries.”
Analysts say food price inflation could lead to instability on the world’s least-developed continent.
"Most African governments will scramble to cushion the loss of purchasing power stemming from higher inflation,” said Jacques Nel, head of economic-focused research firm Africa Macro. “Many will not be able to provide the necessary relief. Unrest is a matter of when and where, and not if."
History shows that the humble grain holds immense power, perhaps no more famously than when the price of bread nearly doubled in 1788 France. Peasants revolted against the monarchy, hungry for governance ruled by the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. Revolution came the following year.