The Weaponization of Food in the Age of Sanctions


Our drive to satisfy our need for food and water has stoked the physical and social evolution of our species; it has driven us to wander, labor, innovate.  The avoidance of hunger and thirst has been the bedrock upon which great human communities have been erected and cooperative actions taken up.  The need for food and water have also driven us to war.  In the context of war itself, food, even before arms, is the first requirement. .   As Napoleon famously said  – “An army marches on its stomach. ”  However, more than merely a necessity, food or the lack thereof, has long been used as a weapon of war.

If one seeks to control a people, it is only necessary to control the sources of their food and water even as to defeat a people all one need do is  the destroy the sources of their food and water.  Thus, sieges  have been as important as arrows or bullets in bringing a nation to its knees.  The Iliad of Homer describes the siege of Troy by the Greeks over 3,000 years ago. The Spartan siege of Athens that ended the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 B.C.E.), was effective when the Spartans managed to destroy the Athenian navy and thus prevent food supplies from entering the city.   Parisians were reduced to eating rats during the siege that ended the 1870 Franco Prussian war, and over a million Russians starved to death during the 500-day siege of Leningrad in WWII.  In fact, more civilians died in Leningrad than in the bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Throughout its history, Russia has very effectively used the control of its food supply as a weapon.  It employed a scorched earth policy during its invasion by Swedish armies in 1709, Napoleon’s armies in 1812, and Hitler’s armies in 1941. Because the Russians removed most of the food and crops in advance, Napoleon’s half-a-million-man army could not live off the land as they had in previous campaigns. The end results were that even though his men captured Moscow, they were too emaciated to hold it and had to retreat. The inability to find food locally also led to the defeat of  the German military which was trying to feed three million soldiers.  In turn, as the Germans retreated, they too implemented a scorched earth policy to slow the pursuing Russian army.

Since the early 1990s, America, Europe and other advanced economies, have employed sanctions on other nations more than 500 times in an effort to make them surrender to their wishes. In a sense, sanctions can be viewed as sieges which do not require armies to “conquer” a targeted people.  Directly or indirectly, these sanctions have functioned to control the food and water supply of the targeted nations and thus bring great suffering to their citizens.   The most frequently cited example of sanctions-related suffering is the comprehensive embargo imposed on Iraq from 1990 to 2003. Four days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the UN Security Council put in place a near-total financial and trade embargo on the nation, which, over the course of the following decade, would come to profoundly impact the daily lives of all citizens.  Prior to the embargo, Iraq had relied on imports for two thirds of its food supply. With this source suddenly cut off, the price of basic commodities rose by a staggering 1,000 percent between 1990 and 1995, leading to widespread malnutrition and starvation, particularly among children. Infant mortality increased 150 percent, according to a report by Save the Children, with researchers estimating that between 670,000 and 880,000 children under five died as a result of the impoverished conditions caused by the sanctions. During the Gulf War, almost all of Iraq’s essential infrastructure was bombed by a US-led coalition, leaving the country without water treatment plants or sewage treatment facilities, prompting extended outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.

Venezuela is another example in which food has been used as a weapon of economic war. The US has a total embargo on Venezuela. The EU has imposed additional sanctions. The goal is to oust President Nicolas Maduro. U.S. sanctions have become increasingly aggressive since they were first announced by former US President Barack Obama in 2015. Under pressure from the United States, foreign companies stopped doing business with the country. Citibank closed Venezuela’s foreign accounts. President Donald Trump intensified sanctions in 2017 and this year imposed an oil embargo that blocked the purchase of petroleum from Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. It also confiscated Venezuela’s US subsidiary CITGO, worth $8 billion. It was a huge blow for Venezuela, which received 90% of government revenue from the oil industry.  Without government revenue and without the ability to engage in international trade, food soon became both scarce and difficult to acquire.  With food aid sitting on Argentina’s border with Colombia, the U.S. offered up its choice for a new President, Juan Guaido, to accompany the food into Venezuela.  So obvious was the use of food as a weapon of domination that The International Red Cross declined to participate in the Washington’s controversial humanitarian aid plan to Venezuela, announcing “We will not be participating in what is, for us, not humanitarian aid,” stated Colombia’s International Red Cross (ICRC) spokesperson, Christoph Harnisch.   It is important to bear in mind that this response came after former U.S. ambassador in Venezuela, William Brownfield, declared that “the United States must make Venezuelans suffer and die to bring about a change of government.”

While there are several glaring examples of the ways in which, directly and indirectly, food and water have been employed as weapons of war aimed at the domination and submission of small, less developed nations,  Russia and China, both major players in the international political arena, present us with two more complex and sophisticated examples of the weaponization of food.  In both instances food was used as a defensive economic weapon in the sense that Russia and China responded to sanctions and economic threats, by ceasing to buy food from other nations – in the case of Russia, from the European Union, and in the case of China, from the United States.  Initially, it appeared  their refusal to buy food, or to use food as a weapon in a defensive way, had two different outcomes.   In the case of China, we witness a situation in which China played fast and loose with its own food security needs by refusing to purchase soybeans from the United States in order in order to hurt the US agricultural sector as well as president Trump’s chances for re-election.  However, global warming with its dialectic of drought and flooding, had a negative impact upon both American and Brazilian soybean production.  In Brazil in 2005 there was drought in the Amazonia.  Hurricane Katrina seriously damaged agricultural producers, and  in 2005 the highest temperature on record was recorded.  If recent forecasts for extraordinary temperature increases around the globe prove to be accurate, the Brazilian economy, which derives a large portion of its GDP from soybean farming, runs the risk of collapsing.

The result of both global warming in Brazil and South America as a whole,  and its own refusal to purchase soybeans from America, was that China came up short.   Soybeans are a crop that provides raw material for tofu and has been an important source of protein for Chinese people since the earliest archaeological records, in 1100BC.  Aside from being a major source of food supply for the Chinese people, the fact is that only a very small amount of the soybeans China imports is consumed directly by humans.  In fact, 95 percent of the soy produced in the world is consumed by farm animals such as chickens, cows, pigs and farmed fish.  The world population is increasing rapidly as is the demand for food in general, and soybeans in particular.    As demands for these products has grown, the soybean market has exploded.

The combined results of the negative side effects of global warming and steady world wide demand for soybeans meant that China’s decision not to buy soybeans from America in the face of the trade war between the two nations, was a bad one and one on which China had to capitulate.  It also brought home how imperative it was that China should also move as quickly as possible to increase its own production of soybeans, to rely on alternative producers of soybeans not located in the Americas, and to ensure its food security

Thus, even before a decline in imports from the US left a shortfall for China, its pressing need for food security,  particularly vis a vis the US, motivated it to seek a resolution of its problem in new soybean hybrids.  Professor Yan Zhe, who was involved in recent research to develop new strains of soybeans stated:  “The trade war has thrown us a curveball. We must hit back – and we can do that with technology.”  Thus, a team led by Professor Guo Tai and Feng Xianzhong created various new species from domesticated and wild hybrids, then put the seeds in a radioactive chamber to simulate and accelerate the mutation that occurs in sunlight.  The result was the development of a new hybrid, Henong-71 which was not genetically modified.  Planting GM crops is illegal in China, and more than 80 per cent of soybeans worldwide are genetically modified.  This new hybrid, Henong-71, grew a larger number of pods and branches than existing species and withstood stronger winds.  Thus, with its high, stable yield it broke all production records. Agricultural authorities in Heilongjiang province, in the northeast, have approved commercial plantation of Henong-71.  Moreover, the Chinese government is offering farmers a subsidy of 5,100 yuan (US$713) per hectare for soybean production, more than seven times that for corn, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Luiz Goedde, of the management and consulting firm McKinsey & Company, points to the steady northward movement of soybean farming that is occurring as a result of global warming.  If for no other reason, advantages accrue to both Russia and China to increase their soybean production as global warming makes it more difficult to grow soybeans in hot and harsh conditions such as prevail in Brazil, Argentina and other countries close to the Equator.  Thus, global warming is also contributing to the food security of both nations, by making their weather conditions more advantageous to the production of soybeans.

“The internal Relatedness of Soybeans, Human Health, Global Warming and the Trade War” by Mary Metzger, in “Countercurrents”, May 20,2019

Russia’s response was to the sanctions imposed on it over Crimea and Ukraine, was likewise one of limiting imports, this time from the EU.  While having a minimal effect in dollar terms, the Russian sanctions had the opposite effect than those of China.  In a very short period, agricultural production in Russia increased greatly, and today one can walk the isles of Russian supermarkets and find an abundant and wide variety of food products, from cheeses through wines which have produced in Russia.   This is an indication of the fact that Russia under Putin has enhanced its food security.  It is expected that Russia will be able to acquire complete self-sufficiency in agricultural products by approximately 2025 Alexander T Alexander Tkachev, Russia’s Minister of Agriculture, said during Government Hour in the State Duma.

To improve the situation, the ministry plans to increase the size of grants given to farmers engaged in meat and dairy cattle breeding. They also plan to take measures to protect domestic producers from unfair competition from counterfeit manufacturers.

Russia’s adamant refusal to buy either European or American imported food products, and the government’s support of farmers and entrepreneurs in the food industry, has made Russian invulnerable (aside from deliberate poisoning and adulteration) to attacks against its food security. Meanwhile, global warming can only have a positive effect on its growth and rising importance as a producer of food products from chickens to soybeans.  Mother nature has blessed it with its famous rich, black earth, so that the fertility of its land likewise is a potent weapon in its arsenal of food security.

China, despite its modern agricultural advances, is still operating from a position of vulnerability as regards its food security.  Thus, at the most recent meeting of the Chinese/American trade negotiations, China was forced to make concessions including massive purchases of US farm products .  Due to the possibility of an underproduction of soybeans, and the slaughter of huge numbers of pigs due to disease, China will be buying as much of both as it can from the United States.    China is now looking to purchase approximately  US$40-50 billion of US farm products which reflects a doubling is also a doubling of its appetites as it imported about US$21 billion annually on average in the peak years between 2012 and 2017. The imports dropped sharply to US$8.6 billion in 2018 and were US$7.7 billion in the first eight months of 2019.

Meanwhile, the volume of Russian soybeans exported to China continues to grow and is expected to  be worth at least $600 million by 2024, according to the Russian Ministry of Agriculture. Soybeans and their processed derivatives were the second-biggest agricultural export from Russia’s Far East, Deputy Minister of Agriculture Sergey Levitin said at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok.

Russia, by using food as a defensive weapon against sanctions, has achieved and will soon exceed its own food security needs  Meanwhile, China’s need for food security has sharply been brought home to it, as it finds itself making concessions to the United States in the recent trade war.  It has learned an invaluable lesson about the power of food vis a vis the power of its nation, and it seems likely that it too will both follow and align with Russia, to achieve its own internal food security.

Mary Metzger is a 74 year old semi retired teacher. She did her undergraduate work at S.U.N.Y. Old Westbury and her graduate work In Dialectics under Bertell Ollman at New York University. She has taught numerous subjects, from Public Sector Labor Relations to Philosophy of Science, to many different levels of students from the very young to Ph.D. candidates, in many different institutions and countries from Afghanistan to Russia. She has been living in Russia for the past 12 years where she focuses on research in the Philosophy of Science and History of the Dialectic, and writes primarily for Countercurrents. She is the mother of three, the grandmother of five, and the great grandmother of two.




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