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The Hunger Games: Weaponizing Food

The Hunger Games: Weaponizing Food

Since the beginning of time, food has been used as a weapon of war. Enemies have tried to starve each other to death. The Romans did it, and so did the Germans, the Americans, and Britain weaponized food against India and the Central Powers. Food has always been used as a weapon of choice in almost every conflict or war.

An ugly contradiction is playing out in war-torn Ukraine, as thousands of Ukrainians are starving in cities besieged by Russian forces, even though Ukraine is a key supplier in the global food supply chain, responsible for significant food commodity export.

Following Russia’s invasion, Ukraine is armed by the West to defend its territory. The war did not end quickly, as the Russians had thought, and what was caught in the middle of the conflict was food. The crisis got worse when the West sanctioned Russia. Therefore, Russia has a point when it says Western sanctions worsened inflation and food shortage. Even if an exception was then made for Russian agricultural and fertilizer exports, companies may still be reluctant to trade, fearing indirect exposure to sanctions. If we combined Russia’s and Ukraine’s food commodities exported in 2021, they account for 23% of Wheat, 21.6% of Barley, 13.7% of Maize, 54.3% of Sunflower oil, and 82% of Sunflower seed cake traded at global levels. The two countries together supply 11.8% of global food calories.

The conflict has thus triggered a calorie deficit which adds to other countries’ hunger crises. Take Nigeria for example. 32% (70 million) of the population already live below the poverty line (WDL, 2022). That is the population of Austria, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, and Montenegro put together. More than a third of Nigeria’s children have stunted growth. Nigeria depends heavily on wheat from Russia and now it is staring at a famine. Lebanon, Egypt, and Somalia’s cases are even worse off as they rely on Russia and Ukraine for more than 60%, 80%, and 90% of wheat imports respectively. Lebanon is just about recovering from the Beirut 2020 explosion that destroyed its wheat silos. The Russia and Ukraine conflict has pushed these countries into a food security crisis. Globally the conflict has pushed food prices up by more than 14% (FAO, 2022). Russia is blaming it on Western sanctions, and Ukrainian mines along the Black Sea ports. 

Weapons of war: Starvation as a war strategy 

Weaponizing food is not limited to the Russia-Ukraine conflict alone. Romans used hunger tactics to defeat and destroy Carthage in 146 B.C. (History, 2019). The tactics include destroying food, farms, and water supplies and cutting off besieged enemy populations. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the “Lieber Code” in instructing the Union Army that it is “lawful to starve the hostile belligerent, armed or unarmed,” specifying that fleeing civilians could be driven back into a besieged location “so as to hasten on the surrender” (United States. War Department, 1898). This tactic was also used by the British. Britain decided to starve Germany and Austria-Hungary into submission in the first world war. With an overwhelming sea power, the British Navy established a blockade of Germany immediately on the outbreak of war in August 1914, by issuing a comprehensive list of contraband that prohibited nations including the Americans from trading with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. In early November 1914, Britain declared the North Sea a war zone, with any ships entering doing so at their own risk. A similar blockade was maintained in the Adriatic Sea, with French and Italian aid. The blockade was unusually restrictive, as even foodstuffs were considered “contraband of war”. Germany could not find enough food since its younger farmers were all in the army, and the desperate Germans were eating turnips by the winter of 1916–17 (Teuteberg, 2011; Lambert, 2012). Apart from leading to shortages in vital raw materials such as coal and metals, the blockade also deprived Germany of supplies of fertilizer that were vital to agriculture. The latter led to staples such as grain, potatoes, meat, and dairy products becoming so scarce by the end of 1916 that many people were obliged to instead consume ersatz products including Kriegsbrot “war bread” and powdered milk. The food shortages caused looting and riots not only in Germany but also in Vienna and Budapest. Austria-Hungary even hijacked ships on the Danube that were meant to deliver food to Germany. The German Board of Public Health claimed that 763,000 German civilians died from starvation and disease caused by the blockade through December 1918. This hunger blockade plays a major role in the defeat of the Central Powers. This is a story from World War I.

While some might argue that times have changed, the truth is that war strategies remain somewhat similar. Even today, countries are still weaponizing food to swing wars. Adolf Hitler’s “Hungerplan” starved 4.2 million Soviet citizens to death during World War II from 1941 to 1944 (Runge & Graham, 2020). Hitler’s starvation of Russia relied on American history with “Redskins”. Backed by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the American government killed tens of millions of buffalo to starve the Native Americans to death since they were fighting to keep White settlers from taking their lands. By 1893, the number of bison had shrunk to about 400.

In 1973–1974, the Arab nations imposed an oil embargo against the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Japan, and other industrialized nations that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. The results of the embargo included the 1973 oil crisis and a sharp rise in prices (The New York Times, 1973). Later, in the 2010s, aided and abetted by the United States and British foreign policy, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates led a blockade to isolate the people of Yemen, while they were also being subjected to confiscation of food and medicine by the Houthis, the internal opponents of those countries. This could be said to be one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world. Of the 30 million in the Yemeni population, 19 million are said to be food insecure, 20.7 million people need humanitarian assistance as of 2022, and 3.5 million pregnant/breastfeeding women and children under the age of 5 are suffering from acute malnutrition following the 2014 Saudi led coalition that shut down the Red Sea port at Hodeida – the main entry point for Yemen’s food import (WFP, 2022).

From a historical perspective, starvation has been one of the oldest weapons of war, and the first significant step towards outlawing these tactics came after war-driven famines in Nigeria’s breakaway Biafra region in the late 1960s and Bangladesh in 1972 and 1974 (Dowlah, 2006).

Even though 169 states have ratified the 1977 Geneva Conventions protocols which prohibit the “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”, starvation crimes have been evident in recent conflicts in Myanmar (HRC, 2019), Mali (UN, 2020), South Sudan (Just Security, 2020), Ethiopia (Clark, 2021), Nigeria (CFR, 2021), Syria (UN, 2021), and now Ukraine (Just Security, 2022).

Christian Harbulot, the director of the Economic Warfare School in Paris, demonstrates that the strategies that nations put in place to increase their economic power and their impact on the international balance of power can be interpreted in the register of economic warfare.

One of the first things that happened immediately after the invasion of Ukraine was the blocking of the Black Sea ports, from whence almost 75% of the country’s agricultural exports set sail. Russia cut off this maritime export, arguing that the route could be used to import weapons into Ukraine.

Ukraine and its Western allies accused Russia of weaponizing food by squeezing supplies to swing the war. They claim that Russia is starving Ukraine into submission. Therefore, Ukraine is seeking global support by leveraging food security and tilting the demand and supply balance. Meanwhile, Russia is blaming the West for the rising prices.

Europe is now trapped in a deepening economic spiral with soaring energy prices, runaway inflation, and a cost-of-living crisis that is curbing consumer spending, forcing manufacturers to slash new orders, and sparking labor disputes across the transportation and logistics sector. Severe congestion continues to create chaos at North European hub ports and disrupt inland and short-sea connections. Containerized imports from Asia were down 6% in the first half of 2022, and the economic conditions are expected to deteriorate further through the second half. Declining spot rates due to lower demand are causing European shippers to be facing a headwind. The XSI® index for European imports grew by 2% in August, reaching 447.92 points, an 82.6% increase from a year ago, and again setting a record for the sub-index. Global container volumes were down by 1.4% in 7M-2022 year-on-year, and reefer was down by 1.1%. So, both European imports and exports have been heavily disrupted over the months and the rest of the year is expected to be worse off.

Source: (Xeneta, 2022) 

The Black Sea blockage served as a painful reminder of the vital role ports play, how impactful port disruption can be, and the importance ports play in a global supply chain that depends on the efficient flow of goods. Maritime logistics constraints alone have lowered export volumes from Ukraine to an estimated 16 to 19 million metric tons (McKinsey, 2022).

There have been claims from Ukraine’s side that Russian shelling is setting the wheat fields on fire and that they are attacking food infrastructure on purpose by bombing storage facilities and processing plants. David Beasley, the Head of the U.N. World Food Program claims that residents of Ukrainian cities that are besieged by Russian Armed Forces face starvation as they were reportedly blocked from accessing food (VOA, 2022). The Ukrainian government claims that Russia was letting the food commodities in storage rot to secure the submission of its people. Russian forces in Ukraine have also been reported to be engaged in an ever-lengthening list of starvation tactics, besieging entrapped populations (Al Jazeera, 2022; AP, 2022), attacking grocery stores (The Observers, 2022), agricultural areas and granaries, deploying land mines on agricultural land, blocking wheat-laden ships from leaving Ukrainian harbors (Washington Post, 2022) and destroying a critical grain export terminal in Mykolaiv (AG Web, 2022). Add to these, even though the U.S. and E.U. exempted fertilizers from sanctions, Russia is the world’s largest producer at 15% (ITC, 2022), and has decided to withhold fertilizers from the market (Agri-Pulse, 2022). 

Impact of trade restrictions 

Forecasts show that Ukraine’s crop production will drop by 30% to 45% in the next harvest season (McKinsey, 2022). This harvest shortage will have far-reaching implications beyond the shore of Ukraine as Africa and Asia are highly vulnerable to supply shocks of food commodities such as corn or wheat.

Russia’s invasion came at a bad time for global food markets, since Russia and Ukraine alone account for 12% of total calories traded. Add to that is the drought experienced across the globe. As the current conflict continues, there is a growing concern among all countries, hence supply has been tightened further by countries that have attempted to shield domestic markets with trade restrictions. Between the beginning of the conflict and May 2022, about 40 new export bans and export licensing requirements have been introduced. While these measures can bring a perceived gain for the imposing country, history suggests they put additional pressure on available food stocks, push prices up, and further threaten food security for the world’s poor (IFPRI, 2022).

The figure below shows the share of imports affected by export restrictions as a share of total agricultural imports of each country (calculated on a caloric basis). With grains and vegetable oils dominating the list of affected products, it is not surprising that larger importers of wheat, corn, and vegetable oils are most affected. Countries largely depending on wheat and corn imports from Russia and Ukraine show a high share of restricted calories.

Source: (IFPRI, 2022) 

Some 400 million people outside of Ukraine depend on Ukrainian grains. As export dropped, these people began feeling the pinch. McKinsey highlights that some 1.4 billion people in Africa and Asia are highly vulnerable to supply shocks of corn or wheat, with this number potentially rising to 1.9 billion as reserves drain (McKinsey, 2022). Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), said that food insecurity continues to represent a major challenge across Africa and that the war in Ukraine has led to a food shortage of 30 million metric tonnes which was estimated to lead 30 million Africans into “catastrophic levels of food insecurity”. He also warned that the current food insecurity might lead to heightened economic stress and political unrest across the continent. With millions struggling to buy food, fuel, and fertilizer, anti-government protests are a real possibility (MWN, 2022).

The World Food Program says that 47 million people will fall into acute food insecurity in 2022. Russia promised to ensure safe passage of food, but Kyiv would have to remove all the mines it has placed in its ports. On the 22nd of July, the United Nations and Turkey brokered a deal with Russia and Ukraine and Ukraine cleared some routes of mines for ships from Ukraine ports to finally set sail. But the food crisis will not be resolved overnight.

The principal risk of commodity export restrictions is higher global prices that make it even more difficult for net food importing countries to purchase food. 


At the top of the pyramid of needs is food. It is indeed a basic necessity for human survival. It does not matter whether you live in Cambodia, Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, or Ukraine, if you go without food, you are likely to die within 40-60 days. Capitalism has commodified food, and war has weaponized it. It has put our health and well-being on the frontline. The world must secure its food and shield it from war. To do that, each country might have to be self-sufficient – by increasing food production at home. Countries must invest in agricultural science and encourage innovation in the food sector. Diversification of both staples and sources of food production is a must. Countries must also improve storage facilities and keep a healthy stock of staples because governments, especially those of developing countries might not be able to control what happens thousands of miles away in another country or continent, but they can still ensure that their people do not go hungry because of external hunger games. 


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