Stopping the export of food supplies during war and imperialist conflict can cause much more damage than any gun, bomb or missile. The United States currently accuses Russia of hoarding crucial food supplies, allowing tonnes of Ukrainian grain to rot in warehouses. It raises the prospect of famine for many developing nations—particularly in east Africa.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said, “The Russian government seems to think that using food as a weapon will help accomplish what its invasion has not.” He added, “The food supply for millions of Ukrainians and millions more around the world has quite literally been held hostage by the Russian military.”
But Blinken is a hypocrite. Food has always been a powerful weapon in imperialist war, and the US knows this all too well. During the destruction war brings supply lines are cut and destroyed, food manufacturing infrastructure is torn down, and workers flee conflict zones. Disruptions to seasonal growing cycles and distribution webs impoverish populations globally. And even if food is available, governments under siege can’t or won’t distribute it effectively.
Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger reportedly said, “Who controls the food supply, controls the people.” Often single nations produce food staples consumed by large parts of the world’s population. Nearly 40 percent of corn exports are from the US, and 30 percent of rice is grown in China.
Russia and Ukraine combined produce 30 percent of wheat and 69 percent of the world’s sunflower oil. With only a few nations controlling much of the global food supply, they wield a lot of power. It means other states rely on them for food and in turn the suppliers are, for example, given access to build military bases and open trade routes within their borders.
Russia isn’t the first to use food as an imperialist weapon. In 1974 US secretary of agriculture Earl Butz said, “Food is a weapon. It is now one of the principal tools in our negotiating kit.” His view was backed up by Butz’s successor, John Block, who in 1980 said, “I believe food is the greatest weapon we have.”
Food has such an impact because it’s essential for human life, but it’s commodified, as is everything under capitalism. You can only buy food if you play a role within the capitalist system. You must work to ensure a wage to buy food. If you can’t you must rely on the state or charity for handouts.
The commodification of food grew in Britain following the Enclosure Acts over the 18th and 19th centuries. These laws abolished the open field system of agriculture, forcing the peasantry from their land. In turn, wealthy landowners seized the land, removing the independence people once had. Enclosure was key to the growth of capitalism. Landless labourers were forced to work for a wage to buy the food they once owned. Others settled in cities to work in factories.
It also allowed the ruling class to use food as a weapon and a tool of imperialism. During the colonisation of America, settlers hoped to conquer the central plains to build railroads. They were met with resistance by those who already lived there. To achieve their goal generals ordered the killing of bison, a key protein source for native groups. One general said, “Kill every buffalo you can. Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
The bison population fell from by more than 60 million in the late 1700s to just 541 by 1889. As a result the indigenous population plummeted. Similar tactics were used when the British colonists conquered Australia. Indigenous people were forcibly removed from hunting grounds and lakes where they once sourced food.
The weaponisation of food isn’t just inflicting starvation and famine. It is sometimes in the imperialist’s interests to distribute food supplies. During the cold war the US would gift countries food to tie them to capitalism, away from the growing state capitalist, soviet trend.
India was a major recipient of US aid in the 1950s and 60s in an effort to lure the country away from its relationship with the Soviet Union, and to contain India’s growing communist movement. The move allowed the US to make trade links and sure up its military power in the region.
Imperialist nations are often quick to capitalise on a natural disaster, such as the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. Food wasn’t simply gifted to the torn country but was traded for greater US military interference in the nation.
Capitalists restricting food to inflict starvation, malnutrition and genocide has been near constant in recent decades. In 1973 the US withheld food aid to Chile which couldn’t independently produce enough food to feed its population efficiently. Cutting food exports was part of the US’ effort to back a coup which overthrew the left wing government of Salvador Allende.
The way food is used as an imperialist weapon can also been seen clearly in Sudan—which was once considered an essential US ally in east Africa. In 1983 a civil war between government forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army started. Food was politically important. The government was quick to export produce in order to gain foreign currency it could then spend on the military. As a result millions of people became reliant on aid.
The government could also divert food away from the south, where most of their opponents were based. In June 1989 Omar Al-Bashir took the presidency. The US hypocritically announced that aid could no longer be distributed as a democratically elected government had been deposed in a military coup.
The Sudanese Government pleaded for $150 million in food aid in 1990. The United States Agency for International Development refused the request. The imperialists often claim that food exports are suspended in response to war crimes or coups—as was the case in Sudan. But this is never the case when it’s their allies perpetrating the crimes.
Providing aid to war torn Yemen, which is in the midst of a civil war is near impossible. This is due to the blockade of Yemen by Saudi Arabia, which started in 2015 and intensified two years later.
Saudi Arabia—a key ally and supplier of oil to the West—closed ports and bombed fishing vessels. In May 2020 the UN agency Unicef described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”. But Western imperialists haven’t met Saudi Arabia’s crimes with sanctions. Britain has sold at least £8.4 billion and possibly £20 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015, with former president Donald Trump authorising £87 billion.
Most of the aid given to Yemen is now donated by charities such as Save the Children. Blockades and withdrawal of food aid are never in place to help ordinary people. Restricting human needs is one of the cruellest ways imperialism can extend its influence.
Any threat to capitalism and imperialism, such as left wing governments in South America or Africa, has been met with economic blockades and the removal of food aid. Food should be available to all, but it will never be this way with most supplies in the hands of major imperialist powers. And the situation is bound to get worse with rapidly accelerating climate change. The Indian government suspended wheat exports in response to rising food inflation and record high temperatures.
As summer approaches, France and other European nations fear crop failure and extreme weather events such as wildfires and drought. But major powers using food as a weapon doesn’t just starve the poor. It can also lead to resistance. During the Bengal famine of 1943, which British rulers had allowed to develop, ordinary people rebelled by taking up arms and raiding grain stores. It was a precursor to the final independence battle that saw the country break free from the British Empire.
Today, with food prices soaring, there will likely be more explosions of rage from those who are being starved. This year alone price rises have led to protests in Sudan and Iran. These fights have the potential to topple dictators and imperialists, but also make people question a system that denies them the essentials of life.
For this to end food supplies must be placed in the hands of the people. This is no easy task. It means dismantling the system that allows the elite to hoard and distribute supplies. Revolts and strikes against war and rising food costs that we have seen throughout history show that change is a possibility.