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Wheat: Going against the grain of human reason

A billion people — one eighth world population — have little food to put on the table



With Ukraine conflict upending global grain supplies, countries are scrambling to fill the gap in supplies
Image Credit: Unsplash

Consider how wheat is as old as recorded history: This sublime grain, which has sustained the survival of human civilisation throughout the ages, would’ve been found, as a loaf of bread, on the dining table of a Mesopotamian family living in the Euphrates Valley 6,000 years ago as it would be found on the dining table today, also as a loaf of bread — or perhaps as a cracker, a bagel, a pastry, a pizza, a pasta and the like — of a family living in the San Bernardino Valley.

Consider also how wheat, across cultures and eras, was revered by humanity as a symbol — a benign symbol of prosperity, progress, abundance, rebirth and indeed as life itself. In the Quran, for example, the word ‘grain’, habbeh, is mentioned multiple times.

And consider finally how ravishing stalks of wheat, each heavy with 50 kernels, look at harvest time — indeed even how much more ravishing they look in the dozens of canvases, known as Wheat Fields, painted by Dutch post-Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh, which he completed between 1880 and 1892 when he lived in rural France and in which he ascribed to wheat divine attributes.

And who could fail to see divinity in a wheat stalk, magically sprouting from the soil, preordained by the natural order to sustain human life and human civilisation?

Vital to survival

From antiquity to modernity, humans considered wheat so vital to their survival that it was grown on more land worldwide (in the US, on land in 42 states) than any other food — so vital that in 2009, during a debate over a spike in prices, a Senate subcommittee of the US Congress proclaimed it to be “even more central to modern civilisation than oil”.

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Yet, today, as we speak, wheat, now stripped of its symbolism, has become an objectified commodity, an economic cudgel and even a political weapon.

The military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, two countries that together account for 25 per cent of global wheat exports, has caused havoc, upending supply chains and creating severe shortages, as Black Sea ports, from which these exports would under normal circumstances be shipped, are now blocked.

Could China, another wheat exporter, pick up the slack? As we say, if it could, it truly would, but the country’s upcoming harvest of crops, already damaged by the torrential rains of last autumn, is not likely to ease the pain. Moreover, China is committed to replenishing its own reserves.

Global wheat mess

And India, which is the second largest global exporter of wheat and reportedly has 10 per cent of the world’s reserves stored in its silos, could have picked up the slack. On Friday, New Delhi decided to ban wheat exports altogether.

The end result, all around, of this wheat mess? The law of supply and demand kicked in and the price has skyrocketed by 60 per cent.

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So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that people in affluent nations can afford a spike in prices. People in impoverished, hungry nations cannot. In the latter, folks are left to endure, on their own, the trauma of food insecurity — the politically correct term we have in recent years adopted as a substitute for hunger.

The time when a people collectively experience hunger should be concerning — and very concerning in particular to many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, which are heavily dependent on wheat exports and where traditionally food shortages, especially bread — a staple eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner — often triggered social disruptions.

Here’s a case in point. If you were not in diapers in 1977, then you would remember the so-called “bread riots” in Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat, when a spontaneous uprising took place in most major cities in the country over two days in the middle of January, by folks protesting the termination (mandated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) of subsidies on bread, tellingly known by Egyptians as aish, or life.

People going hungry — forget “food insecurity”, please, this column will not call a child from a country in the Global South who goes to bed hungry “food insecure” — is a calamity. And clearly the current wheat crisis has turned it into a calamity of calamities.

Today, close to a billion people — one eighth the population of the world — have little, indeed often no, food to put on the table. Given this unspeakable fact, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that were humanity to unite in a struggle for liberation against a common enemy, that enemy would most definitely be hunger.

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I assure you, dear reader, I know where it’s at when it comes to this subject. I know hunger, baby. I grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp where I, along with countless other children, were always hungry. And I don’t mean hungry waiting for dinner to be served.

Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile

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