Ukraine Effects: A Farmer’s Thoughts

BY JIM WEBSTER

On the agricultural front, so far nothing has really been said in the West, although I’ve noticed a couple of the papers starting to run stories about possible food shortages. Apparently the Chinese government, which seems to think about these things rather more than our governments do, has stockpiled 70% of world maize stocks, 51% of world wheat stocks and “enormous quantities of US soya.”

World food prices are rising as countries scrabble about looking for supplies to carry their own populations through to the next harvest. Given that there isn’t a lot of hope of much planting in the Ukraine this spring, and that Russian farmers have been locked out of the domestic credit market just when a lot of them would be looking to buy seed, Russia might be joining in the desperate scramble for grain.

If looking for agricultural support payments, then I think you might have to look hard. As an example, Germany spent 47 billion euros on defence in 2021. This is 1.5% of GDP. It has announced that it will increase this to at least 2% of GDP which means 62 billion euros a year, but with an extra investment of 100 billion euros as an extra top up.

All this is on top of paying for Covid and desperately trying to arrange energy policy. So whilst nations want more food, I will be interested to see what happens to various schemes. At the moment it looks that all government would have to do is point out how food prices are rising, take off the brakes and let us farm.

On the energy front things are mixed.

If you want to have another international conference to discuss getting to carbon zero, you could doubtless have one, but obviously to get the Russians on board you’d have to accept their puppet Ukrainian government as eligible to negotiate for the Ukraine.

On the other hand, even the most blinkered politician has realised that relying entirely on Russian gas was never a good idea. So in the long term it looks as if European countries (including the UK) will be going over to renewables, with nuclear to balance out the supply when renewables fall short. (Which was something gas did fairly well for us in the UK).

Unfortunately in the short term, we are probably in for a couple of years of pain and backsliding. Not only are the Germans pondering keeping their nuclear plants going, they are also pondering burning more coal. Apparently the International Energy Agency has pointed out that dropping your thermostat by one degree would save Europe 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year. We may have to see a culture shift, wear more in the home, burn less fuel. There again this has been the message for two or more decades from UK governments of all parties, and indeed Labour, the Coalition and the current Conservative government have all jacked up energy prices to both deter use and to use money raised to subsidise renewables. Now prices are being jacked up even more. As somebody who has never lived in a house with central heating I find people’s homes too warm anyway but I don’t want to trespass on private grief.

Then there are going to be deeper effects that are unquantifiable. I’m sure we can all remember pictures of shattered German cities taken in 1945. But by the time a previous generation saw those pictures the war was largely over and the German death camps had been liberated. Yes they saw Dresden but they also saw British forces liberate Bergen-Belsen. I make no moral equivalents, I point no fingers at our own day, but it is likely you are going to watch European cities destroyed on prime-time TV as smart phone footage reaches our broadcasters. This could go on for month after month.

Then we could have millions of Ukrainians settled in European countries. People who can never go home and who may eventually become citizens. What impact will a quarter of a million Ukrainian widows and fatherless children have on British Politics? I suspect those who support Putin’s ‘denazification’ of the Ukraine could struggle to gain electoral acceptance.

Also if we go back to a full cold war, UK defence spending will increase and the armed forces will grow. Will we have to reintroduce conscription? Will it just be for those who self-identify as men, or is it going to be an equal opportunities experience?

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.