There are dangers in using food as a weapon

Russia is retaliating against economic sanctions levied on it for stirring up trouble in Ukraine by banning food imports from Canada, the United States, European Union, Australia and other countries.

For older farmers the situation might bring back memories of 1980 when the administration of American president Jimmy Carter embargoed grain sales to Russia as punishment for its invasion of Afghanistan.

The event made the cover of Time magazine with the headline Grain As a Weapon — Who Wins, Who Loses.

The embargo covered grain exports in excess of eight million tonnes guaranteed under the terms of a 1975 bilateral agreement.

The embargo lasted only until April 1981 when the new president Ronald Reagan dismantled it.

The idea was that as Russia had become increasingly reliant on grain imports in the 1970s and because the U.S. was the largest supplier, an embargo would shake the Kremlin as food shortages raised the ire of the Russian people.

But it didn’t work because other grain exporters, including Canada, did not follow Washington’s lead.

The Russians continued their occupation of Afghanistan. Indeed they did not leave until 1989. The Cold War between the U.S. and Russia escalated under Reagan.

The Russians diversified their list of grain suppliers and never again allowed the U.S. to provide more than half their import needs.

It can be argued the 1980 embargo hurt U.S. wheat farmers more than it hurt Russians.

The first half of the 1980s was a period of huge Russian wheat imports, exceeding 20 million tonnes a year in three years 1981-82 to 1983-84 and topping out at 28.7 million in 1984-85. But the U.S. wasn’t able to capture much of the market.

Canada did very well from the embargo. In 1980-81 Canadian wheat exports to Russia doubled from the year before to 4.4 million tonnes and in the follow years sold even more, becoming Russia’s top supplier. Canadian wheat sales to Russia peaked at 7.6 million tonnes in 1984-85.

The tables are reversed this time. Whereas Washington’s plan failed in 1980 because there were many sellers, Vladimir Putin hopes his plan will succeed because there are lots of sellers.

Brazil is already Russia’s top source for pork and it can likely supply more. The fruits and vegetables it got from the EU can be replaced with product from Asia.

For now, Putin remains popular, thanks to his control of the media and the Kremlin’s propaganda message that Russia is fighting fascists in Ukraine.

But the new imports will likely come at a higher cost, a price Russians can ill afford as their economy struggles against the West’s economic sanctions as well as long-term problems with low productivity, corruption and mismanagement.

Time will tell if this exercise of using food as a weapon will backfire, hurting Russia more than it helps.

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