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Climate Change in Russia and the Weaponization of Wheat

Russialsta_tmo_2010208_lrgBy Leah Emanuel

As temperatures in the Russian Arctic rapidly increase and permafrost continues to melt, Russian land feasible for wheat production is beginning to grow. In a new op-ed published in The National Interest, the Hon. Sherri Goodman, Chair of the Board of the Council on Strategic Risks, and Clara Summers of American University’s School of International Service, assess the possibility of Russia weaponizing their wheat.

While wheat makes up only 2.3% of Russia’s total exports, this small percentage constitutes a major portion of the global wheat export market. “Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter,” Goodman and Summers write, “and is expected to control 20 percent of grain export markets by 2028.” Land changes due to climate change will only expand this global power. According to the authors, it is likely that Russia’s wheat-suitable land will expand by 4.3 million km² in boreal regions,, and the government has already announced that it intends to take advantage of these impacts of climate change for its agricultural and economic benefit.

Relying on wheat production in these newly farmable lands, however, will not provide food supply stability. Melting permafrost will make the region more prone to wildfires, and droughts will likely intensify. Furthermore, history has demonstrated that Russia is not reliable when it comes to grain imports. Amidst a drought in 2010, Russia restricted its grain exports, and more recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, Russia imposed an export quota on wheat, barley and maize. Though domestic food security should appropriately be the government’s priority, the authors note, Russia limited exports when it still had significant grain reserves, placing a heavy burden on Russia’s primary importers, and raising wheat prices worldwide.

Goodman and Summers argue that this behavior foreshadows the future if addressing climate change and its multitude of impacts is not prioritized by policymakers. They proceed to lay out the two options policymakers are currently met with: a post-pandemic return to normalcy with no decrease in emissions, or a recognition of the vulnerabilities the coronavirus exposed, and a commitment to a better future. In the first approach, climate change driven events will grow in frequency and severity, further impacting food security and increasing the likelihood of Russia limiting grain exports. In the second option, policymakers can prioritize clean energy in stimulating the economy and be proactive about food security. Governments can expand international cooperation, Goodman and Summers said, providing for more a holistic approach to the pandemic, the climate crisis, and resulting food insecurity. “In every crisis, there is an opportunity,” they write. “The question now is who will seize that opportunity: Russia or allied nations?”

Read the full article here.

Leah Emanuel is an intern with the Council on Strategic Risks and the Center for Climate and Security.

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