Durum wheat: a crisis on the workers’ plate

20 August, 2021

Durum wheat. Canada.
Durum wheat. Canada.

The US durum wheat crop is down 46% and is the smallest in 30 years. Canada, which produces 2/3 of the global wheat trade, is on track to lose 1/3 of production. Add to that the shortage of stockpiles in Europe, the new European CAP and the downward revision of the Russian crop. The result is a speculative boom in the grain futures market. Global durum wheat prices have already rose 30% since mid-July. The “durum wheat crisis” is beginning to hit the plate of workers on both shores of the Mediterranean and from October may have dramatic consequences on basic foodstuffs.

Table of Contents

Why are durum wheat prices important?

Couscous and pasta, made with durum wheat, are a staple in the diet of workers in Mediterranean countries
Couscous and pasta, made with durum wheat, are a staple in the diet of workers in Mediterranean countries

Hard wheat is the basis of industrial cookies, but also of couscous, noodles, spaghetti, macaroni and other semolina and dried pasta that are the staple of working-class diets in virtually the entire Mediterranean, especially on its southern shore.

Their importance is only comparable to that of bread (soft wheat) prices, which historically demarcate the border between poverty and famine… and which are being increasingly affected as well by these speculative movements.

Climate crisis or capital’s crisis?

Evolution of the durum wheat futures market
Evolution of the durum wheat futures market

It is highly likely for the drop in U.S. durum wheat production to be a product of climate change. But the same cannot be said of the decline in Russian production, which studies have been portraying as the beneficiary of climate change with respect to grain production.

In any case, supply reduction is one thing and price escalation is another.

The bottom line is that, with capital accumulation stagnant in most of the world over the last ten years, the mass of capital without direct application in production has become enormous. The ones buying durum wheat futures allowances are not working families but capital funds with no other investment application in sight other than betting on the outcome of commodity markets.

These giant hoards of capital are the ones betting on a price rise and, over time, causing it. Week after week, the big funds have been seizing positions and hoarding buying rights in anticipation of even more funds entering the speculative market.

It is the over-accumulation of speculative capital arising from the crisis which has turned news of poor durum wheat harvests into a 30% price hike, which at the same time is causing an upward trend in grain prices in general.

That is, the price increase of durum wheat is a blow in itself which attacks the basic diet of workers, but in addition, it drags with it bread flour and other staple grains.

How does durum wheat affect imperialist tensions

Terminals for the export of durum wheat and other grains in Novorossiysk, Russia
Terminals for the export of durum wheat and other grains in Novorossiysk, Russia

Despite the false appearance of homogeneity given by global prices, the real market for durum wheat is constrained by international agreements that reflect balances, conflicts and alliances between the imperialist interests of each national capital.

In the Mediterranean and the Arabic-speaking world this translates into a permanent tug-of-war within the EU over the eternal reform of the CAP and between the EU and Russia over the Maghreb and Eastern Mediterranean countries.

Russia, which has since 2016 become the world’s largest producer, has doubled down by investing massively in new transport and storage infrastructure in the Black Sea. Its appetite for new markets is geared toward Central Asia, the Caucasus and Iran where food prices in general and grain prices in particular are already reaching twenty-year highs due to droughts.

But it is also looking towards the Mediterranean, where it aims to consolidate its position in Egypt – which imports half the calories consumed by the average worker – and displace France in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco… and the Levant.

This competition for wheat explains, for example, the eagerness of the French to send thousands of tons [of wheat] to Lebanon after the explosion that wiped out part of the city of Beirut and in particular the grain stocks in August 2020. In addition to an honorable humanitarian gesture, it is a question of maintaining its place as an economic partner in a country where Russia is again selling more and more shares.

Pénurie de blé : le réchauffement climatique favorise la Russie (au détriment de la France), Marianne

For other imperialist competitors like Turkey the situation is just the opposite. Its agricultural exports have more than halved in ten years, contributing to the country’s economic crisis and fueling the market hunger of Turkish capital which underlies Erdoganism’s permanent recourse to military intervention abroad.

That is, the rising prices of durum wheat and other grains will fuel imperialist conflict in the gigantic arc running from the Sahara to Iran.

A crisis on the workers’ plate

A worker cuts durum wheat spaghetti in a pasta factory
A worker cuts durum wheat spaghetti in a pasta factory

The capitalist arrangement of agriculture and food is a bloody and daily expression of the system’s inability to deliver human development. The needs of capital are the ones that impose pittance wages and that with one hand deny access to basic food to millions of people and with the other push forward an unhealthy food industry, which produce the waste of much of the production and at the same time impose plastics and conservation systems which destroy the environment.

Read also:
What Covid reveals about agriculture and food, 20/3/2020.
Plastic: a 100% capitalist problem, 12/8/2021

If we add to this the climate disruptions caused by the same industrial over-concentration and the same logic that is over and over again imposed on human needs, the result can only be a denial on an even greater scale and depth of those same universal needs such as nourishment.

We are talking about access to the basic component of the daily diet of workers in one of the most populous regions of the planet. But this denial of basic needs does not end there. It points towards an even a higher level of contradiction through the aggravation of imperialist tensions preparing for future wars.

The “durum wheat crisis” is neither an “accident of the markets” nor an irremediable consequence of climate change. It is the product of a system that has become an iron corset which stifles Humanity and the Nature of which it is a part. Overcoming it at once falls on our plate.