US Wheat Can Reduce Georgia’s Food-Security Risk
But Georgia and Moldova will also need coordinated help from the United States and Europe to maintain their economic and political stability as both risk crisis because of the war.
President Vladimir Putin has shown before that he is willing to use Russia’s energy and even wine as a tool for gaining subservience. Given his ruthless approach in Ukraine, there is no telling what further humanitarian crises he will seek to inflict on these two neighboring countries. The Biden administration has talked about a broad and preemptive approach to counter Putin and this will be key to helping those nations at risk. As the United States assesses its tools to push back against Putin, food security must be a top priority, especially with the expected reduced production of wheat from Ukraine and prices skyrocketing.
According to the country’s National Statistics Office, the average annual wheat production in Georgia is about 100,000 tons. It is thus almost entirely dependent on imported wheat. In 2020, it imported around 490,000 tons from Russia—over 99 percent of its wheat imports. Because of a lack of alternative import markets, Georgia faces the prospect of a severe food security crisis as a result of the war in Ukraine.
To mitigate the risks associated with depleted wheat reserves and unstable food security, it is essential that the United States provides Georgia with at least 100,000 tons of wheat. This will enable the creation of a food reserve to protect the country against a possible wheat shortage. This will also offset the negative impact of reducing or fully stopping imports from Russia. Holding back food supplies from a country like Georgia is a war without bullets and, since Putin leverages Russia’s resources for political blackmail, this type of intimidation is very likely.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, “In 2020, the value of U.S. wheat exports to the world reached $6.3 billion, up 1 percent from 2019 due to increased demand from China.” The United States can thus afford to help Georgia in this hour of danger. The country’s prospective need would be small compared to the overall export market and, even if it was not, China would not likely mind if the United States reduced exports to it to cover the needs of war-impacted countries like Georgia and Moldova.
Holding back food supplies from a country like Georgia is a war without bullets and this type of intimidation is very likely.
Wheat is a strong tool for the United States to leverage. The EU consumes most of its wheat production so it is not in a position to have an immediate and significant impact in this area. Rather, it can allow Washington to take the lead while applying its other resources to complement the overall impact of assistance.
The economic impacts of Putin’s aggression will be felt in many ways, but perhaps most damaging through a food shortage. The presence of Russian tanks only a few kilometers from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, further highlights the need to increase aid efforts to Georgia before a crisis begins. And, when one adds to the situation the growing concern about Georgia’s internal political stability, there is potential for disaster.
Georgia has long been a friend and strategic partner of the West; supporting it now will demonstrate the United States’ continued commitment to helping it maintain its pro-Western goals and aspirations. Many in Washington including in Congress support the idea of providing aid to countries like Georgia in addition to the aid package to Ukraine. This increased support is as a direct result of Russia’s ongoing aggression, and the West’s realizing the threat that Russia can pose militarily and economically.
The United States has several instruments to deal with food-security issues and to provide related support worldwide. These include supplying food either in-kind (that is, shipped by using prepositioning or monetization mechanisms) or through market-based assistance. Since the latter means obtaining food locally or regionally with monetary support from the United States, this will be irrelevant in this case as the large wheat producers in the region (Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) have introduced or are expected to introduce restrictions on exports due to the current situation. In addition, Ukraine’s expected harvest this year will be a fraction of the usual since military activities in the country will likely reduce wheat production significantly.
Hence, using an in-kind instrument to supply US-produced wheat to Georgia would be the best and the quickest solution to avoid a food catastrophe there. Since time is of essence, it is important that this support be discussed by the two governments to ensure that the potential shortage of wheat in Georgia is addressed quickly and adequately.
David Kirvalidze is a board member for an international non-profit, Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA) and previously served two terms as the minister of agriculture in Georgia.