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We’re living in an age of food protectionism: 5 countries that are banning or restricting major exports to safeguard food supplies as inflation soars

Supermarket shelves in Brussels, Belgium.
Some countries are restricting food exports due to concerns about domestic shortages and inflation.

  • Governments around the world are taking steps to safeguard food supplies as inflation soars.
  • Russia and Ukraine have imposed wheat and sunflower-oil export curbs amid the war.
  • Indonesia, Argentina, and Kazakhstan are also restricting trade in key produce to control domestic inflation.
Governments around the world are taking steps to safeguard food supplies as inflation soars due to supply-chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

A woman shops in a supermarket in Huyton, Britain.
Food prices have hit all-time highs.

Public discontent over soaring food prices poses political risks for governments, particularly if shortages present themselves in major crop producers. That’s the case with palm-based cooking oil in Indonesia, where there have been public protests against high prices.

“As the world’s largest producer of palm oil, it is ironic that we actually have difficulty getting cooking oil,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo on April 27, according to an official transcript. “As president, I cannot allow that to happen,” he added ahead of an export ban of the vegetable oil that went into effect on April 28.

There’s a risk that soaring food prices could spur even more protectionist measures across the world, said Nomura economists Sonal Varma and Rangga Cipta in a note on April 26.

“Rising food prices risk more such protectionist measures globally, and could further stoke food price inflation in Asia,” Varma and Cipta wrote.

“This is a real and present concern,” said Jamus Lim, an associate professor of economics at the ESSEC Business School.

The last time the world went through an agricultural commodity price shock was in the aftermath of the global financial crisis from 2007 to 2008. At the time, Ukraine and other major grain exporters restricted exports to protect domestic prices. Major rice exporters India and Vietnam restricted rice exports to counter food inflation.

The scenario could repeat itself, “especially since the situation is complicated by even more factors today, including COVID-19-induced supply chain disruptions and the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict,” Lim told Insider.

Here are five countries that have banned or restricted key agricultural exports in the last year. While most of them imposed measures after the war in Ukraine started, some ramped up existing restrictions to deal with further price surges on the back of the conflict.

1. Russia has restricted wheat and sunflower-oil shipments.

A wheat field with poppies installed on the Revolution Square in downtown Moscow.
Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter.

Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter, accounting for about one-fifth of the world’s exports of the grain, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA.)

The country had already introduced export quotas and new taxes on wheat exports in 2021 to tame domestic food inflation. After it launched its war against Ukraine, the Kremlin announced additional export restrictions including a temporary ban on wheat shipments to ex-Soviet countries, Reuters reported. It also suspended most sugar exports.

“The move will further squeeze global wheat supplies at a time when Russia’s war with Ukraine is disrupting exports from the region,” Gro Intelligence, a global agriculture data-analysis firm, wrote in a note in March.

Russia has also banned the export of sunflower seeds from April to August, and imposed an export quota on sunflower oil to ease rising domestic prices, Reuters reported, citing the country’s agriculture ministry.

“This set of measures will eliminate the possibility of shortages, as well as sharp increases in the cost of raw materials and socially important products in Russia,” said the ministry on March 31, according to Reuters.

2. Ukraine has banned the export of food staples.

Farmers load oat in the seeding-machine to sow in a field east of Kyiv on April 16, 2022.
Ukraine has banned the export of some food staples to feed its people amid the war.

Ukraine is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat, accounting for 9% of global export, according to the USDA.

Due to the war, the Ukrainian government has banned the export of food staples including wheat and oats to ensure there’s enough for its people at home.

The ban was necessary to prevent a “humanitarian crisis in Ukraine” and to feed the country’s population, Roman Leshchenko, Ukraine’s minister of agrarian and food policy, said in March, according to the Associated Press.

Ukraine — the world’s top sunflower oil exporter — is still exporting the cooking oil, although shipments have been disrupted due logistics challenges amid the war.

3. Indonesia has banned palm-oil exports.

A worker harvests oil palm fruits, used to produce palm oil, at a plantation in Kutamakmur, Aceh on September 24, 2021.
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer and exporter of palm oil.

Indonesia, the world’s largest edible-oils exporter, said a domestic shortage of cooking oil has prompted it to impose a blanket ban on the export of palm oil that started on April 28.

Retail prices of cooking oil have soared in Indonesia as palm-oil producers boosted exports on the back of rising global vegetable oil prices amid the Ukraine war, according to Channel News Asia. This in turn caused a supply crunch at home.

Retail prices of cooking oil in Indonesia have gained over 40% so far this year, Reuters reported, citing a price monitoring page. The price spike has led to protests and sent President Widodo’s approval rate down 12% from February to April, according to the news agency.

4. Argentina started restricting beef exports before the war to tamp down food inflation.

A butcher cuts a piece of meat.
Argentina has banned some beef cuts to control inflation.

Argentina has faced soaring inflation for years due to policy missteps.

To tamp inflation — which hit 50.9% in 2021 — Argentina banned all meat exports last May, according to Reuters. Some restrictions have since been eased, but the country is still banning the export of seven beef cuts until 2023, per Bloomberg. Argentina is the world’s fifth-largest beef exporter, accounting for about 6% of the world’s beef exports, according to the USDA.

Argentina’s government has called on slaughterhouses to contribute to fighting inflation in the country by selling certain cuts in the domestic market at low prices, Reuters reported in March. Those that do not comply will face export bans, Argentine agriculture minister Julián Domínguez wrote on Twitter in March.

“I informed them that those who do not comply with the commitments assumed with the Argentine people will not be able to continue exporting meat,” he tweeted. 

Domínguez said he made the decision against the backdrop of the Ukraine war, which has worsened food inflation.

5. Kazakhstan has restricted wheat and wheat flour exports after domestic prices soared over 30% after the Ukraine war started.

A worker puts a loaf of bread inside a tandyr clay oven in a bakery in a village of Guldala, outside Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan has restricted exports of wheat and wheat flour.

Kazakhstan has restricted wheat and wheat flour exports until June 15. The move is aimed at balancing exports with domestic food security needs, the USDA wrote in an April 28 report.

The domestic price of wheat in Kazakhstan has risen by over 30% since the Ukraine war started, per the USDA. That’s as Russia has suspended wheat exports to the country.

“Many flour mill representatives expressed concern about the export restrictions, the high price of domestic wheat, and the lack of Russian wheat imports,” wrote the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service in the Kazakh capital city of Nur-Sultan. Just about two-thirds of flour mills in the country are operating as grains have become unaffordable.

“Many of these mills are expected to cease operations in the next few weeks if domestic wheat prices do not decrease,” it added.

Kazakhstan is a major wheat exporter accounting for 4% of the world’s shipment, according to the USDA. It is an especially important supplier to its Central Asian neighbors such as Uzbekistan.

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