Agriculture / Brazil / China / Consumption / Egypt / Food Security / India / Middle East / Philippines / Vietnam

The great global food crunch: Was scarce food the tinderbox for Middle East turmoil?

Egyptian cow relief 2

Ancient Egyptian cow relief (photo credit: ILRI/Elsworth).

The Washington Post’s op-ed columnist Robert J. Samuelson argued yesterday that the turmoil in the Middle East is related to a global food squeeze.

‘Here’s a question about the Mideast turmoil for future historians: How much did food inflation contribute? We know some basic facts. Middle East countries import 50 percent or more of their wheat, a staple food for many. Beginning in mid-2010, world grain prices exploded. At $8.56 a bushel in February, wheat prices had doubled in eight months. Despite massive subsidies, some higher prices filtered through to consumers. Did that create a tinderbox for protest?

‘”In both Tunisia and Egypt, women in TV interviews screamed about food prices,” says Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Food inflation was a contributor. How much we don’t know.” Whatever the verdict, it’s not an idle curiosity. As much as oil, scarce food could shape global politics for decades.

‘Call it the Great Food Crunch. Global food demand is colliding with strained supply. High prices or shortages could destabilize poor countries and trigger global scrambles for scarce foodstuffs. The present price surge is the second in three years. In 2008, run-ups in rice and wheat triggered protests and riots in about two dozen countries, including Egypt, Haiti and the Philippines. Then and now, some suppliers (India and Vietnam in 2008 for rice and Russia now for wheat) restricted exports, increasing world prices and shifting risk to countries with food deficits.

‘Growing global affluence underlies the squeeze. As countries modernize, diets change. People shift from eating grains directly—as meal and bread—to consuming them indirectly as meat and dairy products. From 2000 to 2030, per capita meat consumption could rise 49 percent in China, 79 percent (albeit from a low base) in India and 22 percent in Brazil, estimates the International Food Policy Research Institute. This boosts grain demand for animal feed. . . .

‘The global food squeeze is a largely uncovered story. . . . If nature and technology don’t restore a better balance between supply and demand, the consequences for human suffering and political conflict could be fearsome.’

Read the whole op-ed by Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post: The global food crunch, 14 March 2011.

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