NEWS, OPINION & ANALYSIS: Global food crisis

A ‘revolutionary’ moment in Egypt?

The idea of the starving masses driven onto the streets to demand bread, and then being forced by the violent response of the state to seek its overthrow, had seemed impossibly quaint for decades — the stuff of a distant epoch, kept alive in Broadway musicals and Warren Beatty vehicles in a world where the masses were acquiring cell phones. Bread? Who needs bread? Let them eat arugula at globalization’s ever-expanding buffet table.

But a cursory look at the headlines of the past month — a general strike and mass protests in Egypt, the storming of the presidential palace in Haiti, violent protests in Cote D’Ivoire and Cameroon, demonstrations in Uzbekistan, Yemen and Indonesia, among others, suggests that the proverbial “wretched of the Earth” are arising, all over again, this time in response to skyrocketing food prices.

Turns out the Malthusians, and even — gasp! — their Marxist progeny, were not entirely wrong, after all: Spread capitalism to every corner of the globe (a planet already blighted by a century of industrialism with its attendant sometimes catastrophic climate) and the rich do, indeed, get richer, while the poor do get poorer, although not necessarily more numerous. The patterns are uneven, but basic laws of scarcity still prevail. Global food prices have risen 80% over the past three years, and the primary reason may be the success of capitalism in China and India over the past two decades: Their industrialization has spurred demand for energy beyond the capacity of supply, which has pushed oil prices to levels five times what they were in the mid 1990s. That, in turn, has raised pressure on food prices by making agricultural inputs more expensive, and by prompting the substitution of biofuel crops for edible ones on scarce farmland. And, of course, capitalism has indeed raised the living standards of hundreds of millions of people in those countries — they’re eating more, and better, particularly more meat. The fact that it takes some eight calories of grain to produce a single calorie of beef means that the expansion of meat protein in the diet of previously poor Chinese workers also creates a massive increase in global demand for grains. Throw in climate disasters such as the Australian drought, and you have food inflation spiraling so fast that even the U.N. agency created to feed people in emergencies is unable to keep pace. [complete article]

Food price rises threaten global security – UN

Rising food prices could spark worldwide unrest and threaten political stability, the UN’s top humanitarian official warned yesterday after two days of rioting in Egypt over the doubling of prices of basic foods in a year and protests in other parts of the world.

Sir John Holmes, undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, told a conference in Dubai that escalating prices would trigger protests and riots in vulnerable nations. He said food scarcity and soaring fuel prices would compound the damaging effects of global warming. Prices have risen 40% on average globally since last summer.

“The security implications [of the food crisis] should also not be underestimated as food riots are already being reported across the globe,” Holmes said. “Current food price trends are likely to increase sharply both the incidence and depth of food insecurity.” [complete article]

Food riots grip Haiti

United Nations peacekeepers fired rubber bullets and used tear gas to control mobs rioting over rising food prices in Haiti yesterday.

Angry protesters tried to break into the presidential palace in the capital, Port au Prince, and demanded that President Rene Preval step down.

Preval was inside the palace at the time, aides said. The president has made no public statements since riots broke out on the island last week. Five people have died in a week of protests, Reuters reported. [complete article]

Map of food riots
Where food riots have taken place around the world since January 2007. Map compiled by Allegra Stratton, The Guardian. Click on blue pointers for information on locality. Click on “minus” button for wider view.

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