Because I’ve been failing at updating original blog posts, I’m repurposing some of my food-related coursework for your tasty (and intellectual) enjoyment. This first one was written for a blog post for my Money, Markets, and Media class with Gabriel Kahn. Let me know what you think! Written 2/24/11, when all of this was a bit more current.
The world has had its eye on the Mediterranean and Middle East recently, as Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya are awash in unrest and revolution. Corrupt government, unemployment and a discontented, educated youth have all been mentioned as causes, but one telling trend is something a little more basic: a lack of access to accessible food.
When it comes to our basic needs, food and oil seem to top the chart of goods we can’t live without. As such, whenever either market is disrupted, it can cause a ripple in the globalized economy.
Already, the unrest in Libya is causing oil prices to spike, despite the best efforts of other oil-producing countries. The Guardian is telling the world to “brace for the effects of another oil shock,” and that while crude prices have slid down from $120 a barrel to $112 recently, that price is still a result of an increase of more than 10% in the past week. The article reminds us that everything that relies on petrol, like plastics and even fertilizer, will also feel the heat. Ticker Magazine also warns the dangers of oil prices rising due to Libya’s unrest.
This comes at the same time that China is experiencing a huge drought, and the language is just as apocalyptic when talking about our food. The Examiner reports that corn and wheat (the crop suffering most in China) prices are up 3.7%, and that US exports of the food staples are up. The threat may not be immediate to US consumers with their big-box grocery stores and fast food chains, but the Middle Eastern tumult serves as a dire warning of what may be to come.
Rising cost of food in Egypt, where about 20% of the people live on less than a dollar a day, was maybe not at the forefront of the political unrest but certainly an aggravating factor. Egypt has a history of food riots: in 2008, high food prices posed such a threat to political stability that the army was ordered to bake subsidized bread. In a country where income is so low, any drop in income or rise in food prices has a huge impact. The uprising in Tunisia was sparked by the suppression of a street food vendor, and high food prices further spurred outrage.
And this is nothing new. Famine is associated with all sorts of political catastrophes, from the fall of Rome to the destruction of the Mayan civilization to the collapse of the Ming dynasty. The French Revolution gave us one of the most quotable (albeit misattributed) and flippant statement concerning a shortage of food: the peasants have no bread? Well, then: “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” or “Let them eat cake!”
It makes sense. In general hungry people are angry people, no matter where they live or who they are.
NPR does a fantastic job of outlining the problem in economic terms. They point out that according to simple rules of supply and demand, agriculture and food are tricky economic factors. Environmental issues, like drought and flood alternatively, slice the supply of food in producing areas like Russia, Argentina and now China. This is coming at a time when many fast-developing countries, like China and India, are multiplying demand. The US economy is insulated from dangerous spikes, by subsidies and the way our consumer economy is set up: prices are more determined by packaging than the actual raw food stuff. However, in other, less robust economies, a price fluctuation or decrease in supply has immediate consequences.
Food is intrinsic to the slew of revolutions in the Arab world. It is yet to be seen what the lasting impact of the drought in China has, or whether extreme measure by the US or other countries to manipulate global supply of food can turn things around. Most significantly, however, is that nothing is isolated. Political upheavals can be influenced by the economy, which is influenced by food supply, which in turn, is reliant largely on environmental factors. Value-laden terms like democracy, capitalism and global warming can all be related. It just goes to show that nothing in our economy, politics or society is an isolated incident.