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There are several reasons for the recent record food price increases worldwide. Fires and bad weather that produced low harvest yields caused important grain-exporting countries like Russia and Ukraine to suspend exports. Australia, another large grain producer, also experienced a bad year due to floods. In the United States, due to subsidies, 40 percent of the corn harvest, America’s biggest crop, now goes to making ethanol fuel for cars, leaving less available for food.
Another reason why poor third world countries like Egypt, Yemen and Syria are being priced out of the international food markets is that Asian countries like China and India now possess prosperous middle classes, numbering in the hundreds of millions, who are capable of buying better quality foods, like wheat and meat, which drives world prices upwards. China especially has the foreign currency to buy grains on the international markets to make up for any shortfalls in its own agricultural production.
Due to an expected harsh setback regarding its winter wheat crop, China, normally self-sufficient in food production, is expected to do just that, which will make the Middle East’s desperate food situation even more desperate. Already this year, China bought one million tons of corn from America in March, “the sixth-largest single purchase ever.” But last February, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced “12.75 million acres of China’s 35 million acres of wheat fields had been affected by the drought.” The full extent of the disaster will be known by June. If China then goes shopping on the international markets for grains to feed its one billion citizens, as expected, people in the Middle East will be eating less than they are now.
The political implications of the world food crisis on poor countries are beginning to be recognised. Earlier this month at the FAO’s Rome headquarters, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said inaction would have “grave” consequences.
“We must act now, effectively and cooperatively, to blunt the negative impact of rising food prices and protect the people and communities,” Clinton said.
In a plea to countries not to cut grain exports, Clinton cited 2008 when record food prices caused riots in several third world countries. Then, it was large rice producers like Thailand, India and Vietnam who suspended exports “to protect domestic supplies” that led to the violence and instability.
But the situation was not as bad in 2008 as it is now. World economies were booming then and not stuck in recession. Moreover, the price of rice, relatively stable until now, is also expected to rise this year. Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, has announced it will pant only two crops instead of three this year in order to rid the rice plants of “pest and disease.” This constitutes a 20 percent decrease in exports.
“I don’t know whether it is a good policy, as cutting the food supply may lead to food shortages,” a Thai official said.
As for the Middle East, the 2008 food riots are likely to be replicated and will worsen as the hunger crisis deepens. The danger here is that the people may follow any Muslim extremist pied piper, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who promises to feed them, much like the Germans followed the Nazis for giving them work during the Great Depression and Russians followed the Bolsheviks before 1917 Revolution because they were promised bread. This may work in the Muslim Brotherhood’s favour in the short term, especially if they promise the people a just social order like that which allegedly existed at the time of the Prophet Mohammad. But if the religious extremists cannot solve the hunger crisis, then they will also be discredited.
So with no solution to the hunger crisis on the horizon, food riots and instability will become the norm in the Middle East for some time to come. Henry Kissinger once said: “Who controls the food supply, controls the people.” However, in the Middle East’s case, there is no food supply to control, so the people will be uncontrollable.
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