When you can’t eat, nothing else matters.
And it is this side of the ‘Arab Spring’, the sweeping rise in food prices, which the international media appear to have underreported in their Middle East coverage this year. With the media’s focus on religion and politics, it is now almost forgotten that fear of hunger, perhaps more than unemployment and political oppression, brought people on to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, to topple rulers. More importantly, the crippling cost of food is continuing to increase the inability of the Middle East’s substantial number of poor to feed themselves and their families.
Rising food prices, a chief source of the Middle East’s spreading misery, are reaching record levels. According to one report, grain prices alone were 71 percent higher worldwide in April than they were for the same month last year. In the United States, corn and wheat have “roughly doubled” the past 12 months. This food inflation has had serious consequences for the Middle East’s poor and for the destitute in other developing countries as well. Besides threatening the well-being of those already leading marginal existences, the price hikes have increased the number of poverty-stricken by millions.
“The World Bank estimates 44 million people may have been pushed into poverty by the price increases, and aid agencies warn high food costs threaten millions more,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
Of all the Middle Eastern countries facing the current food crisis, Yemen is in the worst shape. A United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) report states that seven million of Yemen’s 21 million people are “acutely hungry, making Yemen the 11th most insecure food country in the world.
“Hunger and malnutrition are widespread in the country and require urgent intervention,” the report relates.
Yemen is the poorest of all the Middle Eastern countries, and its food problems appear almost insurmountable. One Yemeni woman said she can still afford bread and rice for her family’s one meal a day but can no longer buy beans or eggs. A WFP plan to provide food for 1.7 million “severely food insecure Yemenis” also fell through for lack of funds.
Egypt is the heart of the Arab world and the most populous of all the Middle Eastern countries with 80 million people. With such a large population, Egypt is also facing the region’s biggest hunger crisis. Almost 20 million Egyptians live on two dollars a day or less, and these are being squeezed even further downwards by rising food prices.
To make matters worse, Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer. But its ability to buy grain on the world market to alleviate the food crisis has been diminished by the disappearance of the tourist industry, which provided the country with much-needed foreign currency. Egypt’s economy took another hit when a quarter of a million Egyptian workers had to return to Egypt from Libya because of the war. The money they sent home is sorely missed and has also contributed to Egypt’s balance of payments problem. One analyst, who writes under the literary pseudonym Spengler, estimates that Egypt will have no money to buy grains on the international markets by September, after which millions of Egyptians will face starvation.
“It (Egypt) will look like the Latin America banana republics, but without the bananas,” Spengler wrote. “That is not meant in jest: few people actually starved to death in Latin inflations. Egypt, which imports half its wheat and a great deal of the rest of its food, will actually starve.”
Other Arab countries like Syria and Tunisia are in the same sinking boat. Only the oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar can afford to buy foodstuffs on the international markets at today’s high prices, which are expected to go even higher. Saudi Arabia has also bought large tracts of agricultural land in other countries like Brazil to grow food for Saudi domestic consumption and avoid world market prices.
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.