Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt

Court bakery of Ramses III

Well before 8 o'clock on a late April morning, a line of about 30 eager customers forms at a modest bakery in this working-class neighborhood. With a global food crisis roiling countries from Asia to the edge of Europe, at least 11 people have been killed recently in such lines here, struggling to get their daily bread.
There's no panic, no desperate scrambling for sustenance — a tentative sign of success for an emergency government plan that involves dramatic increases in spending on bread subsidies and the use of Egyptian soldiers as bakers.
"Now we're able to find bread," says Dalia Hafez, 40, seated on a nearby curb in a cappuccino-colored headscarf. "Thanks God, the crisis is over."
For now, anyway. But the aftershocks from the food trauma here are only beginning to be felt. Tensions are continuing to build in this key U.S. ally, evidence that the global food crisis — the product of factors ranging from unusual weather in producing nations to increased competition for grains from biofuels programs — is now about much more than food.
"This crisis threatens not only the hungry, but also peace and stability," the head of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), Josette Sheeran, warned in a recent speech.
That Egyptian officials regard photos of bakers at work as potentially incendiary is a measure both of bread's unrivaled importance in the Egyptian diet and of the government's concern that continued public discontent over food supplies could metastasize into something more threatening.
"People in Egypt may be considered passive or silent, but there's a limit to this. And when they reach that limit, one day there will be a popular explosion," said lawyer Esam Salam, interviewed at a cafe near Cairo's train station.
USA Today 4/30/2008

The roots of the revolution are in food. Much of my life I've heard the saying that no city is more than three days away from revolution--all you have to do is cut off the food supply. Since the Bush regime decided to encourage the production of ethanol in '07-08, speculators have had a field day in the food futures market. And after years of the "green revolution," increasing reliance on petrochemical inputs, and land hunger (and a failure to reform consolidation and exclusion in land ownership), have combined to produce global unrest over the future of eating.


As Olivier de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food has said:
Chronic underinvestment in agriculture over the last 20 years combined with trade liberalisation [sic] has trapped many developing countries in a vicious cycle of low agricultural productivity and dependence on cheap food imports, he argues. The one exacerbates the other as local farmers struggle, and fail, to get a decent price for their produce in competition with imports, which have often benefited from government subsidies.
Local farming goes into steep decline leading to migration to the cities. This is a serious market failure.
Madeleine Bunting via AllAfrica.com 25 January 2011

It's clear that globally we are reaching a breaking point--just ask the Tunisians and Egyptians. The drive to democracy comes out of hunger and the visible result of allowing market liberalization in the mistaken belief that low prices will last forever. The pusher always offered the first taste free, right?

[...T]o assume that the costs of industrial foods will continue to be subsidized by the relatively low price of oil is not only an environmental fallacy but could well prove untenable under conventional cost accounting. Most major oil-producing countries have already reached or are fast approaching the halfway point of their oil reserves and the reality of diminishing reserves coupled with the increasing energy needed to extract waning supplies is likely to drive rising costs, a phenomenon that has been called 'peak oil'. When these costs become embedded in transport, machinery use and agro-inputs it will have the most deleterious effect, at least in the short term, on low-income food deficit countries, which are already spending large portions of their scarce foreign exchange on food imports. Given the extent to which industrial food production is dependent upon fossil energy and petrochemicals, that is a significant component of the great geostrategic tensions embedded in the struggle to control the world's oil supply [...].
The global food economy : the battle for the future of farming / Anthony Weis. London ; New York : Zed Books : Distributed in the USA exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan, ©2007 page 39

Once again, the future has arrived before we're ready for it. But at least the citizens in the Middle East have corrupt dictators to blame for the food shortages and neo-liberal economic policies. Who have we in the developed world to blame? We're already democracies! We treat one of the big three essentials (food, water, shelter) as a pure commodity, rather than as an essential component of life. Canada hasn't even got a national food strategy--we have no plan on how to ensure our people get fed. Our governments (and ultimately in a democracy, that's us) are quite content to allow the market to take care of the problem of feeding the country.
But for thirty years now we've had to have food banks and soup kitchens across Canada. The "breadbasket of the world" produces under 70% of the food we need to feed ourselves. now, coffee and tea I understand. Mangoes. Bananas too (btw, something like 30% of the world banana crop grows in Queensland, Australia. Whoops!). This is a national version of an international problem; liberalized markets fail to efficiently distribute essential goods to the poor or disadvantaged. We've seen this in the water riots in Cochabamba, where involving the private sector in the water supply resulted in massive rate increases and water privation for a large part of the local population. Like Egypt, local protests forced significant change.
Water protest in Cochabamba

Egypt and Tunisia are really only the beginning. As we allow societies to become progressively less equal, more stratified, more unfair, the closer each one comes to revolution. And when the food system breaks down, revolutions follow. But without long-term fixes to food production and delivery systems, if quick fixes are the only ones offered, revolutions are repeated, chaos and famine follow, and eventually the streets run red.

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