Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Tunisia, Egypt and the food in your shopping trolley

Popular uprisings as seen recently in Tunisia and currently underway in Egypt usually have a complex network of contributing and enabling causes. One of the triggers in both cases may well have been a spike in food prices. Both Tunisia and Egypt import much of their food and have large segments of the population for whom food purchases comprise a hefty chunk of the weekly budget. A similar price spike in 2008 likely contributed to protests, rioting and unrest in at least sixteen countries.

Why the spike in food prices? That too is complex, but significant elements in the present mix include speculation, high oil prices and a string of weather-related disasters affecting crop production around the globe. Why speculation? Partially because of the cheap money being poured into major economies (or rather, into the financial system) and the unattractiveness of some alternatives in a downturn, that is, such speculation is one manifestation of the ongoing debt crisis that first publicly reared its head in 2008. Why high oil prices? Again, partially due to financial speculation, but this coming on top of long-term supply issues related to the peaking of conventional oil. Why crop failures? Many reasons here too, but among them are a string of destructive weather events consistent with predictions of climate change.

Yes, there are many other causes: repressive governments, rising economies shifting the balance of economic and political power, trends in global consumption patterns, biofuel and agricultural policies, local population growth and migration patterns, corporate interests, and of course the particular contours of various national histories and the actions and beliefs of certain influential individuals. But the triple converging crises of debt, depletion and degradation (also known as economy, energy and ecology) are likely to continue to contribute to these kinds of headlines.

So if you've noticed that some of the food in your shopping trolley has jumped in price recently, don't neglect to join the dots. What is a mild frustration to me in my wealth can mean the straw that breaks the camel's back for a nation closer to the edge. What can you do about it? All kinds of things, because it doesn't have to be this way.

40 comments:

Abu Daoud said...

The two groups of countries which have the fastest growing populations are also (mostly) the ones that do not have the agricultural and hydrographic resources to provide food for them. Why did you not mention population growth? That is a key issue in Egypt, and Yemen as well, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia, which has a slower population growth level.

Carthage (Tunis) was a net exporter to Rome of agriculture in the first centuries AD. Now it is the other way around.

byron smith said...

Hello Abu Daoud. Thanks for your thoughts and welcome to the blog!

Yes, population is another factor. I wasn't trying to be exhaustive and you are right about the extra stress that this brings. I've written about population in the past and have a few more posts on the topic half-written that I will probably get round to finishing at some stage.

Nonetheless, I think that the role of population growth can be overstated. Globally, it is consumption levels that are more decisive. For instance, the average Egyptian has a carbon footprint about a tenth the size of an average US/Australian/Canadian citizen and a fifth the size of a UK citizen. And Egypt's water supplies are threatened by land grabs in countries further south raising demand on the Nile's headwaters, land grabs by China, Europe and ME oil states, who all have diets with a higher footprint than Egypt.

But rising population does have a part to play. I note that Egypt was ranked 82nd for population growth rate in 2009, Tunisia was 128th.

(NB I haven't looked at the ecological condition of modern Tunisia, but I'm aware that much of the soil and vegetative cover of northern Africa was degraded by Roman agricultural practices during the time when it was the bread basket of Rome. This is a reminder that comparing now to then isn't simply about population figures.)

byron smith said...

PS I've added population growth to the post as another factor. I wasn't deliberatively avoiding it.

byron smith said...

Mongabay: Land grab fears in Africa legitimate.

byron smith said...

Egypt is the world's biggest importer of wheat. What's happened to wheat prices lately?

Joe Romm has more on the connections I'm suggesting here.

byron smith said...

Jeremy points out that in EgyptGDP is up, but so is poverty over the last twenty years. This too is an important underlying cause.

meredith said...

Thanks Byron, I take your point, Byron. Its so complicated I find it incredibly tricky to know what to think.

I mean, food price spikes have been factors in major revolutions for yonks now - think the bread riots in Paris prior to the French Revolution back in the late C17th, and the cry of the Russia's Bolsheviks for 'Peace, Land, Bread.'

I suspect it will only be with considerable hindsight, i.e. when we can review trends in the timing, location, frequency and severity of political unrest in relation to various changes in environment / energy / economy, that we'll really understand the connections. By then, of course, it will probably be too late.

byron smith said...

SMH: Risk management in the era of unpredictability:
"[I]n the 21st century there has not been a six-month period without a major crisis that simultaneously affected several countries or industry sectors. We are seeing more and bigger catastrophes created by increasing urbanisation, climate change and globalisation. The world has become an interdependent village."

byron smith said...

Meredith - I assume you are familiar with Hegel's quote "The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk."? Or, in more popular terms, hindsight is 20/20 vision.

Where that leaves us today, with our predictions, projections and plans, is unclear. What is the relation between prudence and hope?

byron smith said...

Drought in China could continue to push food prices higher.

byron smith said...

FAO: World food prices reach new historic peak
"World food prices surged to a new historic peak in January, for the seventh consecutive month, according to the updated FAO Food Price Index, a commodity basket that regularly tracks monthly changes in global food prices."

byron smith said...

Guardian: Egyptian cronyism. As nearly all of the early comments below the line mention, it is worth reflecting on how different things might be in the West.

byron smith said...

CP: Contribution of high food prices to unrest. Begins with a list of links to sources making the connection.

byron smith said...

Mongabay: Numerous causes, including climate change, behind food price rise:
"Given the complexity of world markets and agriculture, experts have pointed to a number of reasons behind the rise including rising meat and dairy consumption, the commodity boom, fresh water scarcity, soil erosion, biofuels, growing human population, and a warming world that has exacerbated extreme weather events such as last year's heatwave in Russia."

byron smith said...

NYT: Krugman agrees. Not always a good thing, but in this instance, I think he's on the money. However, easy money may have also contributed.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Failure to act on crop shortages fuelling political instability, experts warn.

CP: And Joe Romm points out that the typical response to grain shortages, national stockpiling, just makes the situation worse.

byron smith said...

Guardian: How to spread democracy in the Middle East - or why Bush's freedom agenda has not been vindicated by recent events in Egypt.

byron smith said...

Food price spike drives 44 million into poverty.

This is why economic growth pursued without reference to food security (and so to ecology and energy security) is short-sighted.

byron smith said...

CP reflects on food hoarding while Christiana Figueres warns that failure to address climate change "will threaten the basic foundation - the very stability on which humanity has built its existence.".

byron smith said...

Slavoj Žižek on the miracle of Tahrir Square.

byron smith said...

Video compilation of amazing images from Egypt.

byron smith said...

It is not just food, water stress as a trigger for unrest is coming (and already here in some places).

byron smith said...

Guardian: Middle East unrest adds to pressure on world food prices.

byron smith said...

At least not everyone in the government is sleepwalking. It must be lonely being Chris Huhne sometimes.

byron smith said...

Telegraph: Perhaps Malthus had a point and was just ahead of his time.

byron smith said...

Lester Brown: It's the water. Dwindling ME water supplies likely trigger for further political instability.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Instability needn't always be a bad thing. "So perhaps the real issue is not whether or not climate change will increase opportunities for political and social change, but who will take advantage and for what purpose."

byron smith said...

Guardian: political unrest and food prices in Uganda.

byron smith said...

Keith Kloor: Mideast revolts and global warming. Apart from the fact that the revolts are also in North Africa and that climate change is a better term than global warming, there are some good points and links in this piece.

byron smith said...

Martin Porter: End of the Arab Spring.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Egyptian revolution and the price of bread.

byron smith said...

Food speculation explained in a seven minute video. H/t Jeremy.

byron smith said...

Tom Friedman (NYT): The other Arab Spring.

"All these tensions over land, water and food are telling us something: The Arab awakening was driven not only by political and economic stresses, but, less visibly, by environmental, population and climate stresses as well. If we focus only on the former and not the latter, we will never be able to help stabilize these societies."

byron smith said...

Grist: The uprising in Syria also has climate links, as does the ongoing tensions and conflicts in Sudan.

byron smith said...

Guardian: 2011 study links food and civil unrest and suggests that 210 on the FAO food price index is the point at which unrest becomes more marked. Within a couple of years, the index is likely to remain permanently above 210.

{NB I'm not sure whether I might have already linked to this piece.]

byron smith said...

Guardian: 50 of the 250 civil conflicts that occurred between 1950 and 2004 were triggered by the El Niño cycle.

"The research, published in Nature, uses a statistical approach to show that the risk of a conflict doubles from 3% to 6% in El Niño cycles (which occur every three to seven years) in affected nations. Unaffected nations showed no such pattern. The analysis shows that a fifth of the 250 civil conflicts between 1950 and 2004 were precipitated by hotter, drier weather. Differing levels of poverty, democracy and population did not alter the strength of the climate-conflict link, nor did the impact of the end of colonial rule in many countries by 1975."

The original study is here.

byron smith said...

Climate warmed up Syria for war.

See also the discussion and links on this FB post.

byron smith said...

38 US security experts warn of the climate threat.

ABC: Climate as threat multiplier.

ABC: Department of Defence warned of climate threat.

byron smith said...

John Vidal: Climate change: how a warming world is a threat to our food supplies.

New publication: The Arab Spring and Climate Change.

byron smith said...

Motherboard: The Math That Predicted The Revolutions Sweeping The Globe Right Now.