By Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post
Monday, March 14, 2011
Here’s a question about the Mideast turmoil for future historians: How much did food inflation contribute? We know some basic facts. Middle East countries import 50 percent or more of their wheat, a staple food for many. Beginning in mid-2010, world grain prices exploded. At $8.56 a bushel in February, wheat prices had doubled in eight months. Despite massive subsidies, some higher prices filtered through to consumers. Did that create a tinderbox for protest?
“In both Tunisia and Egypt, women in TV interviews screamed about food prices,” says Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Food inflation was a contributor. How much we don’t know.” Whatever the verdict, it’s not an idle curiosity. As much as oil, scarce food could shape global politics for decades.
Call it the Great Food Crunch. Global food demand is colliding with strained supply. High prices or shortages could destabilize poor countries and trigger global scrambles for scarce foodstuffs. The present price surge is the second in three years. In 2008, run-ups in rice and wheat triggered protests and riots in about two dozen countries, including Egypt, Haiti and the Philippines. Then and now, some suppliers (India and Vietnam in 2008 for rice and Russia now for wheat) restricted exports, increasing world prices and shifting risk to countries with food deficits.
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