Gwynne Dyer: The future of food riots

Tuesday, January 11, 2011
By Paul Martin

By Gwynne Dyer
Straight.com
January 9, 2011

If all the food in the world were shared out evenly, there would be enough to go around.

That has been true for centuries now: if food was scarce, the problem was that it wasn’t in the right place, but there was no global shortage. However, that will not be true much longer.

The food riots began in Algeria more than a week ago, and they are going to spread. During the last global food shortage in 2008, there was serious rioting in Mexico, Indonesia, and Egypt. We may expect to see that again this time, only bigger and more widespread.

Most people in these countries live in a cash economy, and a large proportion live in cities. They buy their food, they don’t grow it.

That makes them very vulnerable, because they have to eat almost as much as people in rich countries do, but their incomes are much lower.

The poor, urban multitudes in these countries (including China and India) spend up to half of their income on food, compared to only about 10 percent in the rich countries. When food prices soar, these people quickly find that they simply lack the money to go on feeding themselves and their children properly—and food prices now are at an all-time high.

“We are entering a danger territory,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization, on January 5.

The price of a basket of cereals, oils, dairy, meat, and sugar that reflects global consumption patterns has risen steadily for six months. It has just broken through the previous record, set during the last food panic in June 2008.

“There is still room for prices to go up much higher,” Abbassian added, “if, for example, the dry conditions in Argentina become a drought, and if we start having problems with winter kill in the northern hemisphere for the wheat crops.”

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