The boiling point of a country is 210; not degrees on a thermometer, but points on a scale of food prices devised by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Reach that mark, and your population, on the brink of starving, will be in the streets kicking ass and taking heads. Pundits natter on about masses yearning to be free, loving democracy, spurning Islam, suddenly intolerant of dictators they were fine with for decades. In reality, the flame that lit the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War and the Crisis in Ukraine was a food price index of 210; and the same torch is spreading the flames around the world. The outbreak, according to Dr. Nafeez Ahmed (a security expert and writer for the Guardian of London), is a tsunami of civil unrest “on a scale that has never been seen before in human history. This month alone [February] has seen riots kick-off in Venezuela, Bosnia, Ukraine, Iceland, and Thailand.”
The Fahrenheit 210 hypothesis, to coin a phrase, was posited not by FAO but by the New England Complex Systems Institute. Its concerns were based on two things; the diversion of staple crops to biofuels production, and manipulation of staple-food prices by speculators. As useful as the index has been in explaining and predicting social unrest, there are additional factors that it does not take into account, and that cause it to underestimate the danger.
One is energy. As the costs of heating, cooling, transportation and production increase, the ability of families to buy food is diminished. At the outbreak of the current difficulties in Ukraine, average income was about $185 a month and food took half of that, energy and housing another quarter. Ukrainian oil and gas production peaked in 1976 and the country now imports 80 per cent of its needs. The price of natural gas, most of which comes from Russia, has quadrupled since 2004. If Putin succeeds in taking over this country he will find, as the Egyptian army has found, that victory can not only be hollow, it can blow up in your face.
Climate change is, of course, exacerbating the high costs of staple foods, with its associated floods, droughts and storms. But if the effects of climate change vanished tomorrow, the problem would persist and continue to get worse, because industrial agriculture can trash this planet without any help from greenhouse gases. A study out if the University of Nebraska last year concluded that despite increases in investment, expansions of acreage and applications of all the latest chemicals and hybrids, the output of industrial agriculture over much of the world has either flattened or started to decline. It’s a major reasons the FAO index has hovered around 209 for the past 18 months.
Global food prices spiked in 2008, 2011, and are expected to jump seriously in the year ahead. In 2008, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Cameroon, Mozambique, Sudan, Haiti, and India ignited. In 2011, it was Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Libya, Uganda, Mauritania and Algeria. Flames are visible now in China, Venezuela, Thailand, Syria, and elsewhere. After slow declines since the all-time high of August 2012, food prices have jumped four per cent this year. This according to the World Bank, which in its current issue of Food Price Watch worries openly about food riots.
Americans thus far are not much discomfited by the fact (most would not likely agree that it is a fact) that someone else’s end of the boat is on fire. But now, in this favored nation, pork (because of the deadly virus epidemic) and beef (because of the drought) and produce (ditto) and dairy products (ditto, again) are going through the roof. Yesterday an unemployed workman told me he’s eating nothing but salads now because he can no longer afford a pork chop.
Temperature’s rising. Can Fahrenheit 210 be far away?
See also: Peak Food. It’s Here.