How the Soaring Price of Bread Will Shake the Foundations of the Global Economy
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When these ingredients mix in a way that sends the price of bread soaring, politics enters the picture. Consider this, for instance: the upheavals in Egypt lay at the heart of the Arab Spring. Egypt is also the world’s single largest wheat importer, followed closely by Algeria and Morocco. Keep in mind as well that the Arab Spring started in Tunisia when rising food prices, high unemployment, and a widening gap between rich and poor triggered deadly riots and finally the flight of the country’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali. His last act was a vow to reduce the price of sugar, milk, and bread -- and it was too little too late.
With that, protests began in Egypt and the Algerian government ordered increased wheat imports to stave off growing unrest over food prices. As global wheat prices surged by 70% between June and December 2010, bread consumption in Egypt started to decline under what economists termed “price rationing.” And that price kept rising all through the spring of 2011. By June, wheat cost 83% more than it had a year before. During the same time frame, corn prices surged by a staggering 91%. Egypt is the world’s fourth largest corn importer. When not used to make bread, corn is often employed as a food additive and to feed poultry and livestock. Algeria, Syria, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia are among the top 15 corn importers. As those wheat and corn prices surged, it was not just the standard of living of the Egyptian poor that was threatened, but their very lives as climate-change driven food prices triggered political violence.
In Egypt, food is a volatile political issue. After all, one in five Egyptians live on less than $1 a day and the government provides subsidized bread to 14.2 million people in a population of 83 million. Last year, overall food-price inflation in Egypt was running at more than 20%. This had an instant and devastating impact on Egyptian families, who spend on average 40% of their often exceedingly meager monthly incomes simply feeding themselves.
Against this backdrop, World Bank President Robert Zoellick fretted that the global food system was "one shock away from a full-fledged crisis." And if you want to trace that near full-fledged crisis back to its environmental roots, the place to look is climate change, the increasingly extreme and devastating weather being experienced across this planet.
When it comes to bread, it went like this: In the summer of 2010, Russia, one of the world’s leading wheat exporters, suffered its worst drought in 100 years. Known as the Black Sea Drought, this extreme weather triggered fires that burnt down vast swathes of Russian forests, bleached farmlands, and damaged the country’s breadbasket wheat crop so badly that its leaders ( urged on by western grain speculators) imposed a year-long ban on wheat exports. As Russia is among the top four wheat exporters in any year, this caused prices to surge upward.
At the same time, massive flooding occurred in Australia, another significant wheat exporter, while excessive rains in the American Midwest and Canada damaged corn production. Freakishly massive flooding in Pakistan, which put some 20% of that country under water, also spooked markets and spurred on the speculators.
And that’s when those climate-driven prices began to soar in Egypt. The ensuing crisis, triggered in part by that rise in the price of our loaf of bread, led to upheaval and finally the fall of the country’s reigning autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Tunisia and Egypt helped trigger a crisis that led to an incipient civil war and then western intervention in neighboring Libya, which meant most of that country’s production of 1.4 million barrels of oil a day went off-line. That, in turn, caused the price of crude oil to surge, at its height hitting $125 a barrel, which set off yet more speculation in food markets, further driving up grain prices.