MONDAY, APRIL 21, 2008

Food riots serve as a warning

There’s something particularly unsettling about the term “food riots.”

Even if you’re not Louis XVI.

Governments can always be changed, national boundaries adjusted.

Food is what you might call non-negotiable.

And in spreading areas of the globe, it’s becoming what you might call non-available.

Recently, food riots have exploded in Haiti – where they toppled the government – Ivory Coast, Pakistan, Mexico, Madagascar and Indonesia. In Egypt, the army has been ordered to bake bread. In the Philippines, exporting rice is a crime.

Increasingly, the planet is looking like a bad place to get something to eat.

It’s unlikely we’re at the point of bloodshed in the pasta aisle of a Safeway near you. But the ripple on the international food line is showing up in the United States in higher food prices and strains on American anti-hunger organizations.

Being Americans, we’ll probably have gas riots before we have food riots. But we’d also better devise a real policy on food supply.

We don’t need one for everywhere on the planet. Just for the places where people eat.

“In the last year,” Ronald Bailey reports in the libertarian blog Reasononline, “the price of wheat has tripled, corn doubled and rice almost doubled.” Countries are banning the export of grain, and Nicole Menage, head of purchasing at the United Nations’ World Food Program, says, “It has become very difficult to find food.”

All kinds of drives are tossing food prices upward. Wealthier middle classes in China and India are eating more meat, which consumes more grain. Exploding petroleum prices affect the price of fertilizer. Australia, a major exporter, has had a punishing drought, and Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer – admit it, you’d forgotten we had one – warned this week that African stem rust is spreading to wheat crops around the world.

Increasingly, corn, in particular, is going into biofuel. Last year, Congress required that biofuel use increase five times, and some observers are talking about the law of unforeseen consequences.

“If there was a secret vote,” Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., the House’s point man on hunger, said recently, “there is a pretty large number of people who would like to reassess what we are doing.”

The number includes many of the world’s finance ministers, who met in Washington recently to call for action on the price increases, with several calling for a reconsideration of ethanol.

This week, writer and filmmaker John Teton spoke to a group of congressional aides about his proposal for a Food Security Treaty, requiring standards and enforcement for a right to nutrition. He points out that around the world, thousands of people a day die of starvation. And that situation was before world food prices started acting like oil prices.

“The era of cheap food is over,” the British news magazine The Economist said this week. “The transition to a new equilibrium is proving costlier, more prolonged and much more painful than anyone had expected.”

Like all international economic developments, this is complicated and difficult to manage. But hunger is particularly resistant to long-term solutions.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins put it, people don’t eat in the long run. They eat every day.

Ensuring that is getting more and more difficult – and in a price-driven food crisis, the effects are felt locally as well as internationally. The United States needs a policy that not only feeds other countries, but can get them closer to feeding themselves.

We could even talk about it, maybe during a presidential election.

Because as food prices shoot upward around the world, this is going to be more than just watching TV footage of other countries’ famines.

Or even their food riots.

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