Dignity, Bread and Liberty; the start of peak food revolutions

Mike Small
4 February 2011

"What has changed the placid Egyptian population into a boiling mass of revolt?" Goes the not-so-subtle sub-text of much corporate media coverage. First the supposed quietism of the Egyptian people is over-stated, there have been other strikes and protests in recent years. As recently as 2008 Egyptians rioted over bread prices. Second they are hardly a boiling mass, in fact the remarkable feature of the events in Tahir Square and across the country was the peacefulness, civic organisation and dignity of hundreds of thousands of people demanding change. But the short answer to the question 'what made it all kick-off?' is: bread, not twitter. It's not an RSS feed they're after: 'Dignity Bread & Liberty' is the slogan. 

The western media may be obsessing with social media but believe me this isn't the thing you are focusing on if you don't have enough to eat. Egypt, as the world's largest wheat importer, is reliant on countries like Russia and Pakistan for its food supply. American writer Danny Schechter puts it well: "Yes, the tens of thousands in the streets demanding the ouster of the cruel Mubarek regime are there now pressing for their right to make a political choice, but they are being driven by an economic disaster that has sent unemployment skyrocketing and food prices climbing." 

Prices in Egypt are up 17 percent because of a worldwide surge in commodity prices that has many factors, but speculation on Wall Street and big banks is a key one. The European Commission yesterday published a new version of a report on commodities, which acknowledged a link between speculation and price increases. A previous version of this report argued that there was no evidence of such link, but this clashed with Sarkozy's agenda for the G20. Hence, Michael Barnier redrafted the report. 

Meanwhile, writing in Les Echos, French economist Francois Bourguignon calls into question a number of received wisdoms on commodities prices: volatility is no higher today compared with the 70s or the 80s; the massive entry of index funds on commodities markets has not increased prices ; the volatility of agricultural prices is mostly due to unanticipated variations in market fundamentals, such as climate, costs, and demand. 

But whether it's climate, speculations and spivs (or a lethal combination) the fact is that people are out in the streets not just to assert their demands for a democracy, but by their need to eat. 

Nouriel Roubini - who was among the first to predict the financial crisis and was dubbed a Cassandra for his troubles in 2005 - urges us not just to look at the crowds in Cairo, but what is motivating them now, after years of silence and repression? 

He agrees that the dramatic rise in energy and food prices has become a major global threat and a leading factor that has gone largely unreported in the coverage of events in Egypt. 

If we take Roubini's advice and look at underlying motives or para-economics we can see deeper issues. Is it too speculative to see the 25 January revolt as the first food revolution as fuelled by peak oil? Oil prices affect food prices when you have a petro-chemical food economy.  

Egypt's not unique in all this. World food prices hit a new record high in January after rising for a seventh consecutive month, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said today (Feb 3 2011), warning the poor would be hit hardest. 

The FAO Food Price Index, which monitors monthly price changes for a basket of commodities, averaged 231 points in January - up 3.4 percent from December and its highest level since FAO started measuring food prices in 1990.

None of this is new. In 2008 food riots swept across Africa with protests in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania and Senegal. In most of West Africa the price of food has risen by 50%. Nor is this a phenomenon closed to 'poor helpless Africa'. In the USA there was a 41% surge in prices for wheat, corn, rice and other cereals over six months in 2008. 

As we stand in solidarity with the Egyptian people, we should also not allow this crisis in food democracy to be allowed to become a trojan horse for westernised 'solutions' to hunger. Food Sovereignty is required not food security or the bogus techno-fix of GM. This is a political problem reflecting an unsustainable global food system ill-equipped to withstands the difficulties of climate change and collapsing institutions of governance.  


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