Egyptian police foiled plans for a general strike after protesters angry about rising food prices set fire to buildings and looted shops in the industrial Nile Delta town of Mahalla el-Kobra over the weekend. (AP in the International Herald Tribune) At least four people were killed in similar clashes with police in Les Cayes, a city on Haiti’s Caribbean coast. (BBC News)
What the commentators said
When people all over the world start rioting because they can’t afford to put food on the table, said The Christian Science Monitor in an editorial, it’s time to “rethink global security.” The cost of food staples in Haiti has gone up 50 percent in the last year, and, “from Egypt to Vietnam, price rises of 40 percent or more for rice, wheat, and corn are stirring unrest and forcing governments to take drastic steps, such as blocking grain exports and arresting farmers who hoard surpluses.” With spreading deserts and rising demand for grain-fed meat driving the price hikes, this problem won’t go away on its own, so world leaders will have to actually do something about it.
But what? said Paul Krugman in The New York Times (free registration). The first thing is getting aid to “people in distress.” The second is halting the push for biofuels—the “subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy independence and help limit global warming,” but this was clearly a big mistake. “You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.”
“Ethanol production has been linked to a rise in the price of everything from tortillas to gummy bears,” said Michigan State chemical engineering professor Bruce Dale in the Trenton (N.J.) Times, but “this argument is very nearly ridiculous.” The truth is that “rising wealth and grain demand in China and India, drought in Australia, increased ethanol demand, and especially rising energy prices all play a role” in driving up grain prices all over the world.
There will certainly be a “backlash” against using crop land for fuel production if “world food shortages worsen,” said the Singapore Straits Times in an editorial (subscription required). If Europe and the U.S. decide not to reverse converting cropland for biofuel production, perhaps the solution is figuring out ways to get more food per acre. Using genetic manipulation to produce “high-yield strains of rice and wheat” is “a scientific hot potato,” but if anybody has “a better idea to reverse recurrent trends of food scarcity” now might be a good time to share it with the rest of us.