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World facing huge new challenge on food front

Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute
A fast-unfolding food shortage is engulfing the entire world, driving food prices to record highs. Over the past half-century grain prices have spiked from time to time because of weather-related events, such as the 1972 Soviet crop failure that led to a doubling of world wheat, rice, and corn prices. The situation today is entirely different, however. The current doubling of grain prices is trend-driven, the cumulative effect of some trends that are accelerating growth in demand and other trends that are slowing the growth in supply.

The world has not experienced anything quite like this before. In the face of rising food prices and spreading hunger, the social order is beginning to break down in some countries. In several provinces in Thailand, for instance, rustlers steal rice by harvesting fields during the night. In response, Thai villagers with distant fields have taken to guarding ripe rice fields at night with loaded shotguns.

… Around the world, a politics of food scarcity is emerging. Most fundamentally, it involves the restriction of grain exports by countries that want to check the rise in their domestic food prices. Russia, the Ukraine, and Argentina are among the governments that are currently restricting wheat exports. Countries restricting rice exports include Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Egypt. These export restrictions simply drive prices higher in the world market.

The chronically tight food supply the world is now facing is driven by the cumulative effect of several well established trends that are affecting both global demand and supply.
(16 April 2008)

Food price rises are “mass murder” – U.N. envoy

Global food price rises are leading to “silent mass murder” and commodities markets have brought “horror” to the world, the United Nations’ food envoy told an Austrian newspaper on Sunday.

Jean Ziegler, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, told Kurier am Sonntag that growth in biofuels, speculation on commodities markets and European Union export subsidies mean the West is responsible for mass starvation in poorer countries.
(20 April 2008)

How Hunger Could Topple Regimes

Tony Karon, TIME Magazine
The idea of the starving masses driven by their desperation to take to the streets and overthrow the ancien regime has seemed impossibly quaint since capitalism triumphed so decisively in the Cold War. Since then, the spectacle of hunger sparking revolutionary violence has been the stuff of Broadway musicals rather than the real world of politics. And yet, the headlines of the past month suggest that skyrocketing food prices are threatening the stability of a growing number of governments around the world. Ironically, it may be the very success of capitalism in transforming regions previously restrained by various forms of socialism that has helped create the new crisis.

… The sociology of the food riot is pretty straightforward: The usually impoverished majority of citizens may acquiesce to the rule of detested corrupt and repressive regimes when they are preoccupied with the daily struggle to feed their children and themselves, but when circumstances render it impossible to feed their hungry children, normally passive citizens can very quickly become militants with nothing to lose. That’s especially true when the source of their hunger is not the absence of food supplies but their inability to afford to buy the available food supplies. And that’s precisely what we’re seeing in the current wave of global food-price inflation.
(11 April 2008)

Researchers: We know secret of Joseph’s biblical pest control

Ran Shapira, Haaretz Daily (Israel)
The remains of a burnt beetle found in a grain of wheat about 3,500 years old provided a group of researchers from Bar-Ilan University with a key to a question the Bible left without a definite answer: How did Joseph the Dreamer, who became the viceroy to the king of Egypt, succeed in preserving the grain during the seven lean years and prevent Egypt’s population from starving?

According to the description in the book of Genesis, during the seven years of plenty in Egypt, Joseph had all the wheat collected in silos. “And he gathered up all the food of the seven years which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities; the food of the field, which was round about every city, laid he up in the same. And Joseph laid up grain as the sand of the sea, very much, until they left off numbering; for it was without number” (Genesis 41, 48-49).

The stores of wheat and barley served the inhabitants of Egypt during the period of drought and hunger that followed. But how did Joseph and the people of Egypt succeed in preventing pests from destroying the inventory they had accumulated, without any means of pest control and without being able to completely seal the storehouses? In order to answer that question, Prof. Mordechai Kislev, Dr. Orit Simhoni and Dr. Yoel Melamed from the laboratory for archaeological botany in the Life Sciences department of BIU used the burnt corpse of the beetle from the grain of wheat.

… The lesser grain borer was just starting its career in Egypt when Joseph arrived there. Because of its phenomenal reproductive capacity, storing one batch of grain containing a small population of the grain borer was enough to bring about the destruction of the entire granary and to threaten an entire city with starvation.

Kislev, Simhoni and Melamed believe that Joseph was aware of this and therefore – according to the biblical description – he isolated the grain of each city in its own jurisdiction and prevented the transfer of batches of grain from one community to another.
(21 April 2008)
Contributor Bat-Tzion Benjaminson writes:
In an era of global food crisis, every means of alleviating hunger should be explored, including more effective storage and preservation of grains in low-tech environments. Who can use this information? Please pass it along.