Bread and Blood

Protesters in Tunis

Alex Perala
The Reckoner

There was a funny incident recently in a shopping center in Misrata. The mall has a walk-in freezer used by its resident restaurants to store perishable foods, but for a short time the freezer was used to store the corpse of the former autocrat of the country.

The corpse was that of Muammar Gaddafi. It was shirtless and bloody, lying on a quotidian mattress that was itself blood-stained where its plastic covering had been peeled off. A large contingent of Libyans had risen up against the dictator, causing him to flee across the country. Eventually he was found hiding in a drainage pipe.

This was one of the most dramatic consequences of the so-called Arab Spring, an upwelling of popular dissent against autocratic leaders throughout the Middle East. Western media pundits all agree that the Arab Spring was caused by Twitter and Facebook, but there are some secondary factors that are worth a look, too. One of them is bread.

It’s interesting to note that grain prices soared in 2007 – 2008, and that the Arab Spring was sparked in December of 2010, when a young, poor fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi grabbed hold of an electrified wire in an act of protest against the Tunisian state. Soon after that, Egypt became the focal point of the Arab Spring, when protesters began a peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square. Egypt’s bread prices had risen 37% during the 2007-2008 grain price spike, and the country saw general food price inflation increase by 18.9% until its people ousted their own dictator.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that revolution followed on the heels of a food crisis, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend it isn’t. Why did grain prices increase so much in the first place? A variety of factors were responsible. Meat consumption was on the rise in growing markets like China and India, with many crops going to livestock; many farmers were opting to produce crops for use as biofuels rather than food; market speculation on food commodities added some volatility to the mix. But also: declines in water tables, unpredictable weather events, prolonged and severe droughts. Climate change. It wasn’t the only factor, but it was an important one.

It seems as though the effect that climate change would have on crops was considerably underestimated in past scientific speculation. Previously, it was thought that increased carbon in the atmosphere might actually help carbon-hungry vegetation to grow; and the effects of severe weather were not given adequate consideration. Now, though, we’re realizing how sensitive crops are to seemingly minor changes in climate. For example, years ago Californian farmers began to notice that a more rapid springtime snowmelt was robbing their usually fertile valleys of a much-need source of water during the summer months – a product of a relatively minor change in climate. And blossoms can open too soon for migrating insects to pollinate them, and trees that need cool nights to recover between harvests may produce weaker crops – again, a small increase in temperature can throw off a delicate balance.

And when such delicate balances are disrupted to the point that crop yields are significantly reduced, then the stage is set for social unrest. New research suggests a firm, empirical link between food insecurity and civil disruption, and while there is still a greater focus in the research on factors like commodity speculation, agro-fuel and increasing overhead, the specter of climate change nevertheless looms over all.

So what’s next? Who knows. But early this year China experienced a significant drought, and later Russia endured the hottest summer on its 130-year record – along with a combination of drought and wildfires that destroyed a fifth of its wheat crop, prompting the state to ban its export. And heat and drought arrived in Europe this summer, too. The period of March through May in France was the driest the country had seen in fifty years, and the hottest in over a century.

All that heat could add up, and who knows who else might end up in a freezer.

This entry was published on November 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm and is filed under civil unrest, food security. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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