While scenes of massive wildfires and Muscovites coughing in smoke-choked streets make great television images, the real news from the Russian heat wave is the ban on exports of grain. The heat wave has impacted the wheat harvest sufficiently that the export ban was seen as a necessary hedge against domestic shortages – the last thing Prime Minister Putin wants to have to deal with right now. The ban was temporary at first but has recently been extended to at least mid-2011.
Russia’s climate troubles have only accelerated the onset of a crisis which has been looming for some time, the growing food shortage. Global wheat prices shot up 38% in July, 3.7% in August, and about 7% so far this month. Almost drowned out by the news of wars and rumors of wars, the number of food riots in formerly food-exporting countries has been growing steadily for years. Yesterday’s food riots in Mozambique, sparked by a thirty percent increase in bread prices, are the most recent examples.
There are a lot of things behind the African food crisis, but one is the land-grab in progress from more developed countries outside the region. This amounts to contracts negotiated with usually-corrupt national governments to turn over large tracts of farm land to foreign corporations for export-only agriculture. The result is not simply hunger but also mounting political instability. The coup in Madagascar last year, which has left the country on the verge of anarchy, was triggered in part by discovery that President Ravalomanana had signed a contract with the South Korea conglomerate Daewoo turning over control of 50% of the nation’s arable land for export-only crop production.
The imminent end of cheap oil has something to do with this as well. One of the principal driving force behind first-world nations negotiating large-scale land contracts with African nations has been the desire to produce bio-fuels. Of course, the idea of devoting vast tracts of land in a country to growing sugar cane for bio-fuel while the people of that country starve is – aside from immoral – unsustainable, as the coup in Madagascar suggests.
By the same token, the mechanism we have chosen to deal with temporary famines in developing countries has had the effect of making the food crisis permanent. When production falters, we ship in food aid, food grown by first world farmers, often with government subsidies, and give it away, destroying the economic viability of local agriculture. We saw the same thing in Haiti, recently, when the influx of foreign medical assistance – desperately needed as it was – had the unintended consequence of driving local medical providers out of business.
There are solutions to all of these problems, and they do not require revolutionary changes. Stop subsidizing bio-fuels. In a famine, purchase local food as a source for aid as a first resort and use imported foodstuffs as a last resort. Here is a link to an analysis piece with a number of good ideas on solving the problem.About the Author: The major landmarks in Frank's historical interests range from ancient Persia through the Crimean War, World War II, and the modern U.S. Armed Forces, with a lot of stops in between. Frank is fascinated by the unusual, the overlooked, and the surprising. He is the New York Times number one best-selling author of the Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) and he is currently writing an historical novel on Alexander's conquest of Persia – from the Persian point of view.