February 4, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Writing on the Wall

The writing on the wall, foretelling the turmoil that has roiled North Africa and the Middle East in recent weeks, appeared during the food crisis of 2008.  It was then that staple food shortages and soaring prices sent protesters into the streets in dozens of countries in the developing world.

This was the news from Egypt on April 7, 2008, reported by the Associated Press:

“Egyptian riot police beat a protester with batons during anti-government protests….Police fired tear gas and beat protesters, and demonstrators angry over rising prices and low wages tore down a billboard of Egypt’s president in a second day of violence…”

Didn’t last night’s news carry similar images?

The New York Times reported this on April 18, 2008:

“In Cairo, the military is being put to work baking bread as rising food prices threaten to become the spark that ignites wider anger at a repressive government.”  Later in the story, a food vendor is quoted as saying, “We can’t even find food.”  He raised his hands heavenward and said, “May God take the guy I have in mind.”  The guy, the Timespointed out, “was President Hosni Mubarak.”

Literally, the writing on the wall.

That Egyptian scene in the 2008 Times story was part of a broader look at the anger over rising food prices that was then spreading across the globe.  A few days before, that anger ignited protests in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and forced the prime minister from office.

Remember, it was the food crisis of 2008 that toppled the government of Haiti, not the earthquake two years later.  Yet it was the earthquake that seemed to awaken everybody to the awful poverty of Haiti, and not the food riots.

Why is that?  Why weren’t the food riots the moment of truth, the event that prompted the U.S. government and humanitarians around the world to rush to aid Haiti?  At The Wall Street Journal, in 2008 we chronicled how Haiti, under the direction of international development institutions, downplayed agriculture and shifted its farmers from growing rice for local consumption to making underwear for export.  Why did development agencies first focus on programs to revive Haiti’s agriculture after the earthquake, and not after the food crisis?

And why wasn’t the world on high alert about the simmering tensions in Egypt after the food riots?  The Associated Press reported in its story that the 2008 turmoil was “the worst unrest since Egypt’s 1977 riots over increased bread prices.”

The food crisis of 2008 was the harbinger of food chain strains and popular unrest to come.  The staple food price increases exacerbated gaps between rich and poor, and inflamed outrage over the injustice of persistent poverty and over governments that didn’t seem to care.

Yet few seemed to recognize, or at least acknowledge, the debilitating impact of the neglect of agriculture development in the poorest countries of the world over the past three decades.

So here we are again.  Food price indices are ascending past 2008 high water marks.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported this week that global food prices hit record levels last month, after seven straight months of increases, and warned that prices will likely continue to increase as some food stocks remain low, at least until new harvests come in.  And unrest is stirring again in the developing world where price increases bite particularly hard and accentuate feelings of hopelessness.  Mix this anger with pent-up resentment of undemocratic regimes and you have an especially tumultuous brew.

Again, the writing is on the wall.  But are we now doing enough to solve the problem?

Some are.  The Obama administration, with its Feed the Future initiative, intends to attack chronic hunger by increasing investment in agriculture development, particularly development that improves the production and incomes of the vast legion of smallholder farmers.  The leaders of some rich world countries, development institutions like the World Bank and philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have launched the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) to funnel more money into agriculture development plans of the poorer countries.  And last month the British government published a report called “Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming,” which calls for an urgent strategic reappraisal of how the world is fed.  All of these efforts aim to meet the challenge of doubling global food production by 2050 to keep up with rising demand from population growth and the growing prosperity of that population while more crops are diverted to biofuels and seemingly more-frequent extreme weather events wreak havoc on harvests.

Still, despite the harbinger of rising food prices, there are plenty of politicians and government officials around the world who are holding back agricultural development funding in the name of budget cutting and fiscal austerity.  In the U.S., budget-cutting hawks in Congress are making noise about eliminating anything that appears to be “foreign” aid.

But there is nothing “foreign” about the impact of rising food prices and swelling hunger.  Feed the Future and GAFSP aren’t simply “foreign” aid programs.  They are programs vital to America’s national security.  They are efforts to secure the global food chain, to increase food production and the nutritional value of that food for all of us.  They are attempts to head off future food riots over shortages and soaring prices, and the global instability that results.  Cutting funding to these programs just as they are beginning to build momentum would be tragically short-sighted.

Those who can’t see this, who refuse to read the writing on the wall, seem to have their heads buried in sand — the tumultuous sand of North Africa and the Middle East.


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The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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