DANIEL VAUGHAN: History roars back with coming food catastrophe

The Economist released an evocative cover to highlight “The coming food catastrophe.” Against a sky-blue background are three heads of wheat. The wheat grains are composed of human skulls, conveying the implications of a severe famine and catastrophe. As I last wrote, the baby formula shortage crisis is a microcosm of a much larger problem.

The Economist giving the issue front-cover status signifies that this story is spreading beyond markets and business news. It’s a stark reminder of what the reality of increasing food costs tells us and where the food crisis could end: calamity. The threats are real, both physical and political.

In part of that cover issue, the Economist says, “The widely accepted idea of a cost-of-living crisis does not begin to capture the gravity of what may lie ahead. … Nearly 250 million are on the brink of famine. If, as is likely, the war drags on and supplies from Russia and Ukraine are limited, hundreds of millions more people could fall into poverty. Political unrest will spread, children will be stunted and people will starve.”

However, scaremongering is not the point here: being realistic and clear-eyed is. We can see that there is a growing problem. And we can see that problem early enough to shift resources to counter it.

A slow White House.

Our problem is that the Biden administration is late to see a problem, slower to respond, and non-existent in creative thinking. The baby formula recalls began in February 2022. Before that, empty shelves were a problem. We’re only getting a response to that single food item at the end of May 2022.

It’s an embarrassment of incompetency.

CNBC reports that the United States and Europe are now scrambling to respond to the food crisis since India has banned wheat exports. “G-7 foreign ministers warned over the weekend that the war in Ukraine is increasing the risk of a global hunger crisis. This is because Ukraine has been unable to export grains, fertilizers and vegetable oil, while the conflict is also destroying crop fields and preventing a normal planting season.”

Aside from shortages, higher prices are running rampant. “Last month — not yet factoring in India’s export ban — The World Bank forecasted wheat prices would rise to a record $450 per metric ton for 2022, a 42% increase over last year. India said its decision was based on soaring international prices, which put its own food security at risk: in April, food inflation rose by 8.3% in India.”

Food prices are creating the conditions for unrest.

These factors have combined to create some of the highest food prices on record. The UN’s FAO index hit the highest numbers it ever had in 60 years. The other highs came during the peak of the 1970s stagflation and the 2012 food crisis, which was a factor in the Arab Spring uprisings.

Higher food prices, shortages, and outright famine are not things people accept with no response. There are always consequences.

Reuters identified protests cropping up across the developing world, where food prices or availability are some of the critical factors. Protests are popping up in Argentina, Chile, Cyprus, Greece, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Tunisia.

That last country list, Tunisia, is one to watch. That was the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Authorities there are conscious of that fact, halting demonstrations around anniversaries of those events. The government is taking those actions because, again, food prices are one of the critical factors that are helping foment unrest directed at leadership.

Empty wallets because of food can make people see more wrongs with their government than may exist. Empty bellies can shift that anger into action. Never underestimate the power of food on politics.

History returns.

At one point in history, every politician understood this fact. Napoleon famously helped invent modern canned food when he created a cash prize for anyone able to create new food preservation methods. Napoleon understood he needed to feed his armies and his people.

Our ancient ancestors understood the dangers of famines. They did everything in their power to avoid those lean times. It’s hard to find that same basic instinct among our modern political leaders.

Part of this is understandable, particularly in the United States. Our historic wealth makes us impervious to nearly all wants or needs imaginable. But that’s where learning lessons from history is imperative. Politicians should heed the lessons of their predecessors on this point and push for solutions.

Because it’s not just politicians who may be relearning this lesson, the average person will also relearn what they believe about their government. This point will occur amid increased food prices or famine in the developing world. If you judge a government on whether or not you can afford food, your top issues change dramatically.

That makes the Economist’s front cover story a welcome addition. Hopefully, it shakes our leaders out of a daze because the time to act is now.