Governments will fall when people go hungry

Patrick Lee | January 22, 2012

Food prices will remain high over the next 10 year and could trigger political upheavals, studies note.

PETALING JAYA: A worsening worldwide food crisis could trigger widespread political upheavals in developing countries akin to those seen in the Middle East.

According to the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) study entitled “The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East”, the Arab Spring uprisings coincided with global food price spikes.

The study said that governments which failed in ensuring food security often saw their own citizens rise up against them.

“Today, many poor countries rely on the global food supply system and are thus sensitive to global food prices.”

“When the ability of the political system to provide (food) security for the population breaks down, popular support disappears,” it said.

The study said that more than 60 food riots in 30 different countries took place in 2008, adding that there were “comparatively fewer” food riots when global food prices were lower.

This pattern, according to the study, appeared to repeat itself during the early stages of the Arab Spring.

However it is not clear if a Malaysian food crisis would at some point also result in political changes here.

Although it’s won’t be far-off to state that the abolishing of subsidies last year and the increase in oil and gas prices in Malaysia has resulted in simmering discontent across the board.

It is unlikely that under Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s transformation plans, prices of food in Malaysia – which incidentally is highly dependent on food imports – will stabilise or reduce.

More so if global reports give no indication of a reprieve in food prices in the next few years.

‘Concerted’ action needed

According to a report by Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), global food prices will remain at an all-time high over the next 10 years.

Developing countries which dependent on food-imports were dealt with “severe blows” in recent years because of spikes in food prices.

“There is now a widespread agreement that international agricultural prices will remain significantly higher than pre-crisis levels for at least the next decade,” the IATP report titled “Resolving the Food Crisis: Assessing Global Policy Reforms since 2007″ noted.

The report was referring to spikes in food prices in 2007-2008 and 2010-2011.

The report also warned that food demands would possibly “outstrip” supply by 2050, unless “concerted action” was taken to address the world’s food problems.

It added that agricultural systems all over the world were “deeply flawed” and estimated that the global food import bill last year totalled more than US$1.3 trillion.

More than one billion people, IATP added, were also suffering from starvation due to the 2007-08 global food price hikes.

The report attributed the worldwide food crisis to several factors. These included:

  • the rapid increase of use of farmland for energy purposes (biofuel)
  • an increasing shift in diet (eg. meat and fish) in large, rapidly growing developing countries
  • low levels in publicly held food stockpiles
  • trade policies that weakened developing countries’ food-production capacity
  • erratic weather in food-exporting countries, as well as climate change
  • a “long-run slowdown” in yield increases for key food crops, in part due to reductions in agricultural research and development (R&D)
  • food speculation
  • depreciation of the US dollar

Malaysians could end up starving

Many of these factors were found to be prevalent in Malaysia, a country highly dependent on food imports for survival.

According to a previous FMT report, Kota Belud MP Abdul Rahman Dahlan admitted that Malaysia was not “fast enough” in ensuring national food security.

He said that the 2008 rice shortage prompted the government to increase its national rice stockpile from 92,000 to 292,000 metric tons – a figure that would feed the country for six months in the event of a disaster.

Abdul Rahman also noted the setback could have been also due to the country’s shift from agriculture to industrialisation in the 1980s.

Local food expert Mohd Peter Davis also tied Malaysia’s current food state to the factors listed in the IATP report.

He had, in a previous FMT report, warned that Malaysians would starve as a result of a global economic collapse and that the country had stopped its agricultural R&D in the late 90s.

Speaking to FMT today, Mohd Peter said that the looming food crisis and worldwide shortage was a man-made problem.

“It’s outrageous, what’s happening in the world today…The food shortage that we’re having right now is an artificial shortage…Food production is one of the easiest problems to overcome,” he said.

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