Food Crisis: What Happens When We Run Out of Bread Food Crisis: What Happens When We Run Out of Bread
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Food Crisis: What Happens When We Run Out of Bread

by Evan Fraser

October 8, 2010
Sometimes a crisis strikes not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with an uptick in the numbers on a data feed. In the past months, droughts and wildfires have scorched away large swaths of Russia’s wheat crops, and forecasts suggest that yields will be down 25 percent. Global wheat prices have risen faster than at any time since 1973. This could be the first rumble in a greater storm, like in 2008 when a combination of bad weather, expensive oil, commodity speculation, and the bio-ethanol industry pushed prices so high that riots erupted in Mexico, Cameroon, and Pakistan. Or it could be worse.

This year’s jump in prices will likely remain just a hiccup, though. We saw superlative harvests during 2008 and 2009, leaving enough grain in the world’s silos to give the global food system a much-needed buffer. Investors, impoverished food-importing nations, and international organizations are aware of these stocks, and have retained their sanity. Two years ago, the world had a lot less food in storage.

Saving grain for a hungry season can mean the difference between bread riots and political stability. Especially in light of a future in which rising oil prices, soil degradation, and climate change are liable to unmoor our agricultural system, the logic of storing food becomes very compelling.

Saving grain for a hungry season can mean the difference between bread riots and political stability.

Evan Fraser is an associate professor of geography at the University of Guelph. Along with Andrew Rimas, the managing editor of Improper Bostonian, he co-authored Empires of Food: Feast Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilization and Beef: the Untold Story of how Milk, Meat and Muscle Shaped the World.

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Food Crisis: What Happens When We Run Out of Bread