Food Crisis: What Happens When We Run Out of Bread

Posted by Evan Fraser

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.

But we usually don’t follow this logic. On the whole, the world fell out of the habit of storing food after the UN’s “strategic grain reserve” program collapsed in the 1990s due to corruption and ineptitude. Worse, storing food costs money. If you don’t need the emergency supplies (and you hope you don’t) then they eventually rot. In the name of economic efficiency, the IMF generally recommends that countries look to market solutions for their food security, selling food and buying it back in times of need. Agricultural economists, too, fret that in times of dearth, governments might panic and hoard food, thus exacerbating short-term supply problems.

But food reserves are the difference between the panic of 2008 and the relative calm of 2010. A long-term strategy of storage gives us an insurance policy. The cost of storing (and disposing of) uneaten reserves during years of plenty is trivial compared with the political and economic costs of a true food crisis.

Policymakers would do well to remember the Old Testament story of Joseph and the Pharaoh. The Book of Genesis tells us that the Pharaoh of Egypt had a dream of seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows. His adviser Joseph interpreted the dream as a message from God in the form of a weather forecast. The seven fat cows represented seven years of abundance, while the seven skinny cows were seven years of rotten harvests. Joseph’s advice was to tax farmers a portion of their crops during the good years so the stored food would offset famine during the bad. And so the land was saved.

It’s a story with a happy ending, but history is littered with examples of societies that failed to steward their food systems.  As we review in our new book, Empires of Food: Feast Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, societies as diverse as ancient Rome, the Mesopotamians, and Imperial England all mismanaged their food supplies, causing tens of millions of deaths. In the most extreme cases, societies collapsed when food supplies stopped moving from the countryside to the urban markets. In each of the cases we reviewed in our book, the period of time before the decline was marked by climate change, population growth, deforestation, and sharp rise in the price of food. The food system opened the door for disease, invasion, and collapse.

Today, we don’t need divine revelation to see that we have a problem. Our climate models suggest that the good years of the 20th century won’t continue, nor do our commodities markets offer much reassurance. The answer to the bad harvests to come is to store more food.

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.