They’re Rioting in Africa

Farmer's market in Lhasa (Photo: Nathan Freitas)

Our industrialized, resource-intensive agricultural system is once again contributing to food instability.  Food prices spiked along with oil prices in 2008, and there were food riots all over the globe, from Mexico to Africa to India.

In the past few days, world food prices have reached a new high, and there are riots in Algeria over the problem.The cost of such common ingredients as flour and cooking oil has doubled in just a few months in Algeria, and unemployment is estimated to be around 25 percent. Protesters have ransacked government buildings, banks, and post offices.

This isn’t the first time that oil and food problems have been related. In 1973, 1974, and 1979 the U. S. experienced the biggest food price inflation of the last part of the 20th century; world hunger was a big issue. This was undoubtedly part of the larger problem of oil shortages. The basic problem then, as now, is a resource-intensive agricultural system trying to maximize meat production, and oil was the key ingredient needed to grease the system.

In the 1970’s the problem with oil supplies was political: the OPEC embargo in 1973, and the Iranian revolution of 1979. When the price of oil fell, world food problems subsided. Today, we’re seeing similar problems with oil — but the constraints are physical, not political. Everyone wants to pump oil, but the cheap stuff is gone. There’s plenty of oil left — if you want to pay $100, $200, or $300 a gallon to get oil from the Alberta tar sands or under miles of ocean off the coast of Brazil.

Oil drives much of our economy, including our transportation and our agricultural system. The difference between our transportation and our agricultural system is that we could, in a pinch, live without cars.  But we cannot live without food. There are people in Algeria, now, who have reached that breaking point.

The current industrialized agricultural system is a system based on excess, catering to the meat-eating desires of a global minority. This agricultural system has encountered multiple limits to growth — not enough soil, not enough water, not enough atmosphere into which to dump the belching cows’ methane, no more forests to convert to pasture, and — most important currently — not enough cheap oil to power the system in the first place.

This issue is not going to go away. Vegetarians, more than anyone else, should be able to point out that an agriculture of excess is not a sustainable path.

UPDATE January 15: Food riots are spreading throughout the Middle East.  The riots in Tunisia have resulted in the fall of the government.  In Jordan, thousands of demonstrators protested rising food prices and unemployment.

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