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ZetaTalk: Food Riots
written April 5, 2008

Rice Jumps as Africa Joins Race for Supplies [Apr 4] Rice prices rose more than 10 per cent on Friday to a fresh all-time high as African countries joined south-east Asian importers in the race to head off social unrest by securing supplies from the handful of exporters still selling the grain in the international market. The rise in prices - 50 per cent in two weeks - threatens upheaval and has resulted in riots and soldiers overseeing supplies in some emerging countries, where the grain is a staple food for about 3bn people. India's trade minister, said the government would crack down on hoarding of essential commodities to keep a lid on food prices. [and from another] City Dwellers Priced Out of the Market [Apr 4] Yeshi Degefu stopped eating meat about a year ago. Vegetables followed soon and, more recently, chickpeas and lentils. Today, Mrs Yeshi, 50, of Addis Ababa, queues for subsidised wheat, the only food she can still afford. Mrs Yeshi is caught up in a food crisis that is hitting the urban population rather than the rural poor, the group that has in the past faced the greatest threat of hunger. This time, the problem is not a shortage of food but its price. Urban populations are more likely to protest, triggering riots which in Africa have already hit Burkina Faso and Senegal.

Acute food shortages are in the news, as are the rising prices that accompany shortages. We have predicted that in the years leading into the pole shift that crop shortages would occur, worldwide. Where this became evident in the year 2000, as documented by Nancy in her Shortage TOPIC within Troubled Times, these shortages did not make major headlines because stocks of grain and other staples were on hand. Now, the stocks are depleted, or nearly so. Where the price of wheat, corn, and soybeans has been rising in step with shortfalls, riots did not occur until shortages and price increases for rice occurred. Rice is a staple for half the world's population, primarily the poorest half, and thus this shortage is touching desperation. Rice was one of the cheapest foods for this populace, and now must be replaced by more expensive items or starvation looms.

The reaction of various governments to their starving populace is varied. Some are buying what stocks of rice they can secure and forcing price controls among the merchants distributing these stocks. Others are merely reacting to riots with traditional riot control. The poor in many of these countries have always suffered at near starvation levels, with little sympathy from the authorities who expect the starving to fade away quietly and not make a fuss. Malnutrition affects such a populace before birth, creating mental retardation and a poor start in life for the newborn. Malnutrition among the young stunts growth, particularly growth of the brain, exacerbating mental retardation. Thus deprived of an ability to earn a good living except by manual labor, which their stunted bodies can scarcely enable, those affected by chronic starvation hardly notice when their poor diet is diminished further.

It is the reasonably well fed who are being heard from during the recent food riots. Those who are not retarded or stunted, and have been able to enjoy a varied diet previously. The first reaction to rising food prices is to carve expensive treats from the menu. The second reaction is to alter the daily fare to emphasize inexpensive staples - a diet more dull but affordable. When inexpensive staples like rice rise or double in price these households must trim other expenses from their budget - less travel, clothing, and entertainment. In many cases, the household moves from being economically viable and in the black to running in the red, running into debt. Arguments ensue, and demands that the government do something about the situation is part of the argument. Tempers are at the trigger point, so that some trivial argument at the food market can spark a riot. This class of citizen - the formerly well fed - does not slide quietly or quickly into the stance of their chronically starved neighbors. They know about the underclass, the chronically underfed, but have never imagined themselves forced into these straits. In horror, they see themselves unable to afford enough food for good health, despite cutting back all budgetary items possible, so panic is just under the surface and explodes into hysteria with every rise in food prices.

What are governments to do when a formerly quiet portion of the populace becomes noisy and hysterical? Price controls are one avenue, but even with price controls the shortages will continue and increase due to the worsening weather extremes we have so long predicted. In the US, soup kitchens are threatened as the US government cuts back on handouts of surplus food items. There are no surplus items, or they are fast disappearing. New rules are likely to be instituted everywhere. Those who are obese will be encouraged to diet, perhaps given only vitamin pills and minimum protein such as a few boiled eggs per day. Grains fed to cattle will be diverted to human consumption. All idle fields will be put into production. And of course price control instituted to prevent panic among those who can no longer afford to buy food. But in those countries where such measures cannot be instituted because there simply is not enough food to go around, riot control will be used. Those who ignored their chronically underfed neighbors, the underclass they took for granted were always beneath them, will now join them, a type of karma, so to speak.