Q&A: Food Prices and Revolution

While many factors are contributing to the growing unrest in Egypt -- and the crumbling of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak's regime -- it's important to note that one of the causes is the global rise in food prices. Price shocks for staples like wheat and grain led to rioting in many poor countries in 2007 and 2008, and price volatility in the global food market is likely here to stay. For a poor country like Egypt, changes in food prices have drastic consequences.

TAP spoke with Rene McGuffin, a senior public-information officer for the World Food Programme in Washington, D.C., about the role food prices play in Egypt, political unrest elsewhere, and what we can expect in the future.

What role are higher food prices playing in Egypt?

The rising price of food is a contributing factor. But so far, it has not been the central issue. The political turmoil that we're seeing in Egypt has been over a lot of issues, a lot of concerns ... whether they're poverty, inequality, and other issues. I would say the longer we have this issue in Egypt, the greater potential impact there will be on the economy, the shocks to the market, and individuals' and households' ability to purchase food will be reduced. There are already some reports of food inflation and shortages.

Even in times of stability, many Egyptians struggle to access nutritious food for a balanced diet. It is a low-income, food-deficit country. Twenty percent, or about 14 million people, live on less than a dollar a day. When there are any sorts of shocks, whether they be conflict-related or natural disasters, it creates greater challenges.

How does that translate into food? How few calories do they get a day?

In general, when you have someone living on less than $1, it's quite common to say they are eating one to two meals at best. Our concern is really with children as well as with pregnant and lactating women.

Do high food prices make people decide to advocate for change they wanted anyway or exacerbate existing tensions? What role do they play as a contributing factor?

The anger about the rising cost of food has been one of many highly visible dimensions of the protests in Egypt. The media can capture those [images] quite well, whether that's the demonstrators leaving loaves of bread, or highlighting the rising costs of lentils.

It can exacerbate a situation, but again, as I said earlier, it's a contributing factor. The longer the conflict goes on, the more intense or greater a contribution it can have. Egypt, like other countries, also has a history of food riots. In 2008, with high food prices, the government concern was so great they ordered the army to bake and distribute subsidized bread. There was another incident in 1977 when they looked at removing subsidies on the price of bread and other staples.

What other countries have we seen it in recently?

As you may recall, in Mozambique last year, we saw that. But again, there were other contributing factors as well. Most of us recall 2007 and 2008 and the high food prices we saw in numerous countries across the globe.

What role does U.S. policy play in making the price of food unstable?

There are a lot of different factors in terms of what is going on. Many of the structural factors that contributed to the 2008 food crisis remain. Those include growing food demand in emerging markets, like China and India, climate-related shock, the soft-equity market, and low interest rates that can draw speculation in common market. According to the 2010 [United Nations] Global Hunger Index report, 29 countries still have levels of hunger that are extremely alarming or alarming. And the risk of highly volatile food prices is here to stay. Most analysts would agree, at least in the medium term.

Will we see more of this in the future?

I would say that it is a possibility. What is interesting with the high food prices at the moment, while the food prices are high globally, in many of the places we work, in the worst-off areas of the world, prices have remained relatively stable or even fallen. There are actually strong reserves of many of the commodities.

A lot depends on all of these contributing factors. This is not just a single factor. There are many contributing factors, though the rising price of food is one of them and a significant one. We are watching the global feed markets closely amidst concern of higher prices ... in terms of stability and in terms of people's own well-being. If people can't afford to eat, people revolt or they have to migrate or they die. So, of course, it is a huge concern for us.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

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