In the events swirling around the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt one key factor was largely overlooked by the international media. These and other Middle Eastern nations are plagued with chronic high unemployment. Because of this, food has been heavily subsidized for decades to maintain civil order.
In these underdeveloped nations as much as 50 percent of personal income is devoted to basic food needs. Much of this is purchased, not as processed food, but as raw grains, far more sensitive to volatile world commodity market prices than the processed foods consumed in the developed world.
In the recent unprecedented and rapid escalation of world grain prices, these food subsidies did not keep pace. The resulting civil dissatisfaction was a major factor feeding into the chaos that has toppled two national governments and promises much mischief for many more.
This run-up in international food prices is founded in both natural and man-made causes.
Causes such as drought, floods, and severe storms are to be expected and borne; this is, and will always be with capricious nature. The man-made causes are more problematic, disturbing and should be closely analyzed.
Official U.S. energy policy dictating gasoline blended with corn-based ethanol is only feasible because of heavy federal subsidies; left to stand on its own, these ethanol blends are neither cost effective nor in the long-term, sustainable.
This asinine federal policy has enormous negative ramifications for all U.S. livestock feeders and dairy farmers. The vast amount of corn going into ethanol has created a domestic shortage that has boosted the price of shelled corn, the principal ingredient in livestock concentrate feed, by a conservatively estimated 40 percent.
The surge in world grain prices cannot be blamed entirely on misguided U.S. energy policy alone. Opportunistic individual and corporate commodity traders have much to answer for in the growing misery and desperation of the poorest people in the developing world. Make no doubt about it: these commodity buccaneers are gaming food right out of the mouths of hungry third world children for no more uplifting purpose than personal enrichment.
Only in our modern, complex world could a bunch of unproductive brigands in business suits, adding no value to the grain they trade, be allowed to often profit far more than the farmers whose sweat, time, skill, investment and risk created the wealth these players game with. While this trading may be legal, the morality of this dubious and contemptible occupation should be much in doubt.
For most of calendar 2010, U.S.D.A. reported vast amounts of excess cheese in U.S. warehouses. This supposed glut of cheese resulted in a low and stagnant farm milk price. This "double whammy" of low milk price coupled with record high prices for dairy concentrate feed has left a majority of U.S. dairymen in dire financial straits.
This alleged mountain of cheese inventory is now but a fading memory. It has disappeared into the export pipeline, as far-sighted foreign nations feverishly bought-up any and all available processed dairy products in anticipation of the looming world food crisis. Just when their cows' production is desperately needed to feed an increasingly hungry world, many U.S. dairymen are facing bankruptcy.
How ironic that in this hour of unprecedented need, human avarice and government folly have teamed up to threaten to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, just when this rare bird is absolutely essential to the peace and stability of our planet.
Nate Wilson lives in Sinclairville.