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Back in 2007, before terms like subprime mortgages and credit default swaps entered our
vernacular, the world's policymakers found themselves facing a far more basic, if equally complex
global crisis-one involving food.
At the time, news of ration line riots flooded headlines, while pundits entertained apocalyptic
visions of an underfed future. Many nations erected monolithic trade barriers to protect domestic
supplies, while surging oil prices and speculative investors only drove food indices even higher.
By the end of 2008, of course, the global financial crisis had effectively dampened demand, and
lower oil prices allowed food commodity markets to stabilize. The world's attention then turned to
the financial sector and stimulus plans, and the once ominous specter of an international food
shortage suddenly receded into the background.
Now, however, the specter of another food crisis has reared its ugly head, once again.
In recent months, a plummeting US dollar has increased the cost of foodstuff imports for many
nations, while severe climate and natural disasters in Russia and Pakistan have jolted global
supply chains. Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil and the Philippines have already warned
of impending food shortages in the next year. In the matter of a few months, grain prices jumped
so precipitously that, in late September, the Intergovernmental Group on Grain, sponsored by the
UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), called an emergency meeting.
When the session concluded, the FAO announced that the chances of slipping into another
international food crisis remained slim, but warned that import-dependent countries would likely
see a substantial increase in commodity prices. A month later, World Bank president Robert
Zoellick echoed and expanded upon this sentiment, saying that food price volatility would likely
last for another five years.
"There is growing concern among countries about continuing volatility and uncertainty in food
markets," Zoellick told the Guardian in late October. "These concerns have been compounded by
recent increases in grain prices. World food price volatility remains significant and in some
countries, the volatility is adding to already higher local food prices."
For all this uncertainty, today's commodity market tumult has yet to metastasize into a full-blown
international crisis. Food price indices, while high, are still well below the per-bushel levels of 2007
and 2008. And, aside from a brief outburst in Mozambique, the political seas of consumer
discontent have been relatively placid.
Nevertheless, some economies have already begun to feel the pinch. And perhaps none more
acutely than Egypt's wheat market.
Egypt's Wheat Worries
In July, a monumentally severe heat wave struck much of Russia, inciting widespread fires and
droughts, and devastating the country's wheat crop. In the wake of the disaster, Russia
implemented an export ban on wheat in the hopes of securing a healthy domestic supply through
the end of the year.
The news came as something of an alarm to Egypt, the world's largest wheat importer and
scheduled recipient of 540,000 tons of Russian wheat, due for delivery by the end of this year.
With this order suddenly cancelled, Egypt found itself scrambling to diversify its import portfolio to
make up for its Moscow-sized trade gap.
Eventually, the US, France and a host of foreign suppliers stepped up to fill the void, and, in mid-
September, Egyptian trade minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid confirmed that the country had
secured enough supplies of wheat to avoid any immediate shortages.
That should come as a major relief to the average Egyptian consumer, who, according to the
country's General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC), consumes about 180 kg of flour per
year. This import diversion will also ease the concerns of Egypt's politicians, who were no doubt
skittish after the recent death of a 25-year-old in a bread queue revived memories of 2008, when
similar violence broke out among protesters and police in the city of Mahalla.
Ultimately, though, this game of mercantile musical chairs is nothing more than a stopgap
measure that masks a more insidious, if less obvious malady-Egypt's wheat subsidy program.
Each year, the Egyptian government devotes some $3 billion to food subsidies-a third of which
goes to buoying the country's bread supply. Under this system, the state procures wheat from
foreign suppliers at a fixed price. In a country where roughly 16 million inhabitants are classified as
poor, guaranteeing a constant food supply certainly makes political sense.
There's an economic logic to the country's subsidies as well. By devoting so much capital to the
wheat market, Egyptian authorities are essentially attempting to protect the domestic market from
the often violently sinusoidal tremors that can rattle international grain prices.
In September, when the GASC announced that it had secured sufficient imports to feed the
Egyptian population, deputy chairman Noamani Nasr Noamani pointed out that the government
had also secured enough money to increase the budget for its wheat subsidies. This increased
budget, Noamani claimed, means "the Egyptian consumer and the Egyptian citizen will not feel the
pain of the increase of prices globally."
The problem for Egypt though, is that today's market conditions couldn't be less favorable to such
a massive-and often misdirected-subsidy program.
In October, Minister of Agriculture Amin Abaza promised that the government would not allow local
procurement prices for the new harvest season to fall below LE300 Egyptian pounds per ardab
(measuring unit for crops). Abaza's proclaimed threshold is roughly 20 percent higher than last
season's, but Egyptian wheat farmers say it's still not high enough.
With the cost of fertilizers having risen over the course of the past few years, Egypt's agrarians
had been hoping for a guaranteed price of at least LE350 per ardab. Today's wheat farmer,
according to estimates from Cairo-based investment firm CI Capital, has to spend roughly LE2,000
to cultivate a single feddan (1.038 acres). Without a higher guaranteed price, farmers will likely
devote their arable land to more profitable crops, thus exacerbating an already grim outlook.
There are, of course, several exogenous factors over which Egypt has little or no control.
Commodity traders may continue to drive up international food prices through speculative
investments; the inexorable forces of urbanization and large-scale, agro-industrialization can only
be harnessed through global, cooperative efforts; and, of course, there's no telling when the next
drought or heat wave might decimate international harvests.
The one thing Egypt can control is its domestic production chain. Yet thus far, governmental
subsidies have only resulted in an underperforming market and distorted prices.
This is not to say that the country must abandon its subsidy program altogether. Some 60 million
people benefit from subsidized foods, and, with a parliamentary election on the horizon, calling for
an end to subsidies would be tantamount to political suicide. Rather, Egypt must look to reform the
program, with an eye toward creating very real incentives for farmers to plant wheat. Setting a
simple price threshold, in today's protean economic climate, clearly won't be enough.
Fortunately, the state seems well aware that domestic wheat production needs to be reinvigorated.
In August, the agricultural ministry proclaimed its goal to achieve 70 percent self-sufficiency by
2020 with the help of a new, higher-yield strain of seed. It's certainly a step in the right direction,
but if Egypt wants to avoid shortfalls in 2011, it must set about implementing higher-yield subsidies
Know More About Food Crisis ! Check This Link Now!