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Critical consequences of food shortages

Food security: Food has always been an emotive issue between governments and their citizens. History shows that a shortage of basic staples, or too high a price for them, can contribute to public discontent.

Food has always been an emotive issue between governments and their citizens. History shows a shortage of basic staples - or too high a price for them - can contribute to public discontent and, in extremes, the downfall of governments.

This was evident during the Arab Spring. Rising prices of bread sparked unrest in Yemen, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco during 2008. Three years later and those nations all suffered wider consequences, caused by a variety of much broader factors but including unhappiness with price inflation of basic goods. Most recently, Egyptians cited long queues for bread as one reason for their dissatisfaction with the former president Mohammed Morsi.

Look further back in history and a similar trend can be found.

Crop failures leading to rising bread prices and the eventual starvation of peasants during the 1780s played into the hands of French revolutionaries already angered by rising taxation and the lavish lifestyle of the nobility.

It is little wonder, then, that governments are now giving the issue such serious thought. Food security is defined by Bain & Company, a management consultancy, as an issue of whether consumers can get "quality food available at all times at the right price".

"Food security is one of the most crucial issues facing the planet," wrote analysts for Bain & Co in a recent research note.

"What is at stake is not the well- being of people or their satisfaction as consumers, it is a question of survival for millions of individuals and of public security for countries of the world."

Nowhere is this more true than in the Arab world, where the battle to feed booming populations is exacerbated by a reliance on imports.

In an effort to appease their populations, governments have long tried to offset the impact of food prices by subsidising the cost of goods such as bread, sugar and rice.

But the IMF says such measures are unaffordable in the long run.

Food subsidies consume about 4 per cent of Egypt's budget and Morocco hiked spending on food and fuel subsidies to US$5 billion last year.

In the end, analysts advocate a peeling back of subsidies, combined with cash handouts to the worst off, along with a coordinated approach to food security, spanning securing strategic reserves and diversified sources of comodities.

That way, food security is less of a potential political hot potato.

 

tarnold@thenational.ae

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