Of the top 20 wheat importers for 2010, almost half are Middle Eastern countries. The list reads like a playbook of toppled and teetering regimes: Egypt (1), Algeria (4), Iraq (7), Morocco (8), Yemen (13), Saudi Arabia (15), Libya (16), Tunisia (17). For decades, many of these regimes relied on food subsidies to ensure stability — a social contract so pervasive that the Tunisian scholar Larbi Sadiki described it as dimuqratiyyat al-khubz, or “democracy of bread.” But over the past several years, grain prices reached record levels, and these appeasement policies lost their luster.
And bread riots have ensued. Very interesting and informative piece by Annia Ciedazlo ¨Let them eat bread¨in Foreign Affairs. And so much to say about it I can only gesture, and I am not even saying anything about the massive literature on bread riots in, say, Europe.
Just a few comments
1. A reminder to those of us in the US who think that bread is more or less irrelevant to a good diet (or inimical to it) that bread remains crucial for much of the world. The possibility of a shortage is both a motive for unrest and a symbol of discontent.
2. Providing bread (or its equivalent) is extraordinarily tricky and always has been. As the article hints, since World War II both the Soviet policy of ensuring cheap bread for citizens and the US policy of using bread as carrot and stick, aid and political tool, have run into huge problems.
3. Uneasy about the way the author jumps from Egypt as part of the Fertile Crescent ca 10,000 BC to now. Lots of food policy in between, including its use as bread basket for the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the land grab of the rulers in the early nineteenth-century that beggared the poor, and cotton as export agriculture under British influence. No simple food security story to tell through all this.
4. Uneasy also about the way the author presents the story as one of imported grain vs local grain. In the long history of food, this is one dynamic. Just as important is the urban versus rural dynamic. States keep urban populations quiet and prevent rioting by ensuring by cheap bread (or rice or maize). This is often done at great cost to rural populations. I would be curious to know about internal migration in the past generation.
5. Uneasy also about the way the author assumes that American wheat is cheap because it is subsidized. In the nineteenth century, before subsidies (well, leave aside cheap land!! railroad paths acquired by eminent domain), the huge fertile, rain-watered areas of the US and mechanized agriculture meant that from Britain to China buyers were snapping up cheap American wheat. Wheat as aid or loans to buy it are another matter.
But American wheat would, I suspect, be cheaper than anything that could be produced in Egypt even without subsidies. Please correct me if I am wrong.
6. I am very struck by the intrinsic difficulties of matching food production to consumer needs. If the meta narrative of this piece is that if only small farmers were encouraged, then food security could be achieved (and I am not sure that is the meta narrative), I am deeply suspicious. States since Antiquity have tried and failed time and again to get production and consumption of bread in sync. Political boundaries change, cities grow and shrink, populations grow and shrink, people move from one spot to another, weather changes, not all soil is created equal. Monarchs and emperors, warehouses and land grabs, socialism and capitalism have all struggled with the problem. No simple answers here, just constant vigilance.
Which, of course, is not to say that I am writing in support of repressive regimes in the contemporary Middle East or anywhere else. Just that I want to give some context.