As a media event, the Egyptian uprising has been exhilirating.
In all the hoopla and celebrating, though, it’s easy to lose sight of some fundamentals. One is the important role of food lurking in the background. Egypt has been wracked by food riots in the recent past–most notably in 1977 and again in 2008–when the government attempted to reduce its food subsidies, which led to significant price increases.
Egyptians spend about half of household income on food. I don’t know the exact dynamics, but it seems as if Egyptian agriculture suffers from tight government controls, while at the same time, the country is America’s largest customer for wheat and corn.
By contrast, Americans spend between 10% and 14% of their household incomes on food, or less than a third as much as the Egyptians.
One of the big reasons Americans spend so much less of their incomes on food is because of this country’s factory food system that has developed over the last sixty years. Of course, government subsidies have played a role in encouraging massive production of such basic crops as corn, soy, and wheat.
Part of the reason our government has pushed so hard for the factory system is to encourage exports, so developing countries like Egypt and Tunisia pay top dollar for our food. But another less discussed reason is that full bellies and cheap food discourage discontent at home.
Go back in history, and more often than not, uprisings are fueled at least in part by empty stomachs. When people have to pay 40% and more of household income for food, you are likely to have discontent. Nothing is more threatening to politicians than a hungry populace.
The publication Business Inside last month identified “25 countries whose governments could get crushed by food price inflation”…and already two have gone down (Tunisia and Egypt).
By the way, the Egyptian uprising isn’t a lock to lead to democracy. An intelligence service I like to monitor is expressing skepticism (as it did when the Iranian riots failed to produce serious change two years ago). “We do not want to be killjoys now, since everyone is so excited and happy. But we should point out that, in spite of the crowds, nothing much has really happened yet in Egypt. It doesn’t mean that it won’t, but it hasn’t yet. An 82-year-old man has been thrown out of office, and his son will not be president. The constitution and parliament are gone and a military junta is in charge. The rest is speculation.”
It’s important to understand as well why events like the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings help reenforce our government’s commitment to the factory food system, despite growing concerns about health issues tied to cheap food. We may see people demonstrating for human rights. Our leaders see people with empty stomachs clamoring for cheap food.