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Cover Story

How rising food prices are impacting the world

High grain costs, caused by severe drought, are hitting dinner tables from Guatemala to China. But the world has learned valuable lessons since the food shocks of 2008. Will it be enough to prevent social unrest?

By Staff writer / September 23, 2012

Farmer Randy Pettinghill examines an ear of undersized corn in a field near Plumerville, Ark. This is the cover story in the Sept. 24 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Danny Johnston/AP

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Our story begins near Prairie City, Iowa, in the fields of Gordon Wassenaar, who has been coaxing food out of some of the world's richest earth for 57 years. Normally, Mr. Wassenaar is able to harvest about 200 bushels of corn per acre from his land – bin-bursting crops that are sent off to feed people in places as disparate as Michigan and Malawi.

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Not this year.

As he walks the 1,500 acres that he farms, Wassenaar occasionally pauses to finger a stalk and peel back the husk, revealing corn that is shriveled and stunted. He figures that the headstrong drought of 2012 will cost him about 40 percent of his harvest.

"It's not that we're gonna go out of business overnight," he says. "But what we're worried about is next year. We've got to get some moisture."

The lean yields on Wassenaar's land, and those of other grain farmers across America's Great Breadbasket, are ricocheting around the world, from Guatemala, to Indonesia, to China. One of the worst droughts in a half century – Wassenaar says it's the most severe he's seen since the year he began farming, in 1955 – is raising prices for some of the world's most important foodstuffs.

The effects are being exacerbated by churlish weather in other parts of the world – notably in the big wheat-producing areas of Russia, Ukraine, and other countries that hug the Black Sea, where a more moderate drought has hit, as well as in Australia, the globe's No. 2 wheat exporter, where below-average rainfall is expected to reduce the November harvest by more than 10 percent.

As the impact of the droughts works through the global food system, an urgent question looms: How hard are people being squeezed – and will it lead to possible social unrest?

This is no idle consideration. The world has been at this point before, as recently as 2008. At the time, global food prices were soaring, emergency stockpiles were depleted, and, with drought on two continents, little relief seemed in sight.

From Russia, to Panama, to the Philippines, almost everywhere really, governments did precisely the wrong thing. They panicked, rushing into grain markets to stockpile supplies or banning exports. Speculators poured in after them, like lions harassing a herd of antelope, raising prices even further beyond the rational laws of supply and demand.

What followed were bread riots across the developing world from Haiti in the west, through Egypt and Cameroon, and on east to Pakistan and Bangladesh – nearly 30 countries in all. The food crisis of 2008, and a smaller price spike in 2010, also set the stage for the Arab uprisings of 2011 that are still remaking the politics of the Middle East.

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