Reading the world in a loaf of bread

2011-08-29 09:35

What can a humble loaf of bread tell us about the world?

The answer is: far more than you might imagine.

For one thing that loaf can be “read” as if it were a core sample extracted from the heart of a grim global economy.


at another way it reveals some of the crucial fault lines of world

politics, including the origins of the Arab spring that has now become a

summer of discontent.

Consider this: Between June last year and June this year, world grain prices almost doubled.

In many places on this planet that proved an unmitigated catastrophe.


those same months several governments fell; rioting broke out in cities

from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to Nairobi, Kenya; and most disturbingly

three new wars began in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

Even on Egypt’s

Sinai Peninsula Bedouin tribes are now in revolt against the country’s

interim government and manning their own armed roadblocks.

And in each of these situations the initial trouble was traceable at least in part to the price of that loaf of bread.


these upheavals were not “resource conflicts” in the formal sense of

the term think of them at least as bread-triggered upheavals.

Growing climate change in a wheat field
Bread has classically been known as the staff of life.

In much of the world you can’t get more basic since that daily loaf often stands between the mass of humanity and starvation.

Still, to read present world politics from a loaf of bread you first have to ask: Of what exactly is that loaf made?


salt and yeast, of course, but mainly wheat, which means when wheat

prices increase globally so does the price of that loaf – and so does


To imagine that there’s nothing else in bread, however, is to misunderstand modern global agriculture.

Another key ingredient in our loaf – call it a “factor of production” – is petroleum.

Yes, crude oil, which appears in our bread as fertiliser and tractor fuel.

Without it wheat wouldn’t be produced, processed, or moved across continents and oceans.

And don’t forget labour. It’s an ingredient in our loaf too but not perhaps in the way you might imagine.

After all, mechanisation has largely displaced workers from the field to the factory.


of untold thousands of peasants planting and harvesting wheat by hand

industrial workers now make tractors and threshers, produce fuel,

chemical pesticides and nitrogen fertiliser, all rendered from petroleum

and all crucial to modern wheat growing.

If the labour power of those workers is transferred to the wheat field it happens in the form of technology.


a single person driving a huge $400?000 (about R28.9?million) combine,

burning 757 litres of fuel daily, guided by computers and GPS satellite

navigation, can cover 20 acres an hour and harvest 8?000 to 10?000

bushels of wheat in a single day.

Next, without financial capital?– money – our loaf of bread wouldn’t exist.

It’s necessary to purchase the oil, the fertiliser, that combine and so on.

But financial capital may indirectly affect the price of our loaf even more powerfully.


there is too much liquid capital moving through the global financial

system speculators start to bid-up the price of various assets,

including all the ingredients in bread.

This sort of speculation naturally contributes to rising fuel and grain prices.


final ingredients come from nature: sunlight, oxygen, water and

nutritious soil, all in just the correct amounts and at just the right


And there’s one more input that can’t be ignored, a

different kind of contribution from nature: climate change, just now

really kicking in and increasingly the key destabilising element in

bringing that loaf of bread disastrously to market.

Marketing disaster

these ingredients mix in a way that sends the price of bread soaring

politics enters the picture. Consider this for instance: The upheavals

in Egypt lay at the heart of the Arab Spring.

Egypt is also the world’s single largest wheat importer, followed closely by Algeria and Morocco.


in mind as well the Arab Spring started in Tunisia when rising food

prices, high unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor

triggered deadly riots and finally the flight of the country’s

autocratic ruler, Zine Ben Ali.

His last act was a vow to reduce the price of sugar, milk and bread – and it was too little too late.


that, protests began in Egypt and the Algerian government ordered

increased wheat imports to stave off growing unrest over food prices.


global wheat prices surged by 70% between June and December last year,

bread consumption in Egypt started to decline under what economists

termed “price rationing”.

And that price kept rising all through the spring of this year.

By June wheat cost 83% more than it had a year before. During the same time frame corn prices surged by a staggering 91%.


is the world’s fourth largest corn importer. When not used to make

bread corn is often employed as a food additive and to feed poultry and

livestock. Algeria, Syria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia are among the top 15

corn importers.

As those wheat and corn prices surged it was not

just the standard of living of the Egyptian poor that was threatened

but their very lives as climate-change driven food prices triggered

political violence.

In Egypt food is a volatile political issue.

After all one in five Egyptians live on less than $1 a day and the

government provides subsidised bread to 14.2?million people in a

population of 83?million.

 Last year overall food-price inflation in Egypt was running at more than 20%.


had an instant and devastating impact on Egyptian families, who spend

on average 40% of their often meagre monthly incomes simply feeding


Against this backdrop World Bank president Robert

Zoellick fretted that the global food system was “one shock away from a

full-fledged crisis”.

And if you want to trace that near

full-fledged crisis back to its environmental roots the place to look is

climate change, the increasingly extreme and devastating weather being

experienced across this planet.

When it comes to bread it went

like this: In the summer of 2010 Russia, one of the world’s leading

wheat exporters, suffered its worst drought in 100 years.


as the Black Sea Drought this extreme weather triggered fires that burnt

down vast swathes of Russian forests, bleached farmlands and damaged

the country’s breadbasket wheat crop so badly that its leaders (urged on

by western grain speculators) imposed a year-long ban on wheat exports.

As Russia is among the top four wheat exporters in any year this caused prices to surge upward.

the same time massive flooding occurred in Australia, another

significant wheat exporter, while excessive rains in the American

Midwest and Canada damaged corn production.

Freakishly massive

flooding in Pakistan, which put some 20% of that country under water,

also spooked markets and spurred on the speculators.

And that’s when those climate-driven prices began to soar in Egypt.


ensuing crisis, triggered in part by that rise in the price of our loaf

of bread, led to upheaval and finally the fall of the country’s

reigning autocrat, Hosni Mubarak.

Tunisia and Egypt helped

trigger a crisis that led to an incipient civil war and then western

intervention in neighbouring Libya, which meant most of that country’s

production of 1.4?million barrels of oil a day went off-line.


in turn, caused the price of crude oil to surge, at its height hitting

$125 a barrel, which set off yet more speculation in food markets,

further driving up grain prices.

And recent months haven’t

brought much relief. Once again significant, in some cases record,

flooding has damaged crops in Canada, the US and Australia.

Meanwhile, an unexpected spring drought in northern Europe has hurt grain crops as well.


global food system is visibly straining, if not snapping, under the

intense pressure of rising demand, rising energy prices, growing water

shortages and most of all the onset of climate chaos.
And this, the

experts tell us, is only the beginning. The price of our loaf of bread

is forecast to increase by up to 90% over the next 20 years.


will mean yet more upheavals, more protests, greater desperation,

heightened conflicts over water, increased migration, roiling ethnic and

religious violence, banditry, civil war, and (if past history is any

judge) possibly a raft of new interventions by imperial and possibly

regional powers.

And how are we responding to this gathering

crisis? Has there been a broad new international initiative focused on

ensuring food security for the global poor – that is to say a stable,

affordable price for our loaf of bread? You already know the sad answer

to that question.

Instead, massive corporations like Glencore,

the world’s largest commodity trading company, and the privately held

and secretive Cargill, the world’s biggest trader of agricultural

commodities, are moving to further consolidate their control of world

grain markets and vertically integrate their global supply chains in a

new form of food imperialism designed to profit off global misery.

While bread triggered war and revolution in the Middle East Glencore made windfall profits on the surge in grain prices.


the more expensive our loaf of bread becomes the more money firms like

Glencore and Cargill stand to make. Consider that just about the worst

possible form of “adaptation” to the climate crisis.

So what text

should flash through our brains when reading our loaf of bread? A

warning, obviously. But so far, it seems, a warning ignored.


Parenti, author of the just-published Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change

and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books), is a contributing

editor at the Nation magazine, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the

Nation Institute and a visiting scholar at the City University of New



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