Rising Food Prices Threaten Obama’s Political Base

“When you concentrate on agriculture and industry and are frugal in expenditures, Heaven cannot impoverish your state.” Xun Zi (312-230 B.C)

The Obama administration incurred the wrath of US voters in a mid-term election designed by the Founding Fathers to prevent demagoguery or changes unwelcome by the majority. It worked because Republicans were elected in enough numbers to challenge and at least slow down the policies. Obama claims his policies, such as health care, taxation, and immigration are designed to help middle- and lower-income people. He will undoubtedly continue them. However, as Time magazine cutely explained,

“Yes, we can” has collided with “Oh no you don’t.” And the future — including the 2012 presidential election — starts right now.

This diverted from a growing problem that will hurt Obama’s political base more than any other segment of society.

Politicians battled over social issues and allowed the economy to spiral out of control while a series of events were pushing food prices higher and higher. It affects everyone, but hurts middle- and lower-income the most. Historically, it’s the issue that brought governments to their knees. Communist governments failed to feed the people. Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which allowed peasants to own small plots of land, was introduced within 7 years of the Revolution as collectivization failed. It was a major reason for Gorbachev abandoning communism. As Thomas Jefferson said,

Agriculture, manufacturers, commerce and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.

Graffiti on the walls of Pompeii reportedly say of leaders, if we get rid of this bunch of scoundrels, we get another bunch of scoundrels. People have always tolerated incredibly bad leaders and governments. They grumble, but rarely revolt. So what causes uprisings? The usual catalyst is a failure of the food supply. Ceremonies in all societies, from rain dances among North American aborigines to Inca bloodletting by the leaders, were designed to ensure the harvest. Catholic fasting during Lent was a brilliant use of the fact that food was in short supply as winter supplies exhausted and the new harvest was not in. Religious reward for what was inevitable is a political masterpiece.

You can summarize human history in one word: hunger. Most people were malnourished or starving. A Pompeii epitaph says the owner is finally free from hunger. British rioters carried flags that said Bread or Blood in the famines caused by the year with no summer in 1816. The Corn Laws introduced in Britain and other European countries were a government control to counteract excessive gouging because of short supply. Some say Scrooge was a ”meal man” or grain dealer. The life histories of Pharaohs that line the walls of their tombs invariably glorify their ability to feed the people. The tomb of Ankhtifl reports the earliest known great famine between 2180 and 2130 BC:

All Upper Egypt was dying of hunger, to such a degree that everyone had come to eating his children, but I managed that no one died of hunger in this district. I made a loan of grain to Upper Egypt… I kept alive the house of Elephantine during those years. (Source: H.H. Lamb, “Climate, Present, Past and Future” 1977.)

There’s always the conflict between rich and poor, such as between the peasants and aristocrats in 18th century France. Consecutive years of bad weather in 1787 and 1788 caused harvest failures that triggered the French Revolution in 1789. Growing unrest began with the devastating effects on agriculture of the eruption of Laki in Iceland in 1783. Benjamin Franklin predicted the impact because he witnessed the eruption in his transit across the Atlantic. A combination of poor harvests and bad government policies pushed supplies dangerously low and prices unbearably high. After the harsh winter of 1788, the Revolution began with storming of the Bastille in July 1789 before the new harvest came in.

Everyone knows about the Industrial Revolution but few know an Agricultural Revolution preceded it. The ability to produce surplus food allowed people to move to the cities and work in the burgeoning industrial economy.

It’s the foundation of civilizations; surplus food creates surplus time to develop a civilization. One definition holds that it is an advanced state of human society in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached. Europe and North America saw a shift of the population until now, approximately 82% are urban and 18% rural with only 2% farmers. A similar transition is occurring very rapidly in China and putting a great strain on the economy.

Most agriculture occurs in the middle latitudes between 30º and 55º. The US took advantage of its location in this zone. Dramatic increases of food production were achieved with technology, crop diversification, and plant breeding – more than any nation in history. Compare this with the paradox that the apparently luxurious vegetation of the tropics grows on some of the most infertile soils in the world. Heat and heavy rains result in most minerals washing out, leaving soils very high in iron (hence the deep red color). Vegetation is maintained by the constant cycling of dead material. Remove the vegetation and the soils erode easily and baked iron hard. Attempts to extend agriculture in these regions by the World Bank failed like all previous attempts, such as Henry Ford’s rubber plantations during WWII or the British government’s “Ground Nut” scheme in Africa. The World Bank plan was based on the belief that agricultural growth was essential for economic growth.

The evolving food situation is a combination of factors with poor weather a part. Food prices are easily affected because global supplies barely lurch from year to year. In less than a year, the foolish policies to encourage biofuels quickly drove corn prices through the roof and caused starvation in developing nations. Last winter, I spoke to farmers across western Canada and learned that in areas of Alberta, up to 50% of beef farmers had eliminated their herds because they couldn’t afford the cost of production. The Canadian government has already paid $30 per acre for farmers suffering from cold wet crop failures. Early in the summer we learned of Russian crop failures and decreased yields in many parts of Asia, for example due to flooding in Pakistan.

However, the biggest problems are political failures, misdirection and ignorance. Increasing urbanization results in a growing detachment of urbanites from agriculture. Even 30 years ago, many urbanites came from or still knew people on the farm. Major newspapers had sections devoted to agriculture, but not anymore. Urban politics divert the mainstream media and the people, while farm troubles go unreported.

The Obama Administration is riddled with people who were either members of the Club of Rome or accept their doctrine. They’ll argue that overpopulation is the problem. Parts of the current price increases are due to increasing population, but also wealthier populations, especially in Asia. However, they ignore the biggest failures of leadership and the negative impact of environmentalism, which are improvements in storage and distribution. In developed nations, 30% of the crop never gets to the table; in developing nations, it is 60%. This was at the heart of the ozone/CFC issue, a major but a scientifically unjustified issue. So the people they claim to care about will suffer the most and throw them out of power in 2012.

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