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The Price of Bread: A Measure of Political Stability

Want to know where and when political upheavals will erupt in the world? Just pay attention to the rising costs of bread.

| Tue Jul. 19, 2011 5:39 PM EDT

And that's when those climate-driven prices began to soar in Egypt. The 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 neighboring Libya, which meant most of that country's production of 1.4 million barrels of oil a day went off-line. That, 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 United States, and Australia. Meanwhile, an unexpected spring drought in northern Europe has hurt grain crops as well. The 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 percent over the next 20 years. That will mean yet more upheavals, more protest, 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. And 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.

Christian 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 York. His articles have appeared in Fortune, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Mother Jones, among other places. He can be reached at Christian_parenti@yahoo.com. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Parenti discusses the origins of his latest book and how climate change contributes to global violence, click here, or download it to your iPod here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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