Now we’re seeing Egypt brought to its knees in a matter of days. It’s a sobering lesson in how quickly history can be made and nations unmade.
This is a time of danger and uncertainty. Will Egypt turn into a secular democracy or slip into an Iran-like Islamist dictatorship? For America and the rest of the world, the stakes are high.
Many Egyptians say they want freedom. But they also want something much more basic: food. One of the most important lessons of the scenes from Tahrir Square is that we must use all of the tools at our disposal to make sure food is as widely available as possible.
The unrest in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East began in December with a dispute over food, when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire. Since then, Tunisians have overthrown their government, Egyptians are on the verge of tossing out their leader, and reformers are pushing for change in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen.
Last fall, several experts warned about potential turmoil. “If the rise in food costs persists, there will be an explosion of popular anger against the government,” said Hamdi Abdel-Azim of the Sadat Academy for Social Sciences last November, according to the IPS news service.
A new study by Rabah Arezki and Markus Bruckner of the University of Adelaide in Australia concludes that high food prices in poor countries “lead to a significant deterioration of democratic institutions and a significant increase in the incidence of anti-government demonstrations, riots, and civil conflict.” Egypt has seen this before: In 1977, the cancellation of food subsidies caused thousands of protestors to take to the streets in what is now called the Egyptian Bread Riots.
The root problem is that Egypt can’t produce enough food to feed its own people. Its home-grown agriculture is a narrow strip of irrigated land along the Nile River. Everything else is sand. So Egyptians rely on farmers in other countries to meet their needs. Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world and the eighth-largest export market for American farmers.
Egypt’s challenges grow worse when other countries slap export restrictions on their own farmers, as we’ve recently seen in Argentina, Russia, and Ukraine. Americans may feel disconnected from these policies, but when foreign governments make it harder for farmers to reach consumers abroad, they create the conditions for turmoil–and these can develop into national security threats for the United States. The free flow of goods and services across borders won’t alleviate every catastrophe, but it can keep bad situations from growing worse.
Another potential solution is greater productivity. Americans already are involved in this area: We’ve helped Egypt build a water buffalo feed lot industry that allows locals to derive greater value from their own livestock.
On my trip to Egypt, I was able to observe this industry firsthand–and also to sample its wares. No, water buffalo doesn’t taste like chicken – just plain beef. The milk of water buffalos is nutritious too with 30% butterfat.
Biotechnology also can boost productivity. Egypt currently grows a small number of GM crops–a couple thousand acres of biotech corn. It should plant more. Biotechnology is one of the keys for unlocking the untapped potential of African agriculture. Modern science can help us transform farming on the world’s most underperforming continent. Elsewhere, the development and commercialization of biotech wheat will produce greater yields and make it easier for nations to send food shipments to hungry nations.
In Egypt, things may get worse before they get better–but they may very well get better, if we allow trade and technology to do their job.
Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans on a NE Iowa family farm. Tim volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology http://www.truthabouttrade.org