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Twitter didn't cause the Egyptian revolution—bread did

dylan c. robertson


Media determinists of all stripes have hailed the role of Twitter, Facebook and other social media in prompting the recent pan-Arab revolts. Though it could be argued that these revolts were bound to happen eventually, the catalyst isn’t likely social media — it’s food.

One of the main causes of the French Revolution was a combination of a mismanaged economy and climate change that resulted in soaring bread prices. The Egyptian uprisings have been compared to the French Revolution by many columnists (and the comparison dismissed, as well). On the same note, The Daily Telegraph declared the events in Tunisia and Egypt to be “food revolutions.”

The cost of food is on the rise, with devastating impacts across the Global South. At the start of a recent podcast episode, NPR’s Planet Money discussed the rising cost of wheat, which makes up roughly 70 percent of bread prices in Egypt but only two percent in the U.S.

The Western world tends to feel less impact in fluctuation of food commodities because so much of the cost of food goes to packaging, marketing and processing. In addition, Western countries have stockpiles of grain unimaginable in the developing world.

Planet Money also gives a comprehensive breakdown of just how crazy worldwide changes in food costs have been and what’s causing them. As one of our most basic needs, food plays a huge role in security and diplomacy.

After wheat prices jumped 25 per cent in one day in 2008, the UN held a food security summit in Rome and urged governments to invest in agriculture. The conference’s final declaration warned of disastrous crises that were not just looming, but well under way.

Food and famine has driven much of the world’s relations with North Korea. Meanwhile China — estimated to supply North Korea with 40 percent of its food — faces its worst drought in 60 years.

Last summer’s Russian forest fires resulted in a shortfall of tonnes of grain, prompting Putin to halt wheat exports for both 2010 and 2011 harvests. This summer we’ll learn the impact of this change, along with the effects of flooding in Pakistan and Australia, as well as natural disasters in numerous other countries.

Meanwhile, the cost of food continues to reach historic highs, which Bill Clinton believes could worsen if companies use too many crops for biofuels.

Unless climate change gets under control and we use food resources more efficiently, we can expect more such revolutions in the years to come.

[Creative Commons photo by Flickr user adactio]

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