Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pentagon Begins Assessing Impact of Rising Food Prices

In light of growing unrest around the world over rising food prices, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is asking for a closer look at the crisis and its security implications, a U.S. military official said Monday.
Adm. Michael Mullen has instructed his staff to investigate the matter so his office can be prepared in the event the crisis becomes a defense issue, the source said.

It's the first time the highest levels of the U.S. military have become involved in the issue.

The crisis first gained international attention when riots broke out several weeks ago in Haiti and Egypt over the high cost of food.

The U.S. military official emphasized that there is "no military planning" and no intention of getting U.S. troops involved in the crisis.

The source acknowledged there is little the U.S. military can do, but said, "This is an area that has certainly got our attention now."

Even as they look into the matter, Mullen's staffers are not expected to come up with any formal recommendations to the chairman.

The rising cost of bread in Egypt has led to government crackdowns
Police clashed with protesters in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla on Sunday, firing tear gas and arresting dozens after angry residents demanding an end to price hikes and soaring inflation set two schools ablaze and burnt tyres along the city's railway.

Egypt is the world's biggest consumer of bread, with each Egyptian eating 400 grams of bread a day. That compares with France - the land of the baguette - where the figure is only 130g per day.

The shortages have forced bakers and consumers on to the black market. According to the state-owned daily Al-Ahram, 12,000 people have been detained in raids across the country in recent days and they are all to face justice over selling flour on the black market.

A 100 kilogram sack of subsidised flour is worth about $3.14. The same sack costs $377 on the black market.

The government is desperately scrambling to contain the crisis.

On Friday the authorities announced plans to suspend rice exports for six months from April and the commerce ministry said cement exports will also be frozen over the same period in an attempt to combat price rises.

The Pentagon views what is happening in Egypt as a crisis:
Egypt could be one area of concern for the Pentagon because unrest there has continued sporadically over food prices, two senior U.S. military officials have said.

Cairo is a major ally of Washington in the global war on terror, and the United States does not want the unrest there to grow, possibly risking the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

Other countries throughout the developing world have been hit hard by the rise of food prices:
There also have been riots over high food costs in Haiti, sparking concern about another wave of illegal immigration to the United States.

The rising costs and chaotic riots have prompted several countries to stop exporting wheat and rice, and the U.N. World Food Program has cut food rations to millions of displaced people in Sudan's Darfur region because so many food convoys have been hijacked.

In other areas of the Middle East, bread is a symbolic basic staple of life, and as prices rise, resentment of wasteful government spending begins to grow:
In Yemen, where food riots broke out in recent months, the answer to nearly every question we asked about food elicited emotions ranging from fear of malnutrition to anger over the exorbitant rise in prices.

The cost of one round of traditional flat bread, roughly two slices of bread in the United States, has risen sharply, from about 10 Yemeni rials (about 2.5 cents) to 20 rials in the local bakeries. This may not sound like much to an American who’s used to paying $3.50 or more for a loaf of bread, but it is to a Yemeni – and to many others in the developing world for whom food expenditures can represent 60 to 80 percent of a family’s spending.

Few of the Yemenis we met, if any, understand why food prices have risen so sharply. Even Americans awash in information are as confused and confounded as Yemenis. More than one person made a connection between higher food prices and the ongoing construction of what they call the “President’s Mosque” – a mosque named after the country’s leader and reported to cost $65 million. (They had no proof, which, of course, seems an unnecessary part of any discussion about supposed government excess.)

In Yemen, when the price of bread rises, so does anger and resentment of the government. Elsewhere, because of government subsidies, the price of bread is stable, contributing to different kinds of headaches.

In Iran, inflation is now up to an annual rate of 18 percent; earlier this month, that cost the economic minister his job. The bakers get government flour and are allowed to charge only a certain low rate for the bread they sell.


The menu that people hit by this immediate crisis are using is fairly simple: flour and rice, even as these staples double or quadruple in price; cakes in Haiti made largely of mud, choked down in a desperate attempt to fill one’s belly; bread baked by the military in Egypt. But from our travels, it seems that the menu items that helped create the current crisis are more complex, processed and partially hydrogenated than these modest items.

Food corporations have learned how to enter the developing world. Few of the families we met could afford a week’s worth of a processed food item at one time, so the global food companies make their wares more affordable by offering them in single-serving packets. In Manila, individual portions of “foods” such as imitation-cheese spreads, chips and spiced rice dishes are much like the convenience packs sold in the United States. Highly processed foods are making inroads into the diets of the developing world, and with that comes dependence.

In fact, there are many organizations throughout the world who are expressing concern about the rise in food prices:
UN staff in Jordan also went on strike for a day this week to demand a pay rise in the face of a 50% hike in prices, while Asian countries such as Cambodia, China, Vietnam, India and Pakistan have curbed rice exports to ensure supplies for their own residents.

Officials in the Philippines have warned that people hoarding rice could face economic sabotage charges. A moratorium is being considered on converting agricultural land for housing or golf courses, while fast-food outlets are being pressed to offer half-portions of rice.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says rice production should rise by 12m tonnes, or 1.8%, this year, which would help ease the pressure. It expects "sizable" increases in all the major Asian rice producing countries, especially Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines and Thailand.

Holmes is the latest senior figure to warn the world is facing a worsening food crisis. Josette Sheeran, director of the UN World Food Programme, said last month: "We are seeing a new face of hunger. We are seeing more urban hunger than ever before. We are seeing food on the shelves but people being unable to afford it."

The programme has launched an appeal to boost its aid budget from $2.9bn to $3.4bn (£1.5bn to £1.7bn) to meet higher prices, which officials say are jeopardising the programme's ability to continue feeding 73 million people worldwide.

Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, said "many more people will suffer and starve" unless the US, Europe, Japan and other rich countries provide funds. He said prices of all staple food had risen 80% in three years, and that 33 countries faced unrest because of the price rises.

In the UK, Professor John Beddington, the new chief scientific adviser to the government, used his first speech last month to warn the effects of the food crisis would bite more quickly than climate change. He said the agriculture industry needed to double its food production, using less water than today.

He said the prospect of food shortages over the next 20 years was so acute it had to be tackled immediately: "Climate change is a real issue and is rightly being dealt with by major global investment. However, I am concerned there is another major issue along a similar time-scale - that of food and energy security."

The possibility that the Pentagon might need to deploy US troops to prop up various "friendly" regimes throughout the world hinges on whether such a move would be feasible. The strain on US troops because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left the Pentagon less likely to resort to full scale invasions.

Any plan to invade a country or countries due to instability would likely resemble the plans revealed by General Wesley Clark:
GEN. WESLEY CLARK: I knew why, because I had been through the Pentagon right after 9/11. About ten days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. I went downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for me, and one of the generals called me in. He said, "Sir, you've got to come in and talk to me a second." I said, "Well, you're too busy." He said, "No, no." He says, "We've made the decision we're going to war with Iraq." This was on or about the 20th of September. I said, "We're going to war with Iraq? Why?" He said, "I don't know." He said, "I guess they don't know what else to do." So I said, "Well, did they find some information connecting Saddam to al-Qaeda?" He said, "No, no." He says, "There's nothing new that way. They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq." He said, "I guess it's like we don't know what to do about terrorists, but we've got a good military and we can take down governments." And he said, "I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail."

So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, "Are we still going to war with Iraq?" And he said, "Oh, it's worse than that." He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, "I just got this down from upstairs" -- meaning the Secretary of Defense's office -- "today." And he said, "This is a memo that describes how we're going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran." I said, "Is it classified?" He said, "Yes, sir." I said, "Well, don't show it to me." And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, "You remember that?" He said, "Sir, I didn't show you that memo! I didn't show it to you!"

The Pentagon has long maintained plans to invade virtually any and all countries in the world:
It sounds like a joke but it's not. War Plan Red is real. It was drawn up and approved by the War Department in 1930, then updated in 1934 and 1935. It was declassified in 1974 and the word "SECRET" crossed out with a heavy pencil. Now it sits in a little gray box in the National Archives in College Park, available to anybody, even Canadian spies. They can photocopy it for 15 cents a page.

War Plan Red was actually designed for a war with England. In the late 1920s, American military strategists developed plans for a war with Japan (code name Orange), Germany (Black), Mexico (Green) and England (Red). The Americans imagined a conflict between the United States (Blue) and England over international trade: "The war aim of RED in a war with BLUE is conceived to be the definite elimination of BLUE as an important economic and commercial rival."

In the event of war, the American planners figured that England would use Canada (Crimson) -- then a quasi-pseudo-semi-independent British dominion -- as a launching pad for "a direct invasion of BLUE territory." That invasion might come overland, with British and Canadian troops attacking Buffalo, Detroit and Albany. Or it might come by sea, with amphibious landings on various American beaches -- including Rehoboth and Ocean City, both of which were identified by the planners as "excellent" sites for a Brit beachhead.

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