I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.- Thomas Jefferson.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Coming Food Envy

By Kevin Brekke

In 1996, a book titled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington was published. In it, the author argues that the age of ideology had concluded, and that the primary axis of future conflicts in a post-Cold War world will be along cultural and religious lines. The uprisings, skirmishes and wars to come would not be fought over resources such as rice or oil but over differences of ethnicity and faith.

Huntington’s theory, as you would expect, mustered ample critics. Among them was Edward Said who, in his 2001 response The Clash of Ignorance, indicts Huntington for his use of oversimplification and static depictions of whole cultures. Reality, counters Said, is far more complex and dynamic.

A darkly comical sidebar to the debate was the response from the United Nations, its so-called theory of Dialogue Among Civilizations. The “theory” was the basis for a UN resolution naming the year 2001 as the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations. When all you have is talk, every problem looks like faulty communication. Presumably, the solution to all strife in the world would come about from endless talking by its delegates while bravely enduring long hours in premium-class airline cabins, soldiering through endless caviar-topped buffet luncheons, and suffering unknown numbers of nights at five-star hotels.

The machinations of clueless NGO personnel notwithstanding, it is said that time heals all wounds. It also exposes false assumptions, like Huntington’s speculation, as we were again reminded by yesterday’s news.

“World Bank: Food Prices at Dangerous Levels,” read the Associated Press headline.

I doubt that anyone reading this gives much thought to the possibility of hunger or malnutrition paying them a visit. To Western cultures, the idea is as foreign as a homegrown political revolution or life without air conditioning. Even for a well-seasoned traveler in possession of a dog-eared passport, the plight of the world’s hungry is largely out of sight. As a tourist, you are not likely to encounter the dark underbelly of extreme poverty while taking in the popular attractions.

But leaving home is not mandatory to witness food insecurity among the most unfortunate. As of last month, the number of Americans receiving food stamps reached 43.2 million, 14% of the population, or nearly 1 in 7 people.

The phenomenal rise in the number of people seeking food assistance has so far been the direct result of protracted economic hardship that has befallen many individuals and families. The culprit has been mainly unemployment.

But if the worldwide rise in commodity prices continues, opening the door to food price inflation, the financial and economic crises plaguing the U.S. will soon devolve into a social crisis. It is one thing to be struggling to pay your bills; it is a whole different thing to be struggling while you and your family are hungry or feel deserving of a better diet.

Your neighbor may not like forgoing his cell phone for a landline, or battling with an antenna after canceling cable, all in the name of belt-tightening and a shrinking family budget. But when the smell of your steaks on the backyard grill wafts across his nostrils while he pretends to enjoy another plate of spaghetti and meatless sauce, a new kind of resentment will seep into the collective conscience of a growing slice of anxious Americans…

Food envy. At some point, and it is not far off, the complexity and urgency of food security will become a reality, and a battle in the land of plenty will ensue.

In many ways the battle has already begun. Shoplifting of food, or “shrinkage” as it is known in the retail industry, is on the rise. This is a fact that the food industry avoids talking about and works hard to keep out of the press. Not surprising when you consider that few food items carry a security tag, making them an easy mark.

Profit margins at grocery chains have compressed as retailers attempt to absorb price increases as rising commodity prices pass through to the wholesale level. Inventory shrinkage at grocery stores further pressures margins, and retailers will be forced to pass along their rising costs to the consumer. There is little to no room left for retailers to eat price increases.

Recalling Huntington’s outlook for clashes among civilizations, it looks like his theory is hit and miss on several issues. Conflict between differing groups has occurred since the human population exceeded one – it seems part of the human condition, and no change looks to be imminent. And disagreements over resources and ideology will continue; the idea that one would supplant the other seems na├»ve. So, maybe a more appropriate title for his book would have been to suggest intra- rather than inter-civilization clashes.

The coming rise in food prices will be no less dramatic than for all commodities as the downfall of paper money accelerates. A man can survive without many things, but food is not one of them. And long before his supper table is empty, his envy of those with a diet more aligned with his desires will predictably spur a great cry for “food justice.” Any attempt by government to control, subsidize, or ration the food supply will end in disaster, and if history is a guide, shortages and higher prices. When preparing for future surprises, don’t forget to include higher food bills.

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