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The perfect storm: skyrocketing food prices a new way of life?

Rioting in Haiti in which mobs attacked the presidential palace and several people were killed; violent protests in Egypt; a strike in Jordan; demonstrations in Bolivia, Indonesia, Mozambique; and unrest in a score of other countries — all stemming from skyrocketing food prices and shortages.

In the Philippines, where the price of rice has doubled from a year ago as a result of tight world supplies, the Department of Justice has threatened traders who hoard rice with charges that can carry a life sentence. North Korea is faced with the “worst ever” food crisis as a result of last year's severe floods that destroyed 11 percent of the country's crops.

It is being called “the perfect storm,” a same-time convergence of climate change/weather extremes, soaring energy costs, coupled with shortages in key staples such as rise, that have resulted in an alarming 40 percent worldwide increase in food prices since mid-2007.

“What we are witnessing (from climate change and extreme weather events) is not an aberration, but rather a curtain-raiser on the future,” says Sir John Holmes, United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

“These events are not abnormal; they're what I call the ‘new normal.’ Nine of 10 disasters globally are now climate-related,” he said at the fifth annual International Humanitarian Aid & Development Conference & Exhibition in Dubai.

Teamed with escalating energy and food costs, the world is poised for “a major impact on hunger and poverty,” he says.

With food riots in some 15 countries in recent days, Holmes says, security implications should also not be underestimated. “Not only are we not adequately prepared for the next big storm or flood or drought … but we have to ask how exposed is the global emergency system to overload and failure?”

“Current food price trends are likely to increase sharply both the incidence and depth of food insecurity,” Holmes says. Given the “perfect storm” scenario, and tossing in biofuels production and increasing consumer demand in China, India, and other countries that are moving up the wealth ladder, many analysts think it unlikely that food prices will reverse course; rather they are now “structural.”

The food price increases are also spurring political and governmental actions — such as export bans and price freezes on food staples — and in some cases, calls for limits on biofuels production.

We in the U.S. are blessed to have the soils, the climate, the technology, and the know-how to produce crops that more than meet our own needs. Food self-sufficiency is of incalculable value, a lesson most of Europe learned from the deprivations of World War II, a key reason why European farmers have been so heavily subsidized over the ensuing decades (while at the same time criticizing the U.S. for its farm subsidies).

Heaven forbid that the day ever comes when this country cedes its agriculture to other nations, as we've done with autos, furniture, shoes, toys, and other sectors in which we once excelled.

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