In an article published today in the Economist, titled Food and the Arab spring: Let them eat baklava, the magazine investigates an issue that it argues is rooted in as well as is a result of the Arab Spring: food shortage in the Middle East.
I became interested in food shortages and their effect on communities around the world back in 2008, when I started to read more about the issue. Some articles from that time include Food: The Silent Tsunami, and Food and the poor: The new face of hunger.
I distinctly remember reading these articles and feeling a sense of deep concern about what the next few years would bring.
Would the world rally together and come up with practical, targeted solutions to relieve the suffering of millions of people threatened by hunger?
Would societies rise up against their governments and demand a solution, forcing those regimes to take a hard look at their tradition of corruption, and finally take steps that will be in the best interest of their people?
In the Middle East, the answer to the latter was Yes. The popular movement started with Mohammed Bouazizi, a street food-vendor, nonetheless, protested Tunisia’s lack of concern for its citizens’ rights to basic human dignity by setting himself on fire. His act subsequently set the Arab world on fire, starting the string of uprisings we now refer to as the Arab spring.
As events unfolded, I continuously questioned how desperate people in the region I come from, Palestine/Jordan, were for change. How deeply were/are they feeling the need for reform, for renewal, and for the restoration of their own dignity and basic human rights?
How hungry (in all senses of the word), are we, as a society?
The article in the Economist brought to light a link between food shortages and the uprisings that I hadn’t considered before, and it made me consider what our future holds all over again.
One thing governments have been trying to do in order to quiet the revolutions is provide food subsidies to their people. I have heard stories of corruption even in the distribution of these subsidies that have left me sick to my stomach. Why does it seem that the ones who are always the most in need are the ones that are most easily brushed aside and ignored?
This corruption, coupled with non-targeted, blanket subsidy policies will backfire. In my opinion, Arab governments need to do more to reform themselves by weeding out the corruption (something that apparently only changes when the movement is driven by the people), target subsidies to those who really need them, and cut costs in other areas.
One effect of cheap food subsidies that concerns me, since it touches me and my family members that live under these regimes personally, is the sharp rise in obesity levels. I am troubled by the statistic in the article that says that 35% of Jordanians are obese.
Obese. Not just overweight. Our need for cheap calories has caused us to consume the worst kind of calories, the ones that cause us to balloon in weight while at the same time contributing to our levels of disease and health decline.
Obviously, there are other factors causing our obesity rates to rise, besides thoughtless, nutrition-empty food subsidies, such as the rampant spread of fast food consumption, but still, I believe a large part of the issue is the need to buy the cheapest food possible.
Our society is at risk of being killed by the one thing that is supposed to sustain us: food.
What will we do about it? What can we do about it?
These are questions I will be contemplating myself over the next months and years. Although I might not be able to affect others, I can start with my own family and encourage a focus on health in addition to cost consciousness.
I realize that this is not enough. I realize that we need change that targets those most in need, and I hope that by collectively thinking about the issue, people will be driven to take action.