Another unintended consequence of the Iraq war (such as the upward spiral in crude oil prices) and global climate change (such as increased droughts and famines) is that the cost of basic foods have increased dramatically, and especially in poor countries which are required to import grain. The result? Riots over food prices in a great number of places:

Riots from Haiti to Bangladesh to Egypt over the soaring costs of basic foods have brought the issue to a boiling point and catapulted it to the forefront of the world’s attention, the head of an agency focused on global development said Monday.

“This is the world’s big story,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

“The finance ministers were in shock, almost in panic this weekend,” he said on CNN’s “American Morning,” in a reference to top economic officials who gathered in Washington. “There are riots all over the world in the poor countries … and, of course, our own poor are feeling it in the United States.”

And to think we worry about mortgage foreclosures, the bursting of the real estate bubble and gas prices. In other countries, many people, including many middle class people, are edging toward starvation.

“In just two months,” [World Bank President Robert] Zoellick said in his speech, “rice prices have skyrocketed to near historical levels, rising by around 75 percent globally and more in some markets, with more likely to come. In Bangladesh, a 2-kilogram bag of rice … now consumes about half of the daily income of a poor family.”

The price of wheat has jumped 120 percent in the past year, he said — meaning that the price of a loaf of bread has more than doubled in places where the poor spend as much as 75 percent of their income on food. […]

Jean Ziegler, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, has called using food crops to create ethanol “a crime against humanity.”

“We’ve been putting our food into the gas tank — this corn-to-ethanol subsidy which our government is doing really makes little sense,” said Columbia University’s Sachs.

This is only a small taste of what will come in a future where water becomes ever more scarce due to droughts caused by global climate change, and energy prices continue to rise due to peak oil and instability in the Middle East. And the more corn and other crops we grow for our gas tanks rather than the world’s dinner tables will only increase animosity toward the United States.

Meanwhile, what has been the Bush administration’s response to this crisis? A lot like you’d expect — next to nothing:

The World Bank announced a $10 million grant from the United States for Haiti to help the government assist poor families.

Very generous of The Decider, don’t you think? I wonder how fast we spend that amount on the Iraq war each day? Probably something one can count in a few hours, if not minutes. And the forecast for the future is only going to become more grim:

French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier warned that farmers worldwide would have to raise their output sharply in the coming decades as demand booms in fast growing Asian countries like China and India.

“Global agriculture production will have to double by 2050 … in order to feed nine billion people on the planet,” Barnier told journalists on the sidelines of a meeting in Luxembourg with his EU counterparts. […]

A new UN-sponsored study, due to be presented Tuesday in Paris, warns that farming practices must change to confront soaring food prices that threaten the poor in particular.

“Business as usual is no longer an option,” the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development will say in the report, according to a statement from UNESCO.

Famine, Death, Disease and War. Enough to make one believe in the apocalypse, whether you are religious or not. We have metastasized into a global civilization that cannot sustain itself. And if we’re not smart about it, one that will collapse the same way civilization on Easter island collapsed when, through environmental degradation, it lost the ability to produce enough food to feed its people. Only this time, the result will be vastly more damaging to the future survivability of humanity. Because when the oil runs out, people living in those places around the globe which must import food, because they lack enough arable land or have lost the means to grow enough on their own, will die.

And who knows if America won’t be one of those places. Already drought threatens the West and Southeast, and we are quickly using up natural reserves of water such as the Ogallala Aquifer which are essential to growing crops in the semi-arid Great Plains states.

The Ogallala Aquifer is an enormous underground water source for middle America. Found under eight states (from Texas to South Dakota), the aquifer is literally life-giving to this part of the country. The areas above the aquifer were the center of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the water in the Ogallala has been tapped for human and agricultural use for decades. You won’t be surprised if I tell you that the water level is declining, right?

Environmental Defense released a report yesterday that tries to calculate the impact that biofuel plants (ones that produce corn ethanol) might have on the massive water source. The report, called “Potential Impacts of Biofuels Expansion on Natural Resources: A Case Study of the Ogallala Aquifer Region,” says that pumping too much more water out of the ground for ethanol “could cause Depression-style dust bowls.” New ethanol plants in the area would use up an extra 2.6 billion gallons of water a year and another 120 billion gallons would be needed to grow the corn.

Add in a diminished and increasingly polluted watershed in the Colorado River basin, and we may be looking at mass starvation in America within our children’s lifetimes, if not our own. Before that happens, famine in Africa and other developing regions of the world may very well have killed hundreds of millions of people, if not billions. As Al Gore says, this is a moral issue. It’s about the survival of the human race. And we better start acting soon to do something about it. For too long our government, and the big corporations it serves, have been the primary stumbling block to any real progress on reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to a more sustainable way of life. This is not just a Bush era phenomenon, though President Bush’s unholy alliance with Big Business has certainly done much to halt any progress on fashioning a global solution to these horrific problems we all face.

But the time for denying the problem has long since passed. Let’s hope the next president realizes this fact and begins to work with the world community to fashion a global response. Because we can’t wait any longer to act. The canaries have already started to die.

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