1 Aug 2012

I am Hosni Mubarak*

Editor's note: James Workman taught "Unlocking the Real Worth of Water" as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University last semester. He told his students that they -- like all people -- needed to be "water resource managers" because water allocations are increasingly driven by subjective individual values, not top-down planing. The students addressed these ideas from different perspectives (local utility, energy/water nexus, and water and food trade); each choose one essay to post here. Please tell them what they got right or wrong.

Brent Packer writes...

Last year I watched the Arab Spring explode from Tahir Square, Cairo. This year I realized protesters’ rage was unwittingly directed at me. How did I cause their problems? It was President Hosni Mubarak who oppressed rights, boosted unemployment, and ignored poverty.

True. But it was me who literally poured the fuel that caused Egypt’s hunger to ignite.

Each day in Pennsylvania, my spread-out suburban town forced my daily drives to last longer than 30 minutes. I filled up my car with gasoline mixed with 10 percent of a corn distillation, called Ethanol. Multiply this amount by the 7.9 million cars on Pennsylvanian roads, and we’re talking nearly 660,000 bushels of corn.

A frequent round trip drive to high school burned fuel embedded with more than 1200 calories, calories that could have been used as food. I drove for one, but ate for two.

All these bushels of corn require water to grow, but the supply of water is naturally capped. When farmers look to increase their profits by selling to a fuel refiner rather than a food supplier, this increases the amount of fuel at the expense of food. Because of the limited, fixed supply of water, the amount of corn is nearly fixed as well. Ethanol takes 40% of the United States’ demand for corn leaving the rest for consumption by either humans or animals.

Corn is increasingly wasted as a food source. Much of American corn is fed to cattle, which in return, is carved up and fed to humans. This in-between step is costly. As mentioned earlier, the supply of water is the limiting factor. Rather than feeding cattle to feed humans, the corn grain could instead be used to create over 12x more food. While this number may mean little, it would feed nearly 800 million people. By my choice to eat meat, I am denying another person of food.

As the leading producing and exporter of corn, the United States plays an enormous role in global food. From simple supply and demand, the decreased supply of corn grain increased global food prices by 10-15%. The punch was felt across the board onto different types of food grains.

Importing 60%, Egypt relies heavily on wheat imports to feed its citizens because of the parched climate of Northern Africa. With higher prices, availability of food started to become out of reach, and hunger spread throughout the nation. Parents hopelessly heard their children cry for more food, yet were unable to satisfy their needs. It was the breaking point; Egypt’s hungry citizen has little reason not to take to the streets. As they rioted, the problems flowed to the surface, and they continue to flow unto this day.

Each mile I drive gives American farmers more of an incentive to divert grain and water away from a stomach and into an Exxon station. Each hamburger I eat draws more water into a less efficient meal at the expense of another hungry human. Through my naïve American habits, I should take the brunt of the Arab Spring.

President Mubarak is gone, but Egypt’s rage still simmers, and half a world away, I escape persecution for my invisible silent role in literally fueling the fire.

Read this interesting article (via JW) on Mubarak's unsustainable dream of settling in the desert.

1 comment:

SJ said...

Well written and argued paper. I had forgotten that food prices were a critical factor in Arab Spring revolts.

BTW. I thought that corn was heavily subsidized hence making it a profitable crop for the farmers. Perhaps eliminating the subsidy may directly benefit was efficiency and other benefits sought by the author.

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