Unless you lived in a cave in the past several months, you probably have heard about the worldwide crisis in food supply. Food riots in the Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, and Egypt; governments prohibiting exports of grains (corn, wheat, soybeans, rice) so that they can feed their own people (Philippines, Vietnam, Argentina). So what gives? Why this sudden crisis?
A perfect storm
As the cliché du jour says: it’s a perfect storm, or a confluence of factors:
- The U.S. and Europe are diverting huge amounts of corn for the production of ethanol. Corn is a feedstock for food animals and is a mainstay of the diet in Latin America. Does it strike you as odd, if not immoral, to use food into our SUVs’ gas tank while people in the third world are starving?
- The two new giants, China and India, are awakening. They are getting wealthy and their middle class is growing at a historically unprecedented rate. And these huge nouveau middle classes want to eat meat, just like we do, and they are ready and willing to pay for it. But meat production requires huge amounts of grains as animal feed, which comes at the expense of humans who depend on it.
- Australia, one of the world’s biggest exporter of rice until a few years ago, is going through a six-year severe drought with no end in sight. In fact, these droughts have been predicted by climate models as part of the general trend of global warming. Ironically, farmers there switched from rice to wine grape growing. Lower water requirement, higher profits—a rational decision. The people in Bangladesh? Let them drink wine.
Joseph in Egypt
This being the week after Passover, I was reminded of a similar situation in Biblical times. Joseph, having been sold into slavery in Egypt, rose to prominence in the Pharaoh’s palace after he interpreted the king’s dream about seven fat cows followed by seven thin, ill-nourished cows. His interpretation: After the seven-year period of plenty, a period of famine is coming.
What could cause the coming famine?
The regular suspect is always drought. Prolonged droughts are quite normal in the Middle East. There is only little problem: There is no evidence of such a drought in Joseph’s time (about 1500 BC); not in the meticulous papyrus records of climate that the Egyptians maintained nor in the archeo-botanical records, which use fossilzed tree rings, pollen, and seeds as an accurate indicator of the amount of annual precipitation.
The other possible cause could be a massive insect infestation. Indeed, we are all familiar with the locust (one of the plagues God inflicted on Egypt), which can devour a year’s crop in a few days. Interestingly, a beetle quite familiar to us today, the lesser grain borer, has been discovered in the archeological site in Beit She’an, south of the Sea of Galilee. The dating of beetle—about 3,500 years ago—matches Joseph’s time. Fortunately, during the period when Joseph came to power in Egypt, the lesser grain borer was only beginning its migration westward. This insect originated in East Asia, in what is now India. It belongs to a family of insects whose larvae bore into trees. The larvae of the grain borer changed their taste several thousand years ago, that allowed them to begin migrating westward, and since then they have preferred wheat and barley.
The beetle is one of three insects that are among the most important storehouse pests. These insects eat grain, but rather than doing so in the field, they prefer to wait until humans harvest the wheat or barley and store it in a silo.
The lesser grain borer can cause a tremendous amount of damage. Each female lays between 300 and 500 eggs a month. In other words, one female can give birth to thousands of offspring in one year. The pest can finish off a granary within a very short time.
What did Joseph do?
Joseph, thanks to his talent as an interpreter of dreams and his cleverness, quickly attained the rank of viceroy to the king and was appointed to run the kingdom’s food storehouses.
His success at the job was based not only on his talent for planning and his ability to see ahead, but also from the manner in which the pests spread. The lesser grain borer was just starting its career in Egypt when Joseph arrived there. Because of its phenomenal reproductive capacity, storing one batch of grain containing a small population of the grain borer was enough to bring about the destruction of the entire granary and to threaten an entire city with starvation. To make matters worse, those rapacious Pharaohs insisted on transporting a large portion to central granaries near the court, to better feed themselves and the large number of courtiers around them. Joseph probably reasoned that a small infestation in one place would quickly decimate the whole county’s crop. According to the description in the book of Genesis, during the seven years of plenty in Egypt, Joseph had all the wheat collected in silos. “And he gathered up all the food of the seven years which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities; the food of the field, which was round about every city, he laid up in the same. And Joseph laid up grain as the sand of the sea, very much, until they left off numbering; for it was without number” (Genesis 41, 48-49). So there you have it: He basically imposed a quarantine on the movement of grain, and stored it in local silos. This way, the beetle infestation was kept to a minimum.
Quite amazing: No pesticides, just detailed knowledge of the biology of the pests. Is there a lesson in there?