Coals to Newcastle

February 21, 2011 at 3:28 pm 1 comment

| Gabriel |

NPR’s Planet Money notes that some of what’s driving the current North African / Mideast political struggles is commodity prices. Fair enough, but what shocked me is that “Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat.”

WTF? As any reader of the classics knows, in the ancient world Egypt was the world’s biggest exporter of wheat. The Roman revolution involved so many battles in and near Egypt because to control the Roman mob you needed to feed them and that required control of Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra were able to, in effect, besiege Octavian without leaving home just by cutting off Egyptian exports. Even earlier than that we see “all the world” (including Jacob’s sons) buying Egyptian grain in Genesis 41 & 42.

So we have this puzzle that somehow in the last two thousand years the breadbasket of the Mediterranean can no longer feed itself. I don’t know how this occurred but I have three speculations (which are not mutually exclusive):

  • Malthusian trap. The Egyptian population increased to consume the available grain
  • Mismanagement. A series of bad policies somehow crippled Egyptian grain production. (The Aswan Dam? Other aspects of Nasserism? Urban sprawl over prime delta farm land?)
  • Climate change. It’s no puzzle why Tunisia is not as agriculturally rich as was the Roman province of Africa — the Sahara has been growing. But AFAIK this has less of an impact on Egypt, which has always been more closely tied to the Nile than to other aspects of climate. Similarly, soil exhaustion shouldn’t be as much of an issue (as it would be in America) since the Nile floods replenish the soil.

I’m genuinely curious about this.

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1 Comment

  • 1. John-Paul Ferguson  |  February 21, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    The Nile doesn’t flood to replenish the soil if you build on top of it. Nor is there soil to be replenished once it’s under an apartment block. So yes, I’d give great credit to your first two mechanisms, but sheer expansion of the built environment in an area whose farmland is quite space-constrained is an important second-order effect of the Malthusian trap you describe.


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