Talking Points

The horizon darkens in Asia. PHOTO: Issei Kato / Reuters
  1. Early success cases Singapore and Japan suffered body blows
  2. Australia outlined coming regulation of how Big Tech uses the news
  3. Gulf belligerents put the gunboat in gunboat-diplomacy
  4. With the leadership stitched up, Bibi prepared to annex the West Bank
  5. Speculation swirled around Kim Jong-un's health scare
  6. Another 4.4m unemployed Americans filed for welfare support
  7. While America's billionaire class increased its wealth by 10%
  8. US vaccine chief Rick Bright was fired for doing his job
  9. A report found a 25% drop in land-dwelling insect numbers since 1990
  10. Researchers discovered the remains of the first Antarctic frog

Deep Dive

Aid workers distribute food in Yemen's capital. PHOTO: EPA

As with all of our other systems and processes, the coronavirus has laid bare the flaws in a globalised food system. Many headlines have touted the imminent arrival of a second food pandemic. But what's abundantly clear is that it's been here for years.

Hunger across the globe

United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Director David Beasley grabbed headlines this week with the portentous words , "we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a few short months". There are, he explained, some 800m people who are chronically hungry. That is, nearly one billion people who go to sleep each night trying to ignore the insistent pangs emanating from their stomachs. Within this group are 135m people with acute food insecurity. These are people who have had their tenuous hold on sustenance shattered by a catastrophic – though temporary – disruption to their food supply. Think hurricanes, or droughts. Beasley outlined a grim picture: the coronavirus will likely push a further 130m people into acute food insecurity by the end of the year. At least $350m will be required immediately to stave off famines in as many as 11 countries. The WFP has found that less than a quarter of the required amount has been offered so far.

The coronavirus and our curatives together spell disaster for the world's hungry. A slowdown in food production across the globe will hammer home the frailty of the globalised food system. What is produced will struggle to make its way across closed borders, and be distributed by understaffed governments, aid agencies, and NGOs.

Sometimes top-line figures like the ones above are too abstract to comprehend fully. So let's dive a little deeper. The food crisis is already here. People are going hungry in Delhi , Harare , and Maseru . In Kabul , Aden , and Guayaquil . In Lisbon , Mombasa , and Tirana . Everyday, five million Sudanese are waking up with the knowledge that their only source of sustenance is international food aid. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation counts close to 6.5m people living with severe acute food insecurity next door, in South Sudan. The majority of Yemen's population is hungry, after years of war and sanctions. Across the Horn of Africa, an enormous locust plague threatens a generation of subsistence farmers in several countries.

A choice for humanity

Hunger is even straining the social fabric of ostensibly wealthy countries. The United Kingdom boasts a GDP of nearly $3t. But a million-and-a-half of its constituents have reported being without food for a whole day – because they either couldn't access it, or afford it. And that's just three weeks into this lockdown.

Globalisation has dealt a deadly one-two punch to food security. The first blow landed when economic logic uprooted local food production and sent it to cheaper labour pastures overseas. The second hit came from its attendant ideology, which has frayed social welfare nets in Britain and elsewhere. Unable to rely on themselves, or their governments, the food insecure now weigh more heavily on charities (many of them religious organisations that are engaged in good works). And the coronavirus is revealing just how precarious this arrangement is.

Some have compared the pandemic to natural disasters. The illness, perhaps. But food insecurity is not analogous to hurricanes or droughts. It's ultimately a choice of how countries – and the international community – allocate resources.

It is by choice that the world now faces these famines. The choice of successive Australian governments to cut international aid budgets. The choice of the US State Department to use sanctions as a weapon of war. The choice of Saudi pilots to vaporise the marketplaces of their opponents. The choice of South Sudanese militias to burn the crops of their rivals. The choice of large corporations to push farmers towards higher returns and direct-to-export crops rather than locally-consumed produce. And the choice of governments everywhere, to prioritise immediate wealth creation and preservation over long-term sustainability and food security.


Blackened gold. PHOTO: AFP

Staring down the barrel

A state of global stasis has been on full display. A third of the population is in lockdown. Planes have been grounded. Roads have been deserted. And factories have been shuttered. But one thing that wasn't on display was the shutdown’s impact on oil. That impact became very clear on Monday when the price of West Texas Intermediate crude dropped below zero. For the first time ever, it fell to negative $37.63 a barrel. The nosedive left suppliers with tied hands and empty pockets: they had to pay customers to buy it.

The drop came off the back of a month-long price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Despite a historic lack of demand, both countries had recklessly continued to produce oil. The oversupply drove prices down, and sent storage facilities into overdrive . Eventually, OPEC+ brought an end to the schoolyard games . But by then the damage was done. The resulting oil glut, and lack of storage capacity, was partly to blame for Monday’s crash. It was also partly due to the oil market’s inelasticity and inadaptability. On the demand side, even though oil prices have dropped, consumers simply aren’t buying any. And on supply, producers can’t afford to shut their businesses during the rout, so they must continue pumping. At a loss.

It’s created a perfect storm for the US, the world’s largest oil producer. And it may yet wreak havoc across other oil-reliant economies. Nigeria’s oil industry, which accounts for 60% of its economy, is already losing money on every barrel and has applied for a $7b lifeline . Venezuela is experiencing unprecedented gas shortages and is unable to sell its excess crude. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia is set for its deepest economic contraction in two decades. Prepare for unprecedented havoc in these already-vulnerable economies.

Deepwater Horizon a decade ago. PHOTO: The Independent

Oil on the water

For all the hoopla the price crisis has created, at least the black stuff is sitting inside sealed barrels . On Monday, many in America marked the tenth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster: the worst accidental oil spill in history. The initial fireball claimed 11 lives but the environmental destruction has been incalculable. Some three million barrels of oil were spewed into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of several months, as engineers struggled to cap the well 1,500m below sea-level. The effects of that deluge are still being felt.

And that was even before Donald Trump entered the fray. The environmental safeguards enacted by the Obama administration after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster are being wound back by the current White House through a mixture of outright deregulation and a more subtle under-resourcing of the agencies that oversee offshore drilling standards. This is by no means nitpicking: it was a slew of shortcuts and technical errors that led to high-pressure methane reaching the rig and the subsequent explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon.

There's one last point that we can't ignore... The block being drilled by that doomed oil rig was called the Macondo Prospect. A BP employee had won an internal competition to name the prospect and borrowed it from the town at the heart of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's seminal work, One Hundred Years of Solitude . Those who've read the book will be gulping audibly at this point, because Macondo is visited by utter destruction by the end of the novel. Please be careful with your literary references.

The Best of Times

The tide has turned. PHOTO: Fort Worth Zoo

This is Olaf

He's not the first IVF frog in existence, but he is the first to be created from the frozen and thawed sperm of a genetic lineage that had disappeared from the wild . Talk about coming back from the brink.

Ancient glory

Over the course of the last three millennia, and for stretches measured in centuries, not decades; the Nubians ruled the Nile. Having built pyramids (still visible today in northern Sudan) and fought the Romans, the Nubian imperial dynasties were diminished by the post-Medieval Arabisation that has changed so much of North Africa. Their language and culture waned in the modern Egyptian state, and the construction of the Aswan High Dam flooded their homeland along the Nile. But having lost so much, a new program to teach Nubians their near-extinct language is rekindling that cultural knowledge. Modern tongues speaking of ancient glories.

The Worst of Times

Memorials have sprung up across Nova Scotia. PHOTO: Tim Krochak / Reuters

Nova Scotia left reeling

The death toll from last weekend's Nova Scotia rampage rose to 23 over the course of the week. The small eastern province remains in a state of disbelief over the deadliest shooting spree in the country's history. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau moved swiftly to end the sale of high-powered military-style automatic weapons, hard questions have been asked of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and their struggle to catch the gunman over the course of 12 hours.

Fasting and feasting

A handful of Pakistan's most-zealous imams have urged their flock to ignore government isolation orders and celebrate Ramadan with the usual mass feasts after dark. Breaking the fast as a community may be a central (and delicious) facet of observing Ramadan, but it's also a guaranteed vector party in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic. Religious practices are meant to bring you closer to God – but not that close.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"It's pure nonsense. The noodles that Marco Polo brought back with him at the end of the 1200s from China were essentially made with rice and based on a different, oriental culinary tradition that has nothing to do with ours."

– Italian food historian Giorgio Franchetti displays a starchiness typical of his countryfolk when the disputed origins of pasta are brought up. The debate has boiled over once again.

Headline of the week

"If a Torturer Switches Sides, Does He Deserve Mercy?" Foreign Policy . We commend this article to you.

Special mention

Standing up to the ludicrously-powerful chaebol that run Korean business (not to mention politics, media, and just about everything else) gets a tick in our book. Spending 300+ days atop a traffic camera tower in the middle of Seoul, to protest the illegal union-busting tactics of Samsung, gets you a very special mention.

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton