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The world enters crisis overload

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A deadly combination of heat and drought is slowly wreaking a trail of devastation across much of the globe, and the full extend of this scourge will only be felt as winter nears.

The current phenomenon took meteorologists by surprise as it was unusually global in its reach. Like Murphy's Law, everything that could go wrong did.

Nourishment for winter burnt up under an unusually fiery weather, along a food chain that progressed from withered wheat crops to cattle that were hastily sold off for lack of grazing grounds.

Crops that survived wilted under the sun, yielding produce of lowered quality and quantity; leading ultimately to higher prices. Alarmingly, these were scorched in the surplus granaries of the United States, Europe and Australia.

In the United States, the first half of 2006 was the warmest since 1895, when weather data was first compiled, and the pollinating and tasseling times have since been set back by triple digit Fahrenheits.

The full heat though will be felt in winter. The US Department of Agriculture, the International Grains Council and a motley array of other agro organizations are downsizing the total grain forecast for this year and nobody knows how bad it will get.

In Ukraine alone, the harvest forecast has been cut down to five million tons from the 21 million registered last year. In Poland and Hungary, some crops are expected to be 40% below normal yields, while milk production dropped by 20 percent in Italy.

Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, predicts that 20 million tons of global harvest may have winnowed up as summer chaff.

In June, he warned that the global cupboard - or "reserve" - of grains were at its lowest levels since the early 70s. According to this calculation, there's enough basic grain to keep people alive for 57 days, if a combination of disasters strike.

And there is no better place for that to begin than in the Middle East.

In 1973, abysmally low inventories of wheat and an Arab-Israeli war sparked off an oil embargo, runaway global inflation, and upheavals that have scarred societies till today.

The price of wheat shot up six times. According to Brown, if that were to happen today, wheat could fetch $21 a bushel, about six times the current price.

Food prices are likely to rise worldwide, and for a third of the world's population - which subsists on less than $2 a day - a subtle hike in the price of staples would hasten the process of slow starvation.

Not so in the European Union, which, has some 13 million tonnes of "intervention" grain stocks. Just how this works under the current trade regime is left to the imagination. With the recent WTO talks stonewalled over US farm subsidies, think of a trade regime that can technically deprive natives - whether American or Korean - from getting the first dibs of their own food sources.

Limited stocks lead to higher prices which can be afforded by the limited rich, who are usually the fittest in any food fight.

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The world enters crisis overload

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