Food system may underlie Egypt’s political unrest

Egypt Protest
Political instability may be triggered by bread shortages (Photo by Chris Hondros-Getty)

Scientists who study complex systems have predicted that precariously balanced food systems like those found in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen are poised to trigger political upheaval. Egypt’s uprising was triggered when Tunisia unexpectedly threw off a 30-year dictatorship last month. That uprising was triggered partly by food prices, which hit all-time highs in December. Since then demonstrators in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen have also protested about high food prices.

In Egypt’s case, food may not have been the primary trigger, but bread is getting scarce in Egypt’s capital, Cairo. Bread production in Egypt is almost entirely controlled by the state. Egyptians are the world’s biggest wheat importers, and the government controls the ports where the grain is imported as well as the distribution trucks, flour mills, and even bakeries where bread is produced.

As workers join protests, grain is sitting on the docks and bakeries are closing for lack of flour. The interlocking dependencies that tie modern economies together spread dislocation further. Even where there is food, Egyptians have little money to buy it, as businesses and banks close, cash machines empty and wages dry up.

The result is a cascade effect, adding fuel to the fires of protest as centrally controlled systems break down and people go hungry.  This results in an increasing level of civil disorder.

Scientists are working on models that can better predict places these sorts of situations might emerge in the future.  For now, it seems the greatest risk is for countries that depend on imports and whose people spend a third or more of their incomes on food.

Our generation’s Sputnik moment finds few science students ready to answer the call

Sputnik means nothing if we don't go all Apollo on it

President Obama’s State of the Union address last night reminded Americans that our future depends on research and innovation.  The same day that results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress were released showing that only 21% of graduating high school seniors ranked proficient in science.  Moreover, only 1% ranked at the advanced level, deemed appropriate to pursue science at the college level.  Fourth and eighth graders were also evaluated, and the results were similarly disappointing.

Obama made repeated appeals in his State of the Union speech to the need for a workforce skilled in science and technology:

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean-energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet and create countless new jobs for our people.

We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

Over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

These are noble and vital aspirations. Yet the current state of our educational pipeline indicates we may be a decade or more away away from having students prepared to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) based careers.  Only 1% of our graduates are prepared to go on to study in scientific fields in college.  Fixing that is not merely a matter of funding or focus.  Even with the retooling of educational programs and an Apollo-level political will, it will take years and years to reeducate the current generation of students, or a decade to refill the educational pipeline with students who are properly prepared.

Achieving the economic goals outlined by President Obama are very much contingent on becoming a scientifically competent society.  As he said, “The world has changed.”  The days of toiling on an assembly line are gone.  Jobs that will allow our children to achieve the American dream require STEM skills and knowledge, and the foundation for that has to be laid in our schools.

This is not a path we are on.  And the results of our national school report card indicate it’s also not a path we are remotely prepared to travel.  This leaves us in grave danger of having our Sputnik moment sputter out and stall unless we unite behind this cause as one nation with one purpose, and hold that course for a generation.  Surely, this is a challenge worthy of the American spirit.

Wegmans Brand Math

WegmansIn mathematics, addition is subject to the Commutative Law.  That is, if 2+3=5 then we may also say 3+2=5… unless you work at the local Wegmans grocery store.

I was in the cashier’s line behind a matronly woman whose order the young girl at the register was finishing up.  The girl announced. “That will be $104.62 today.”  The woman thumbed through her wallet and extracted a $50 bill and three crisp $20s, which she handed to the cashier.

The girl promptly started counting the money out, announcing her total as she went.  “50, 70, 90, 100,” she said.  Upon completion, she turned to the woman and  reminded her of the total.  The woman smiled sweetly at the young lass and suggested that perhaps she could count it out again.  Once more the girl confidently said, “50, 70, 90, 100.”  This time she ended with, “You’re still short $4.62.”

The woman was maintaining her composure, but looked as if she really wanted to grab the sweet thing by her pigtails and say something that started with, “LISTEN MISSY!”  To her credit, she instead asked the girl how much the three $20s were worth.

Fanning the bills in her hand the cashier said, “$60.”

“And how much is 60 plus 50,” the patient woman softly inquired?

You could almost see the wheels of the poor young girl’s mind grind to a halt as the pain of this dawning contradiction came across her.  With renewed determination, she grasped the short stack of bills and began counting aloud again.  “50, 70, 90, 100.”

In an effort to be helpful, I offered that perhaps she should start counting with the $20s.  The girl’s face brightened momentarily, and she flipped the stack and started counting yet again.  “20, 40, 60, 110.”  She looked positively delighted with herself while the poor woman in line just imperceptibly shook her head.

The cashier now looked at me and asked, “So why doesn’t it work when I do it the other way?”

I offered, somewhat less helpfully, “I guess it’s just one of those math mysteries no one understands.”  An explanation the young girl seemed quite satisfied with as she finally began to count change.  However, the matronly woman lowered her head and gave me a look over her glasses that was oddly reminiscent of my high school geometry teacher who also took it upon herself to make it clear to me that I was not nearly as amusing as I imagined.

Not wishing to push my luck, I paid for my order with a credit card.