Israel Will Be The Last Man Standing in the Middle East

The Arab Spring, which started with the self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable vendor at 11.30 am on 16th December, 2010, has resulted in two failed states in the region so far.  Libya has become “Scumbag Woodstock” because of the number of terrorist organisations headquartered there.  The French and English attempt at regime change created a terrorist haven with consequences as far afield as Mali and the 300 Christian girls kidnapped in Nigeria.  Fortunately, Syria has become a meatgrinder for Islamic terrorists and for the moment has ceased being a net exporter of terrorism.  In that conflict, the Obama Administration has chosen to support the side that does all the beheadings.  Perhaps it is a brilliant plan -- a rational person would want the meatgrinder to keep grinding rather than have the Islamists defeated too quickly.

The last time Syria attacked a civilised nation was the Yom Kippur War of 1973 in which it and Egypt launched a surprise attack on Israel.  At the time, Syria had a population of seven million and Egypt 38 million.  It was also about the last time that both countries could feed themselves from their own agricultural efforts.  Their populations are now 22 million and 83 million respectively, with all the increase in population from 1973 fed with imported grain.  This is true of the whole Middle East – North Africa (MENA) region.  This is shown in the following graph going from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east.

The size of each bar is the country’s population in millions.  The blue part is the proportion fed from domestic production and the red part is the proportion kept alive with grain imports.  Arguably Norman Borlaug and his green revolution allowed this situation to come about.  World grain production outran population growth up to about a decade ago and grain became the cheapest it has been in history. Feeding these growing populations has been very cheap for regimes that subsidise bread to keep their populations quiescent.  At the current price of wheat of $330 per metric ton and per capita consumption of 300 kg per annum, it only costs $0.27 per day in grain to keep someone alive. 

But grain yields in most countries have plateaued since 2000 and grain prices have started rising again.  That effect will be accelerated by the solar-driven global cooling that has started.  At some stage the cost of keeping everyone fed will overwhelm one of the MENA countries and it will collapse in mass starvation.  There will then be a mad scramble around the world to stockpile grain, sending prices yet higher.  In turn, that will set off a domino effect in the graph above.  Using an animal model of population collapse (the snowshoe hare and lynx), populations might fall to 10% of carrying capacity -- back to levels last seen 200 years ago.

Israel imports most of its grain requirements as do all its neighbours.  The big difference is that Israel has a GDP per capita of $30,000-odd which is at least ten times that of its neighbours.  Israel could afford a much higher grain price.  That country also is the most efficient desalinator of seawater on the planet.  With a cost of $0.52 per cubic metre, it is able to grow commercial crops using desalinated seawater.  For Israel to survive from here, all it has to do is out-wait its neighbors.  In the good old days, a large population meant a country could have a large army.  These days it means the ongoing drag of having to feed a lot of unproductive people with every missed grain shipment a potential disaster. 

Hang in there Israel.  Just a few more years and all your surrounding enemies will become semi-starved tribes with rifles and pickup trucks at best. 

David Archibald, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short (Regnery, 2014).  

The Arab Spring, which started with the self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable vendor at 11.30 am on 16th December, 2010, has resulted in two failed states in the region so far.  Libya has become “Scumbag Woodstock” because of the number of terrorist organisations headquartered there.  The French and English attempt at regime change created a terrorist haven with consequences as far afield as Mali and the 300 Christian girls kidnapped in Nigeria.  Fortunately, Syria has become a meatgrinder for Islamic terrorists and for the moment has ceased being a net exporter of terrorism.  In that conflict, the Obama Administration has chosen to support the side that does all the beheadings.  Perhaps it is a brilliant plan -- a rational person would want the meatgrinder to keep grinding rather than have the Islamists defeated too quickly.

The last time Syria attacked a civilised nation was the Yom Kippur War of 1973 in which it and Egypt launched a surprise attack on Israel.  At the time, Syria had a population of seven million and Egypt 38 million.  It was also about the last time that both countries could feed themselves from their own agricultural efforts.  Their populations are now 22 million and 83 million respectively, with all the increase in population from 1973 fed with imported grain.  This is true of the whole Middle East – North Africa (MENA) region.  This is shown in the following graph going from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east.

The size of each bar is the country’s population in millions.  The blue part is the proportion fed from domestic production and the red part is the proportion kept alive with grain imports.  Arguably Norman Borlaug and his green revolution allowed this situation to come about.  World grain production outran population growth up to about a decade ago and grain became the cheapest it has been in history. Feeding these growing populations has been very cheap for regimes that subsidise bread to keep their populations quiescent.  At the current price of wheat of $330 per metric ton and per capita consumption of 300 kg per annum, it only costs $0.27 per day in grain to keep someone alive. 

But grain yields in most countries have plateaued since 2000 and grain prices have started rising again.  That effect will be accelerated by the solar-driven global cooling that has started.  At some stage the cost of keeping everyone fed will overwhelm one of the MENA countries and it will collapse in mass starvation.  There will then be a mad scramble around the world to stockpile grain, sending prices yet higher.  In turn, that will set off a domino effect in the graph above.  Using an animal model of population collapse (the snowshoe hare and lynx), populations might fall to 10% of carrying capacity -- back to levels last seen 200 years ago.

Israel imports most of its grain requirements as do all its neighbours.  The big difference is that Israel has a GDP per capita of $30,000-odd which is at least ten times that of its neighbours.  Israel could afford a much higher grain price.  That country also is the most efficient desalinator of seawater on the planet.  With a cost of $0.52 per cubic metre, it is able to grow commercial crops using desalinated seawater.  For Israel to survive from here, all it has to do is out-wait its neighbors.  In the good old days, a large population meant a country could have a large army.  These days it means the ongoing drag of having to feed a lot of unproductive people with every missed grain shipment a potential disaster. 

Hang in there Israel.  Just a few more years and all your surrounding enemies will become semi-starved tribes with rifles and pickup trucks at best. 

David Archibald, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short (Regnery, 2014).