By William Pesek
Bloomberg News columnist
Forget Egypt for a moment. Skip the water crisis in China. Look past angst on the streets of Bangladesh. If you want to see how extreme the effects of surging food prices are becoming, look to wealthy Japan.
So big are the increases that economists are buzzing about them pushing deflationary Japan toward inflation. Yes, rising costs for commodities such as wheat, corn and coffee might do what trillions of dollars of central-bank liquidity couldn't.
Yet the economic consequences of food prices pale in comparison with the social ones. Nowhere could the fallout be greater than Asia, where a critical mass of those living on less than $2 dollars a day reside. It might have major implications for Asia's debt outlook. It may have even bigger ones for leaders hoping to keep the peace and avoid mass protests.
What a difference a few months can make. Back in, say, October, the chatter was about Asia's invulnerability to Wall Street's woes. Now, governments in Jakarta, Manila and New Delhi are grappling with their own subprime crisis of sorts. This one reflects a toxic mix of suboptimal food stocks, exploding demand, wacky weather and zero interest rates around the globe.
It's not hyperbole when Nouriel Roubini, the New York University economist who predicted the U.S. financial crisis, says surging food and energy costs are stoking emerging-market inflation that's serious enough to topple governments. Hosni Mubarak over in Egypt can attest to that.
It's important to begin considering the side effects. The United Nations reckons countries spent at least $1 trillion on food imports in 2010, with the poorest paying as much as 20% more than in 2009. These increases are just getting started. In January, world food prices rose to another record on higher dairy, sugar and grain costs.
This crisis might lead to another: debt. Expect Asian leaders to increase subsidies sharply and cut import taxes. The fiscal implications of these steps aren't getting the attention they deserve. The same is true of social-instability risks. Events in Egypt are a graphic example of how people living close to the edge can get motivated in a hurry to demand change. Keeping that rage bottled in the age of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook won't be easy. Hence Roubini's concerns about geopolitical crises.
There's an extreme irony in the timing of all this. It's coming as the world is becoming a heavier place. Obesity rates have almost doubled since 1980 and almost 10% of humanity was seriously overweight in 2008, according to the medical journal The Lancet. People have never been fatter at the same time when food prices have never been so high.