Oh no, Ug99

The newest Wired magazine has a great, terrifying article on Ug99, a fungus that is imperiling wheat crops, auguring possible famines and rising food prices. The story focuses on the damage Ug99 has already caused from southern Africa north to Iran, the USDA's race to genetically engineer resistant plants, and the fungus' possible implications for the United States, where wheat is the third-biggest cash crop.

But I wondered about Ug99's possible implications for Afghanistan -- on the fungus' frontline, and where wheat is the chief legal cash crop. On one hand, this is clearly terrible news. About 80 percent of Afghans are involved in farming; millions of livelihoods depend on wheat, particularly in the north and west. Plus, big wheat hauls recently started cutting into poppy production. On the other hand, by virtue of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, the country receives considerable food and seed assistance. The USDA already has an infrastructure in place to help Afghan farmers use higher-yield seeds; NATO and USAID already have an extensive food-aid infrastructure -- that might help mitigate Ug99's effects, if the fungus makes it into Afghanistan this growing season. But here's to hoping it doesn't.

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The lame duck earthquake

Watching the quick response from the Chilean government these last couple of days, you would easily be forgiven for not noticing that the disaster came at any administration's most vulnerable point: that lame duck period between when elections are over and the new government is in place. In other words, if this were the United States, the earthquake would have hit right about December 15, 2008, right as George W. Bush's administration was thoroughly stuck in the mud.

President Michelle Bachelet will leave office on March 11, handing over the reins to the new president elect, Sebastian Piñera.  And as I wrote back in January after the vote, the change is in fact even greater than it seems. Piñera's victory marks the first time since 1990 that the opposition has been able to topple the now-ruling Concertación. Piñera has already named his cabinet, and announced today that he is already drafting a reconstruction plan. Luckily, that doesn't seem to be keeping Bachelet's government from digging into the recovery full force. The trust test may well come when the new ministers and functionaries have to start doing the heavily lifting, before they've ever even moved in.

As many such surprises do, the earthquake will likely reshape Piñera's presidency, one that was supposed to be about moving the country away from its more left-leaning market policies and toward deregulation. Piñera is a long-time businessman and was elected to use his expertise to make the country even more business friendly. But he acknowledged today while discussing his reconstruction plan that his administration's priorities will have to shift. There will need to be massive spending on infrastructure and government investment of a sort that the fiscally conservative Piñera might not otherwise suggest.

But there are lots of reasons to be hopeful about Chile's recovery. The country has strong social safety nets -- a legacy of the last 20 years of Concertación rule. And perhaps even more importantly, it has been fiscally very wise. Chile has a massive rainy day fund offshore from copper revenues that it has kept for social and educational programs. Now might just be the time to use (at least some of) it.

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