The Visual Du Jour – Food Fights

The idea of riots exploding when food becomes scarce or unaffordable is not new. This is something that has been discussed before in the context of what used to be called the “IMF riots”, that is riots caused by the implementation of structural adjustment programs in developing countries (“structural adjustment” is roughly equivalent to austerity + privatization). Often, it is when these measures impacted food and water that riots would explode.

So, it is not that far-fetched to suggest a correlation between food prices and revolts in the Middle East:

Maybe we are witnessing the internal version of resource wars combined with decades of bad governance where the “panem and circenses” rule of dictators does not work anymore. There is more entertainment to be had via satellite TV and the Internet and if food prices go up, then things explode.

As the article notes:

“Seeking simple explanations for the Arab spring uprisings that have swept through Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, is clearly foolish amidst entangled issues of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and water stress. But asking “why precisely now?” is less daft, and a provocative new study proposes an answer: soaring food prices.

Furthermore, it suggests there is a specific food price level above which riots and unrest become far more likely. That figure is 210 on the UN FAO’s price index: the index is currently at 234, due to the most recent spike in prices which started in the middle of 2010.

Lastly, the researchers argue that current underlying food price trends – excluding the spikes – mean the index will be permanently over the 210 threshold within a year or two. The paper concludes: “The current [food price] problem transcends the specific national political crises to represent a global concern about vulnerable populations and social order.” Big trouble, in other words.

Now, those are some pretty big statements and I should state right now that this research, by a team at the New England Complex Systems Institute, has not yet been peer reviewed. It has been published because, Yaneer Bar-Yam, NECSI president, told me, the work is relevant now but peer review is slow.

The first part of the research is straightforward enough: plotting riots identified as over food against the food price index. The correlation is striking, but is it evidence of causation?

Bar-Yam says this conundrum can be tackled by asking the question in clear ways. Could the riots be causing high food prices, rather than the reverse? No, the former is local, the latter global. Could the correlation simply be a coincidence? Yes, there’s only a tiny chance of that, Bar-Yam’s team argues in the paper.

Lastly, could other factors be causing both the violence and the high food prices? “No-one has suggested any other factor that can do both,” says Bar-Yam. For example, oil and tin both show similar price patterns to that of food, but seem unlikely to prompt the violence. The similarity, says Bar-Yam, is because all the commodity price peaks are being driven by speculation in global markets.

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