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Let Them Eat Baklava: Food Prices and the Arab Spring

What do food prices have to do with a quest for change?

Did food prices cause the Arab Spring? Will food and water be at the core of future protests against fundamental inequities in the world?

This study, released this month by the New England Complex Systems Institute, certainly suggests so. Examining data from 1990 to the present, researchers Marco Lagi, Karla Bertrand, and Yaneer Bar-Yam have found a striking correlation between global food prices and numerous uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. This year’s revolutions in Egypt and Libya are the most recent examples of such conflicts, the researchers warn, but they certainly won’t be the last.

Their essential theory is fundamentally simple, and can be summarized as follows:

Humans count on governments to maintain a baseline level of security for themselves and their families. Adequate, accessible food supply is one component of security, and likewise, an effective food infrastructure is generally regarded as a government responsibility. Poor countries, which historically relied upon subsistence agriculture, are, as a result of globalization, increasingly dependent on world-girdling supply chains. As long as food is coming in through international trade, and is affordable, many populations will tolerate even the most despotic of dictators. However, when prices get too high, often as a consequence of the global marketplace, an oppressed population can quickly move toward insurgency.

The explanation here is somewhat straightforward:

if you and your family are facing imminent starvation, risking your life to try to overthrow an entrenched government becomes a far more realistic option, because you have nothing to lose. When enough people are hungry enough for this logic to become widespread, you have yourself a revolution.

While logical in its own right, this theory has been bolstered by dramatic evidence in the past few years, as Lagi et al demonstrate. In 2008, more than 60 food riots took place in 30 different countries, primarily in Africa and the Middle East. As the researchers explain, a concomitant spike in global food prices accompanied—and probably precipitated—this spike in worldwide violence. Accordingly, the relative decrease in global food prices in 2009-10 accompanied a comparable lull in food-related protests. However, by late 2010, prices were once again on the rise, and lo and behold, 2011 has experienced a comparable spike in food riots, and, in North Africa and the Middle East, a series of full-on revolutions—the so-called “Arab Spring.”

As the researchers’ data displays, the probability that the Arab Spring had nothing to do with the simultaneous spike in food prices is highly improbable (p < 0.06, considering the 1990-2011 period). Indeed, the ‘nothing to lose’ logic helps explain the motivation to finally uproot such longstanding autocrats as Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi.

The report, while primarily descriptive, also has a prescriptive component for the future.

In the absence of large-scale intervention, food prices will again reach the so-called “threshold of instability,” above which widespread violence is likely, by summer 2012, or latest, spring 2013, if inflation estimates are taken into account. Likewise, the study’s researchers advocate widespread government action, such as halting subsidies for ethanol production (which consumes large quantities of corn), and more careful regulation of commodities markets.

And what if food prices, next time they ‘bubble,’ don’t come down anytime soon? If we are to trust commodities expert and philanthropist Jeremy Grantham, they very well may not. According to Grantham, who was featured for his ecological-minded efforts in the New York Times this month, future price hikes of such products as corn and soybeans may reflect a larger paradigm shift that’s taking place.

From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives,” he contends. “The world is using up its natural resources at an alarming rate, and this has caused a permanent shift in their value. We all need to adjust our behavior to this new environment. It would help if we did it quickly.”

A paradigm shift in food prices could also, we might extrapolate, mean a broader increase in violence in the developing world in the near future. Lagi et al submitted an earlier report to the US government, back in December 2010, warning of impending violence due to food prices in the crisis-battered global economy—and four days later, the first of the past year’s long series of food riots began in Tunisia.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the researchers declare it completely possible to identify the conditions for violence before violence occurs. The problem, however, is getting policy makers to listen to the experts on the need for preemptive action. As the researchers explain,

Our predictions are conditional on the circumstances, and thus allow for policy interventions to change them. Whether policy makers will act depends on the various pressures that are applied to them, including both the public and special interests.

We have been warned.

 

GRAPHIC:  http://viviansalama.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/bread-egypt.jpg


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  • Deena23

    Well written article that is supported with objective data and addresses a continuing threat with a plausible means of stemming more violence.

  • yescolleen

    “Indeed, the ‘nothing to lose’ logic helps explain the motivation to
    finally uproot such longstanding autocrats as Hosni Mubarak and Muammar
    Qaddafi.”    Hey, what’s happening in Libya is not a people’s uprising.   And Libyans standard of living was very high.   Read this article 

    http://www.infowars.com/confirmed-libya-war-is-cia-op-30-years-in-the-making/

     

    • Russ

      You must be a first-time visitor to our site. We’ve been in the forefront of covering Libya. Just type “Libya” in the search box for extensive questioning of the situation there. But Western involvement in encouraging the revolt does not preclude ordinary Libyans having their own concerns and motivations.

      • yescolleen

        Yes, I am a first time visitor to the extent that I learned about your site after reading your superb parsing of the New Yorker piece on bin Laden (which i think i saw on Common Dreams).  Very impressed with your reporting, especially giving us the scoop on the author of that sophisticated puff piece.   I have now bookmarked WhoWhatWhy in my browser for regular reading and have already forwarded a slew of your stories to my e-list friends.   When i forwarded your bin laden piece to a very intelligent and very activist friend we got into a tiff.  At one point he wrote “I tuned out Russ Baker’s piece, for the most part, when he played the 9/11 “conspiracy” card

        (or, at least, U.S. complicity in the attack … as opposed to U.S. culpability/responsibility for our imperialist presence in the Middle East). What a bunch of crap.”  Well now I’d like to know what he “crap” he is referring to — can you tell me?

        • Dontdoit

          Your v. intelligent friend’s ambitions are greater than his ethics.  Like MOST very activist people.

    • mwah

      i really could have lived without the dose of angry white conspiracy nonsense served up with that link

  • Rob

    There’s a lot of coverage on http://www.financialsense.com about the global food situation that’s eye opening to say the least.
    Jim Rogers and Marc Faber have been talking about the potential for food shortages for years now as well.

    Thanks for covering this research. I’m going to forward this to the team at Financial Sense. This is right up their alley…

  • Anon

    “Spengler” at the Asia Times has been writing about the relationship
    between the price of food and the Arab Spring since February!

  • Guest

    Funny all the independent journalism promoted here seems to find evil to the right and virtue to the left.    Not a surprise since the left sees itself as simple truth tellers who are without sin and thus entitled to throw all the stones that they find – and see nothing bad about they’re fellow stone throwers on the left.

    • Anonymous

      Careless commenter. This site is nonpartisan, and neither Left nor Right. Those are outdated terms, designed to foster division rather than focus on facts.

  • Cej_me

    Ethanol production could increase because ethanol is made from the starch of the kernel which is only about 30%. The rest of the kernel 70%, can be and is used for food production. The so called “food for fuel myth” is just that, a myth. Although the oil corporatist would rather have the public know differently.

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