Food security risks soar as prices breach critical threshold

“Every society is three meals away from chaos” ~ Vladimir Lenin

Violent protests in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 – commonly known as the Arab Spring – as well as earlier riots in 2008, coincided with sharp increases in global food prices. A decade later global food prices have once again breached a critical threshold, above which food price riots are thought much more likely to occur.

In late 2010 researchers from the New England Complex Systems Institute in the United States examined the relationship between global food prices and the frequency of food riots. The research indicates that higher food prices alone do not result in riots, however when they rise above a critical threshold society’s contract with the incumbent political system starts to break down:

“widespread unrest does not arise from long-standing political failings of the system, but rather from its sudden perceived failure to provide essential security to the population. In food importing countries with widespread poverty, political organizations may be perceived to have a critical role in food security. Failure to provide security undermines the very reason for existence of the political system. Once this occurs, the resulting protests can reflect the wide range of reasons for dissatisfaction, broadening the scope of the protest, and masking the immediate trigger of the unrest.”

In late 2010, just four days before the beginning of the Arab Spring protests, an initial report was submitted to the US government that warned of the increased risk of food price riots. The chart below is from a follow up report, published in late 2011 that outlines what happened next.

Chart 1: Global food prices (current) versus timing of food price riots and their estimated death toll, 2004-11

Time dependence of FAO Food Price Index from January 2004 to May 2011. Red dashed vertical lines correspond to beginning dates of “food riots” and protests associated with the major recent unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. The overall death toll is reported in parentheses. Blue vertical line indicates the date, December 13, 2010, on which report was submitted to the U.S. government, warning of the link between food prices, social unrest and political instability. Inset shows FAO Food Price Index from 1990 to 2011.

The researchers define the riot danger zone in relation to the U.N.’s FAO Food Price Index, which tracks the monthly change in international prices for a basket of cereals, dairy, meat, sugars and oil/fats. Riots become more likely, their model showed, when the index goes above 210. This critical threshold was breached in December 2010, weeks before the Arab Spring riots began in Tunisia. The UN’s FAO food price index has been rebased since then, but based on nominal food prices reached in late 2010 prices have once again breached that critical threshold.

Chart 2: Global food prices (current), 2004-21

Ten years on it’s North Africa that is once again feeling the pressure from high food prices. Many economies in the region are large grain importers, Egypt for example is the worlds top importer of wheat. Food is typically subsidised by the state, but high import bills, poor government and deteriorating economies make it difficult to shield citizens from higher food prices indefinitely.

Related article: Food inflation tail risks building for emerging markets

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