“The simple statistical relationship is a very positive correlation between real food price levels and the probability of food price riots,” said Cornell Professor Christopher Barrett at Johns Hopkins University on October 22. “That is the immediate connection people have been drawn to right away.”
But is this the entire story? If so, why did only 48 countries experience food riots in 2008, when more than 200 saw food prices increase? What are the root causes of rising food prices, and how can food-related political crises be averted?
Barrett addresses these questions in his new book, Food Security and Sociopolitical Stability, which he discussed alongside Emmy Simmons, author of ECSP Report 14: Harvesting Peace, in an event co-sponsored by the Wilson Center and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
From Revolution to Complacency
Recent increases in the price of staple food stuffs – cereals, meat, sugar, dairy, etc. – are the result of complacency, said Barrett, not necessarily absolute scarcity.
The Green Revolution, a period of rapid advancement in agricultural technology during the middle part of the 20th century, expanded the world’s food production capacity from being able to feed between two and three billion people, to between four and six billion. “That expansion of the human-managed agro-ecosystem is nothing short of remarkable, and up until about a decade ago, outpaced population growth…and we saw a steady decline in food prices,” said Barrett.
But the very successes that gave rise to increased food supplies and unprecedented reductions in human hunger also fed complacency, he continued. The urgency that had driven the agricultural community to keep pace with demand faded, and investment in agriculture slowed sharply from the late 1970s to the start of the new millennium.
Modern food price spikes, which, for example, drove many into the streets during the Arab Spring, are not an aberration. “The underlying structural conditions causing high food prices remain,” said Barrett. “We’ve moved to a high food price regime, and that’s the very natural consequence of steady disinvestment in agriculture.”
Why Do People Riot?
With food prices projected to remain relatively high for the foreseeable future, gaining an understanding of what drives unrest and political instability is increasingly important.
Barrett pointed out that, perhaps surprisingly, Arab Spring protesters in places like Tunisia and Egypt were not the poorest or hungriest members of society, rather they “appear to be overwhelmingly the middle class who had other grievances.” His research suggests high food prices themselves are not the root cause of social unrest (i.e., it’s not necessarily that people cannot afford to buy food) but instead many protestors see high prices as evidence that the government has broken an important social contract.
“The people who are suffering nutritionally or physiologically are not disproportionally the people who take to the streets,” Barrett said. “The root cause of people taking to the streets is that they don’t have jobs, adequate income, or don’t feel the government is protecting them from the shocks that buffet them. It’s that set of broad-scale grievances against governments that are relatively easily mobilized by political opposition.”
The takeaway, said Barrett is that “while very important, phenomena clearly driven by food price spikes are not the big threat to sociopolitical stability. In particular, they are not threats to state overthrow, or widespread violence.” Food prices may be the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back,” but the root causes of political unrest appear to be more strongly correlated with inability to deliver basic services rather than food specifically, he said.
Avoiding Damaging Responses
The potential for deeper-seated problems occur, Barrett said, when high food prices translate into increased value for other natural resources; for example, when fertile land becomes more attractive, and therefore more worth fighting for. Barrett pointed out that the food price spikes in 2008 and 2011 were both followed by massive waves of “land grabs” – controversial, large-scale acquisitions of land to grow food for export to foreign markets – particularly in sub-Saharan African and Southeast Asia.
“I would argue this is the real worry about where sociopolitical instability emerges,” he said. “It’s much less [about] people taking to the street in cities than it is induced competition for increasingly valuable resources in hard-to-police rural areas, where it’s relatively easy to mobilize guerrilla forces.”
Emmy Simmons agreed, pointing out the likelihood for conflict is increased “especially where rebel movements are able to capitalize on households’ food insecurities by offering them opportunities to express their grievances or reverse their fortunes through the capture of scarce resources that are now more valuable.”
In 2009, for example, popular protests in Madagascar led to the ouster of President Marc Ravalomanana after his government agreed to a reported 99-year, 3.2 million hectare lease of half the island’s arable land to the South Korean firm Daewoo.
Finally, Barrett underscored the importance of considering the global effects of government interventions as they attempt to bolster their own food security. Export bans, as Russia and Ukraine instituted in 2010 after wildfires decimated their domestic wheat harvests, may lower local food prices temporarily, but “you export the pressure created by high food prices to your trade partners,” he said. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, where Russia and Ukraine were previously the primary grain suppliers, some researchers contend the export bans helped spark the protests that ultimately deposed regimes in all three countries.
“The actions of governments attempting to grapple with these structural problems have real consequences,” Barrett said. To address what he sees as an inevitable period of sustained high food prices, he urged increased investments in social protection programs, which relieve economic stress and communicate a government’s support for its citizens. “If you look carefully at the countries that ran comprehensive, reasonably effective cash transfer programs, none of those countries suffered food price riots,” he said.
Simmons also suggested improving supply chains, lacking in many of the most vulnerable countries, to better link rural producers to national markets and decrease sensitivity to unpredictable global food prices. “Most of the food consumed in any country is actually produced within that country,” she said. Rather than rely on foreign markets, small-scale farmers can be better incorporated into the larger state economy by increasing their distributive capacity.
But the most direct strategy to mitigate the risk of food price-related instability is to increase the global supply of food, thus decreasing prices and easing competition for resources, said Barrett. This means reversing the complacency that followed the Green Revolution by reinvesting in agricultural technology and enhancing crop production systems worldwide, he concluded.
Drafted by Jacob Glass, edited by Schuyler Null
Photo Credit: Farming on the road to Taiz, Yemen, courtesy of flickr user fiat.luxury. Video: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
- Professor of Applied Economics and Management and International Professor of Agriculture, Cornell University
- Author, Harvesting Peace; Independent Consultant
- U.S. Air Force (retired); Director, Environment and Natural Resources Program, National Intelligence Council