When food shortages and rising prices drive people to desperation, social unrest soon follows. It’s as true today as it was in 18th-century France. According to a new analysis of food prices and unrest, the 2008 global food riots and ongoing Arab Spring may be a preview of what’s coming.
“When you have food prices peak, you have all these riots. But look under the peaks, at the background trend. That’s increasing quite rapidly, too,” said Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute. “In one to two years, the background trend runs into the place where all hell breaks loose.”
Bar-Yam and his colleagues are hunters of mathematical signals in social data: market trends and economic patterns, ethnic violence, Hollywood movies. In their latest expedition, described Aug. 11 in the prepublication online arXiv, they focus on the 2008 food riots and the Arab Spring, both of which followed year-long surges in basic food prices.
The researchers are hardly the first to portray food problems as a spark that inflames social inequality and stokes individual desperation, unleashing and amplifying impulses of rebellion. The role of food prices in triggering the Arab Spring has been widely described. Their innovation is a pair of price points on the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index: about 215 in current prices, or 190 when corrected for inflation.
It’s at those points where, on a graph of food prices and social unrest between 2004 and 2011, unrest breaks out. But whereas they were crossed by price jumps in 2008, Bar-Yam and colleagues calculate that the underlying, steady trend — driven primarily by commodity speculation, agricultural crop-to-fuel conversion and rising prices of fertilizer and oil — crosses those points between 2012 and 2013.
“Once we get there, the peaks aren’t the problem anymore. Instead it’s the trend. And that’s harder to correct,” said Bar-Yam. At that point, widespread political unrest and instability can be expected, even in countries less troubled than those in North Africa and the Middle East.
“When the ability of the political system to provide security for the population breaks down, popular support disappears. Conditions of widespread threat to security are particularly present when food is inaccessible to the population at large,” write Bar-Yam and colleagues in arXiv. “All support for the system and allowance for its failings are lost. The loss of support occurs even if the political system is not directly responsible for the food security failure, as is the case if the primary responsibility lies in the global food supply system.”
The analysis comes with caveats, one of which is the possibility that it’s the dynamics of spiking prices, rather than a particular price level, that unleashes unrest. But according to Bar-Yam, even the underlying trends are rising at an extremely fast pace. “If things change slowly rather than rapidly, there would be a different response,” he said. “If it was going to happen over a period of 10 to 20 years, we’d be talking about something else. But the circumstance we’re talking about is one of changes in a year or two.”