Feeding Unrest: A Closer Look at the Relationship Between Food Prices and Sociopolitical Conflict

From the Roman poet Juvenal’s observations about bread and circuses to Marie Antoinette’s proclamation, “let them eat cake!” the link between food and political stability is well established in pop culture. In academic and policy circles, however, it’s a source of considerable debate.

Since 2008, when the FAO Food Price Index spiked to previously unseen levels, reports of so-called “food riots” have become common. In 2011, researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) released a short paper presenting a compelling correlation between spikes in the FAO Food Price Index in 2008 (and again in 2011) and media reports of food riots across the Middle East and North Africa. The authors claimed that when political systems fail to provide accessible food, populations have “nothing to lose” and “any incident then triggers death-defying protests and other actions that disrupt the existing order.”

Based on this correlation, NECSI made some rather deterministic predictions about widespread unrest that have been repeated in media outlets since to explain various conflicts around the globe, including the Arab Spring. Prognostications like these are dangerous because they are overly simplistic and reductionist, potentially leading to policy that doesn’t address the actual problem and can even make things worse.

The correlation between FAO Food Price Index levels and conflict does not hold up under close scrutiny – local prices do not necessarily respond immediately to changes in the Index, and it’s hard to determine what constitutes a food riot or if other factors besides food prices are having a larger impact in a restive society.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a relationship between food prices and conflict; it means there’s still a lot more work to be done to understand it.

For the complete article, please see New Security Beat.