Spikes in food prices tend to lead to social unrest. In 2007 and 2008, there were riots in 30 countries as commodities rose to record levels on global markets. Many analysts even say that food prices were an important background factor to the Arab Spring, starting in 2011.
Going forward, all the ingredients are there for future instability. Though down from historic peaks, food prices, as measured by the Food and Agriculture Organization, are still higher than they’ve been in 30 years. And many people in import-dependent countries still spend a high proportion of income on food–up to 70% in places like Ghana and Pakistan.
Climate change threatens to make things worse. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report forecast that food prices could rise 84% by 2050, mainly because of falling yields in countries already facing food insecurity issues. Yields of rice in Thailand, India, and Vietnam are predicted to decline by almost 40% by the 2080s, for example.
But what countries are most vulnerable to price shocks and unrest? That’s the subject of a new paper by Cullen Hendrix, an assistant professor at the University of Denver, and Stephan Haggard, a
graduate student colleague professor at U.C. San Diego.
Hendrix and Haggard looked at 55 cases of food-related unrest in 49 Asian and African countries from 1961 to 2010 to understand the conditions for such events. Their conclusion: food riots are more likely in democratic, as opposed to autocratic countries. Also, states that hand out more food subsidies to urban populations, not rural ones, experience less unrest.
“Food is inherently political,” says Hendrix in an email. “The extent to which governments shield consumers from high global prices has to be a factor predicting when and where high food prices will translate into unrest.” In other words, global prices don’t necessarily lead to unrest; it depends on the political economy of the country concerned.
So what might that mean for a world under greater food stress? Hendrix expects food-rich/land-rich countries like the U.S., Canada, Russia, and Kazakhstan, to get richer, while countries in Asia and Africa that rely on food imports will get poorer. “Many countries in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East face significant land constraints. India already uses over 80% of its cultivable land; Egypt, Iran, and Turkey use over 100%. That indicates that farming is only sustainable through irrigation, which requires significant investment in rural infrastructure,” he says.
Of the countries likeliest to see protests, “developing democracies” seem to be the best candidates. That might include countries like Turkey, India, Nigeria, or parts of the Middle East.
Switching food subsides away from urban populations to rural ones would reduce poverty, Hendrix says. But it carries political risks because city people are more likely to cause political instability than rural folk. “Governments face a tradeoff in pursuing two separate but linked definitions of food security: food security as a component of human security, where pro-poor policies may be the best answer, and food security as a component of national security, where urban interests seem the most pressing,” he says.