People may vote with their pocketbooks, but more often than not, they revolt with their bellies. If you want to predict where political instability, revolution, coups d’etat, or interstate warfare will occur, the best factor to keep an eye on is not GDP, the human development index, or energy prices.
“If I were to pick a single indicator—economic, political, social—that I think will tell us more than any other, it would be the price of grain,” says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, who has been writing about the politics and economics of food since the 1950s.
Food, of course, is never the sole driver of instability or uprising. Corruption, a lack of democracy, ethnic tension—these better known factors may be critical—but food is often the difference between an unhappy but quiescent population and one in revolt.
Take Venezuela, where a toxic combination of gas subsidies, currency controls, and hoarding have led to chronic food shortages—a major factor motivating the anti-government protests that have wracked the country since the beginning of this year.
It’s not always high prices that are to blame. Behind the ongoing protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand, in addition to concerns over corruption and a debate on the future of the country’s democracy, is a probe over a controversial rice-hoarding scheme that has led to a global glut.
This idea isn’t exactly new. “We’ve known since the times of the Roman poet Juvenal”—he of bread and circuses fame—“that food is an inherently political commodity,” says Cullen Hendrix, a political scientist at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Relations and a leading authority on the relationship between food and conflict.
Two events have renewed interest among scholars in the relationship between food prices and political instability. The first was the 2007–08 food crisis, which triggered food riots in countries from Haiti to Bangladesh to Mozambique.
The second was the Arab Spring, the first signs of which were riots in response to high food prices in Algeria and Tunisia. The revolutions that swept the Middle East that year were, of course, primarily the result of a population frustrated by decades of dictatorship and corruption, but according to Hendrix, Egypt’s revolution, in particular, is impossible to fully understand without taking into account the role of food.
Autocratic governments have a habit of keeping food and fuel prices artificially low through subsidies and price controls. As Hendrix puts it, “Rational leaders have an incentive to cater to the preferences of urbanites. They are closer to the center of power, they face lower costs for collective action, they live in dense environments in which protests are particularly threatening to a leader. So what do these urbanites want? They want cheap food.”
If you’re the dictator of a small, rich country, you can theoretically feed your population indefinitely. In 2011, for instance, while revolutions were sweeping the region, oil-rich Kuwait announced that it would commemorate the anniversary of the country’s liberation from Iraq by giving every citizen a grant of 1,000 dinars ($3,545) and free food for 13 months. The message to citizens was pretty clear.
Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and is not blessed with a significant amount of arable land or oil reserves; its rulers don’t have options like Kuwait’s. Egypt has a history of food-based instability. In 1977, under pressure from the World Bank, Anwar Sadat severely curtailed food subsidies. In the resulting “bread intifada,” strikes and rioting lasted for two days and around 800 people were killed.
By 2011, food and fuel subsidies accounted for a staggering 8 percent of Egypt’s GDP. Hosni Mubarak’s government could no longer afford to feed his population into submission. Even with subsidies, grain prices jumped 30 percent in Egypt between 2010 and 2011, and the uprising began in January 2011.
The Arab Spring may become the textbook example of the geopolitics of food prices—the food riots and subsequent revolutions transfixed the world. But shifts in food price may be responsible for an even more profound reordering of global power. Food may explain why everything changed during the 1980s.
After a price shock in the late 1970s, food prices underwent a slump during the early and mid-1980s. A confluence of factors included slowing economic growth; the spread of the “green revolution,” which improved the efficiency of agriculture in developing countries; and the falling price of oil.
This slump played a role in many of the larger geopolitical trends of the era, according to Argentinian economist Eugenio Diaz-Bonilla. The Soviet Union, which was a net exporter of commodities, was hit hard economically, and by the end of the decade was near collapse. Growth was sluggish throughout the decade in Latin America, where most economies are based on agriculture. Dictatorships were overthrown in Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile. African countries entered a period of economic stagnation and civil strife that the continent only recently started to recover from. The emerging tigers of East Asia, meanwhile, such as China and South Korea, benefited from low prices on the food they import.
In the 1990s, food prices began to rise and have continued increasing ever since, with the exception of a brief blip during the global economic crisis in the late 2000s. Overall, the food price index as measured by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization is twice what it was in 1991. There’s little to suggest they’re going to fall any time soon.