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Rising Up: Using Escalating Food Costs To Predict Riots, Revolutions, and Rebellions

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Since the beginning of 2014, riots have occurred in countries including Thailand and Venezuela. Although they’re different cultures on different continents, these mass protests movements may all have one commonality; increasing food prices may have contributed to their occurrence. The cost of food has been steadily increasing in both Thailand and Venezuela; last month demonstrators in Caracas took to the streets marching with empty pots to protest food shortages. According to Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam and fellow researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), events such as these may be anticipated by a mathematical model that examines rising food costs.

The events of 2014 aren’t without precedent; the price of food has provoked (and placated) throughout history, beginning in Imperial Rome when Augustus introduced grain subsidies. In recent years, the Middle East has been particularly affected by the cost of grain. Centuries after Egypt developed bread as we recognize it, the nation experienced a bread intifada–the country rioted for two days in January 1977 following Anwar Sadat’s decision to drastically decrease food subsidies. More recently, under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the price of grain rose 30 percent between 2010 and 2011. Then, on January 25, 2011 a new revolution began in Egypt.

In Cairo, a demand for "Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice"

The surging cost of grain throughout the Middle East, along with Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself on fire on December 17, 2010, are frequently cited as factors contributing to the Arab Spring. Four days prior to Bouazizi’s self immolation, Bar-Yam and his NECSI colleagues submitted an analysis that highlighted the risks of rising food prices and anticipated an event like the Arab Spring. Their research included a model built using data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index, a measure that maps monthly changes in international food costs. The model found the likelihood for rioting increased when the index reached above 210.

On the graph below, the black dots are food prices and the vertical red lines are riots (with death tolls in parentheses); they show the index exceeded 210 during the food crises of both the 2008 and 2011.

Of course, man cannot riot off bread alone; factors such as unemployment, oppression, economic instability and corruption also contribute. Still, there is something so fundamental about food, and the implications of not having it, that makes people react. As Bar-Yam explains, “The analysis suggests the doubling of food prices we have seen since 2005 pushed many in the greatest poverty across the line from bare subsistence into desperation and starvation. When people are not able to feed their families, they have little to lose and become willing to take strong actions.”

Bar-Yam has identified two main factors he believes are driving the increasing food prices. The first, conversion of corn for ethanol, is more of an underlying factor. Since 2005, the demand for corn has increased so it can be converted to ethanol and used as gasoline. The other, speculation on food commodities, leads to bubbles and crashes; this occurred in both 2008 and 2011. Both of these factors can be seen on the graph below:

What can be expected for the future? The UN food price index has been at the 210 threshold for nearly two years and reached 213 in March 2014. Along with local conditions and policy decisions that affect food prices, Bar-Yam sees addressing speculation and the conversion of corn to ethanol as essential to determining future conditions. He says, “If actions are taken that reduce the amount of corn being converted to ethanol, prices will decrease, and if there is new regulation of commodity speculation the possibility of another peak will be reduced. However, as it currently stands, we have a very high base price due to ethanol conversion, and speculation may still lead to another bubble causing even more suffering and social unrest.”

Image Credits: Ahmad Hammoud, Graph 1 & 2 used with permission by NECSI

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. theaterlon 5:00 pm 04/26/2014

    I have wondered for the last 16 years what it will take to wake the American people up to the facts that we are being controlled and manipulated by the 1 percenters. The occupy Wall Street movement was just a burp. I was amazed that when the bankers and wallo street blew up our economy that there was no fallout. The American Sheeple need to wake up and take our democracy back, if it takes food riots, so be it.

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  2. 2. Profitsup 3:46 pm 05/1/2014

    Here is a short paper on how to feed the world and create energy, water and food on a massive green scale. No air quality issues and very cost effective if all supported the idea.


    We put millions of skilled workers on manufacturing jobs building 500 to 1,000 Nuclear power plant of a low cost standard design. This will provide all the energy to accomplish a full restoration of our industrial base. How will this happen you ask?

    First we “MINE” the oceans for gold, silver, copper, uranium, methane, manganese and other valuable minerals and metals. It has been estimated that it will be profitable to mine gold from the seas at around $ 3,000 per ounce. Second we use cheap nuclear power to extract these metals which could make a profit to pay off the national debt. Third we use the byproduct “WATER” to farm the huge vacant dry south west feeding the entire planet with low cost food.

    Finally we use the cheap nuclear power to build factories to manufacture everything the entire planet needs and we return to zero unemployment and can pay good wages because we have free energy that makes a profit in it’s creation.The money generated can payoff all debts, build nuclear reprocessing plants, research and develop a system to render nuclear waste harmless.

    Just think, full employment, no energy crisis ever, gold to make money valuable, make the dollar the strongest currency on earth, end inflation, end government debt. Just imagine “AMERICA REBORN AND THE DREAM FULFILLED!!!

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  3. 3. mvrprasad 2:53 am 05/2/2014

    A needless debate viz., food vs fuel was created by using food crops for energy purposes. There is a wide range of oil bearing perennial trees that could be grown on wastelands without any artificial irrigation to get good yield of vegetable oil, which could be used for energy purposes. This approach should not clash with food production, since these drought resistant oil bearing trees grow on wastelands thriving on rain water The waste land that are not used for regular irrigated agriculture may be put to use in this regard. Among the oil bearing tree species Pongamia pinnata ( commonly known as Karanj, Indian beech, Pongam etc)is found to be one of the most useful in terms of oil yield per unit area . VAUGRID have developed a number of elite Pongamia clones that could yield sustainable oil quantities when grown on marginal and waste lands.

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  4. 4. hkraznodar 5:39 pm 05/7/2014

    International sanctions and/or limited embargoes against countries such as the USA which use food crops for fuel would be a good starting point. The international court can levy charges of crimes against humanity on the primary proponents of this atrocity.

    @Profitsup: By stripping vital nutrients from the ocean you simply shift the problem more to coastal populations, not to mention how energy intensive you plan to “mine” the oceans would be. Your plan is terrible and has enormous risks.

    @theaterlon: If you don’t like the 1% with the most money then support an annual tax on non-liquid capital and loans collateralized via non-liquid capital. Have it start at $1,000,000 in assets and carry a rate of 2% a year and the deficit will vanish, the economy will boom since property prices will drop. Most likely this will inject a lot more money into the economy as well so buying will increase and thus jobs will be created.

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