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    High Food Prices Are Fueling Egypt's Riots—and Those in Brazil, Turkey, and Syria

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: Flickr

    Conflict continues to sweep Egypt, and the death toll is rising fast. Demonstrators protesting ex-president Mohammed Morsi's ouster are the latest victims, and they number at least in the hundreds. The region has been wracked with conflict for months now, and, while the West is fond of blaming Morsi's incompetence as a governor, the problem may be much more fundamental than that—Egypt is starving. 

    When people are hungry, societies tend to unravel, regardless of whether it's led by an authoritarian tyrant or a democratic body. When food is too expensive, people can't eat. And all over the world, food is way too expensive right now.

    Two years ago, the New England Complex Systems Institute published a famous paper that sussed out the mathematical correlation between food prices and unrest: Every time food prices breached a certain threshold, riots broke out worldwide.

    That all-important threshold is about 210 on the FAO Food Price Index. That's the "measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities," according to the United Nations.

    In 2008, the wake of the global economic crash, food prices skyrocketed to 220. Violent protests and riots swept the globe. In 2011, food prices spiked, and breached the threshold again—and the Arab Spring was born. Today, most of us remember of the millions-strong demonstrations and the toppled dictators, but recall that the uprising began when one man was so desperate and humiliated that he couldn't feed his family that he set himself on fire. 

    In May 2013, right before millions of angry Egyptians took to Tahrir Square, the index was at 213. For most of the spring, it had hovered well above 210, meaning that food was prohibitively expensive for Egypt's poor for a full three months before people took to the streets in dissent. 

    And sure enough, food acces is a crippling problem in Egypt even today. UPI reports that "Bassem Ouda, the minister of supplies in the government of President Mohamed Morsi—who was ousted by the army July 3—admitted last week the state has less than two months' supply of imported wheat in stock, or about 500,000 metric tons."

    Food supplies were and are dwindling, a problem that's exacerbated Egypt's political woes. It's even more expensive to import foreign wheat, and aid contracts are being widely disputed. The government apparently only has three million tons of homegrown wheat left from the spring harvest. As UPI explains, "That means bread shortages, and with about 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line—subsisting on heavily subsidized bread that sells at the equivalent of 1 U.S. cent a loaf—that could trigger widespread social unrest."

    Egypt isn't alone. I recently spoke to Yaneer Bar-Yam, the chief author of the NECSI paper, and he told me that much of the unrest of the past year—in Turkey, Brazil, and Syria as the highest-profile examples—can be tied to rising food prices.

    In fact, back in 2011, Bar-Yam's model indicated that major spikes notwithstanding, the general trend was towards higher and higher prices—and that we'd probably see a spate of global riots in 2013. That has, more or less, come to pass. The breaking points are different—Brazil ostensibly rioted over public transit fare hikes, Turkey over the destruction of public space—but nothing precipitates the societal tensions that undergird such eruptions like the unavailability of food. 

    Thankfully, food prices appear to be declining in the short term. The UN reports that FAO index has fallen for the third straight month now, and is under that 210 number. But at 205, it's still dangerously close. And a short term drop doesn't augur long term security. The global food system is still far too fickle, too vulnerable to commodity speculation, poor regional yields, and natural disasters.

    Unless we stabilize the entire system with a spate of sweeping correctives—taking serious steps to rein in speculation, insulating farmers against climate change, pivoting away from disease and drought-susceptible monocultures, and stop wasting farmland on ethanol—the riots will continue, in Egypt, and beyond. 

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