Food Price Shocks and Instability Highlight Weaknesses in Governance and MarketsFebruary 9, 2011 By Bryan McDonald
Unrest across the Middle East has been front-page news for weeks, with commentators searching for explanations to account for the shifting political winds. Many, such as Thomas Friedman and Kevin Hall, have drawn connections between food prices and instability. But, as they point out, high food prices do not deterministically lead to unrest. Instead, rising prices highlight the degree to which governments and governance processes provide and ensure sustainable livelihoods for their people. What these and other commentators point to is that recognizing the role of government in providing food and security is vital: high food prices, they argue, don’t directly cause unrest, but high food prices in poorly managed countries creates a dangerous environment in which unrest may be more likely.
One of the primary drivers of recent interest in the links between food and security concerns is record high food prices. Last month, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index rose to 231 points, a level they report is “the highest (in both real and nominal terms) since the index has been backtracked in 1990.” A complex mix of factors is driving rising prices, including: population growth; higher prices for inputs (like fuel and synthetic fertilizers); extreme weather events and natural disasters (like last summer’s wildfires in Russia); and increased consumer demand for more meat, dairy, and processed foods in many parts of the world.
In 2007-2008, a rapid rise in food prices was linked to violence and unrest in more than sixty countries, including Haiti, Egypt, Ivory Coast, and Yemen. In recent months, we have seen this pattern once again as rising food prices combined with continued unrest and instability in countries such as Ivory Coast, Tunisia, and Egypt. The repetition of these factors makes useful further consideration of the links between food prices and instability, as several commentators have recently noted.
For instance Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas wrote on Foreign Affairs last week that while “assuming a connection among rising prices, hunger, and violent civic unrest seems logical… food riots are ultimately caused more by the perception of profiteering and less by the actual prices on the shelves.” Drawing on historical evidence, as well as the experience of countries like Cameroon in 2008 (where there were widespread riots demanding reductions in food prices), Fraser and Rimas caution that often there are very important intervening factors between rising prices and crowds taking to the streets, including people’s perceptions of the fairness of prices and the effectiveness of government action to prevent profiteering.
A second recent take on this topic comes from an interview with Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations. Garrett sees the combination of high food prices, steps by countries to lower domestic food costs, and concerns about the price and safety implications of a globalizing food system as representative of “a destabilizing moment in terms of global governance and any ability to come up with reasonable, rationale ways to globalize the food supply.” Pointing out that higher food prices also impact aid organizations’ ability to address increasing levels of hunger and food insecurity, Garrett underscores the need to consider a range of strategies to address food security challenges. Beyond short-term steps to lower food prices or increase supply, Garrett emphasizes the importance of making sure food aid supports local and regional food production efforts and of finding ways to reduce the destructive impact of price speculation on key food commodities.
Ensuring security and access to sufficient food for all people has long been a challenge for governments, and current events highlight the continued importance of food as a security issue. Addressing food security in the twenty-first century is as much a political challenge as it is technical or agricultural. Certainly, the need to meet the demand of growing populations and consumption presents a number of problems that must be addressed by improving the productivity and sustainability of agriculture and food production. But, as Fraser, Rimas, and Garrett discuss, addressing the drivers of rising food prices will also require a range of governance activities at both the national and international level and from all actors – governmental, international, and NGO.
Bryan McDonald is an assistant professor in the Science, Technology and Society Program at Penn State University and the author of Food Security: Addressing Challenges from Malnutrition, Food Safety and Environmental Change.
Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, Food and Agriculture Organization, Foreign Affairs, McClatchy, The New York Times.