food riot
Throughout history, food shortages have led to civil unrest. Most notably in recent history, the Global Food Crisis of 2008 spurred an outbreak of food riots around the world. Now, with food prices increasing at the highest rate since 2008, political leaders are concerned that a similar outbreak of food riots may be on its way.

In the beginning of 2014, international food prices rose 4 percent. In the time between January and April, food prices spiked to a level just short of their all-time high in August 2012. The rapid increase is similar to the surge in food prices in 2007 and 2008 that led to so many food riots.

If history repeats itself, the recent food price hikes give government officials adequate reason to worry.

The difficulty with monitoring food riots is that the term is loosely defined. In broad terms, a food riot is some sort of public disturbance raised in response to food’s availability. Interpretations of this definition, however, are as varied as the riots themselves, leading to a great deal of confusion surrounding the topic of food riots.

How severe must the disturbance be to earn the title of a riot? A food riot is generally a violent protest. Participants have been known to harm other citizens or police forces. In return, police forces respond with brutality to control the situation. Some news articles will only cite occasions that have resulted in casualties as food riots.

Other news sources believe that any public response to food-related issues falls in this category. They report even the most peaceful demonstrations as food riots.

Where is the proper balance? How can the media successfully educate the public on these world events without an accepted definition of a riot?

In the wake of recent food pricing inclines, The World Bank has developed a widely accepted definition to guide examinations of these conflicts. Their 2014 Food Price Watch defines a food riot as “a violent, collective unrest leading to a loss of control, bodily harm or damage to property.”

The definition has helped The World Bank determine which episodes in the recent past were actually food riots. A database of food riots between 2007 and 2014 has since been collected, revealing that 51 riots have taken place in 37 countries.

The cause of food riots also prompts confusion. Increasing food prices are not the only cause of riots. In Vietnam, decreasing prices of coffee have resulted in violent outbreaks in the past. A decline in value of major exports can have just as strong of an impact on a nation as unavailability of food and other resources.

The World Bank has also established guidelines for the causes of food riots, saying that they are “motivated by a lack of food availability, accessibility or affordability,” whether directed at the government or other groups.

There are two types of food riots. In a Type 1 incident, the riots are directed at the government. Distress takes its form in public protests outside of government buildings, often in response to rising food prices. It is the most common form of food riot reported in the media because their causes often have international implications.

In a Type 2 episode, rioters demonstrate near food suppliers because they are not politically driven. They attack supply trucks, stores or refugee camps. These riots are more locally focused and occur during times of drastic food shortages.

Defining food riots helps aid organizations determine how to best help areas experiencing food shortages to prevent violent outbreaks. Government officials know how to respond to rising food prices by studying food riots of the past. By alleviating causes of global hunger, aid organizations and government officials can increase peace in underprivileged nations.

– Emily Walthouse

Sources: Food Price Watch, Global Issues, Slate, The World Bank
Photo: NPR

The Connection Between Political Instability and Food PricesThe New England Complex Systems Institute has released a study on the relationship between political instability and food prices in the Middle East. The paper, titled The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East, examines contributing factors to social unrest and finds that violent protests have coincided with high food prices since 2008.

The problem of food riots, which are closely related to hunger, poverty, and high food prices, is nothing new. The French Revolution was due, in part, to the hungry protesting high food prices. In today’s global economy, where countries regularly import and export large quantities of food, even regional riots and resulting political instability hold vast implications for the entire world.

NECSI examines the relationship between political instability and food prices by using mathematical modeling to describe changes in food prices, then interpreting those models to determine the threshold at which riots become likely. Authors of the study predicted that high prices for US-grown corn and wheat in 2010 would cause unrest elsewhere. Their prediction came true with the events of the Arab Spring that began at the end of 2010.

Can socially disruptive riots and protests be accurately predicted? The NECSI study says yes: that when the FAO Food Price Index rises above 210, riots become significantly more likely.

The New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) is an independent research and education institution that studies the development of complex social, biological, and ecological systems. NECSI applies evidence-based science to real-world social problems such as poverty and climate change.

– Kat Henrichs

Sources: NECSI, NPR
Photo: DW