The Impact of Food Prices on Peace and Security
According to the World Food Programme, the poorest households in the developing world spend up to 60 to 80 percent of their incomes on food. When food prices rise, they are forced to spend a higher portion of their incomes on food, leaving less for nonessential items, such as clothes and school supplies. When prices continue to increase, people cut the most expensive items from their diets, such as meat and vegetables, and instead put resources toward staple foods, usually grain, maize or rice.
If prices keep climbing, families begin to cut the number of times they eat a day—from three to two, and sometimes from two to just one. In this way, poor people become increasingly dependent on aid from the state. When a government is unable to provide a safety net for its citizens, social unrest ensues.
Economists at the University of Adelaide examined the impact of food prices on civil conflict in 120 countries during the past 40 years. They found that in low-income countries increases in “international food prices lead to a significant deterioration of democratic institutions and a significant increase in the incidence of anti-government demonstrations, riots, and civil conflict.”
History shows us that without access to and distribution of nutritious, affordable food, a nation’s internal stability is at risk. In 1977, mass protests rocked Egypt, killing 800 people, after the government terminated subsidies on basic foodstuffs. In 1998, Indonesian autocrat Suharto was ousted when rising food prices triggered protests across his country. In early 2008, rising food prices caused riots in dozens of countries—several of which would erupt in uprisings again during the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, with Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit and vegetable seller, who lit himself on fire after being harassed by police for not having a permit to sell food. Like millions of other Tunisians, Bouazizi was upset about skyrocketing food prices and struggled to make a living.
The same month that Bouazizi self-immolated, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that its food price index had jumped 32 percent in the second half of 2010, “surpassing the previous record.” Tunisia’s then-president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, vowed to reduce the price of staple foods, but the pledge was not enough to appease protesters, who took to the streets.
Egyptians, inspired by recent events in Tunisia, took to the streets to protest, among several inequalities, the lack of affordable food. According to Credit Suisse, Egyptians spend more than 40 percent of their monthly income on food, with 20 percent living on less than $1 a day. Although the government provides subsidized bread for 14.2 million people, most Egyptians purchase bread beyond what the subsidy allows, leaving millions hungry and unable to feed their families.
Like Tunisia and Egypt, mass protests in Syria were fueled by skyrocketing prices of basic foodstuffs. The protests started in March 2011 in the rural farming town of Dara’a, an area that had suffered from five years of drought and water scarcity. According to the 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, herders in the northeast had lost close to 85 percent of their livestock, and nearly 75 percent were suffering from total crop failure. The human and economic costs were enormous: 800,000 Syrians had lost their livelihood and approximately one million people were food insecure. Unable to grow their own food and out of work, food inflation had made already expensive food unaffordable.
History paints a clear picture: Increases in food prices can jeopardize a nation’s peace and security. While myriad factors contribute to political upheaval and social unrest, food inflation undoubtedly plays a significant role. Although poor people are particularly vulnerable to increases in food prices because they spend a high portion of their income on sustenance, food inflation affects everyone. Food security is integral to a society’s internal stability. Without it, the seeds of conflict begin to grow.
Sarika Mathur works for Global Justice office at United Methodist Women on issues around food and hunger; women’s rights; and international peace and security. Before joining UMW, Sarika worked as the Coordinator of the NGO Working Group on Food & Hunger at Global Policy Forum.