Food prices and revolution?

Brian Merchant:
It's happening in Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, Bosnia, Syria, and beyond. Revolutions, unrest, and riots are sweeping the globe. The near-simultaneous eruption of violent protest can seem random and chaotic; inevitable symptoms of an unstable world. But there's at least one common thread between the disparate nations, cultures, and people in conflict, one element that has demonstrably proven to make these uprisings more likely: high global food prices.

Just over a year ago, complex systems theorists at the New England Complex Systems Institute warned us that if food prices continued to climb, so too would the likelihood that there would be riots across the globe. Sure enough, we're seeing them now. The paper's author, Yaneer Bar-Yam, charted the rise in the FAO food price index—a measure the UN uses to map the cost of food over time—and found that whenever it rose above 210, riots broke out worldwide. It happened in 2008 after the economic collapse, and again in 2011, when a Tunisian street vendor who could no longer feed his family set himself on fire in protest.

Bar-Yam built a model with the data, which then predicted that something like the Arab Spring would ensue just weeks before it did. Four days before Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation helped ignite the revolution that would spread across the region, NECSI submitted a government report that highlighted the risk that rising food prices posed to global stability. Now, the model has once again proven prescient—2013 saw the third-highest food prices on record, and that's when the seeds for the conflicts across the world were sown.
Venezuela is a much clearer case for the theory.  A command economy that tried to repeal the law of supply and demand and found itself short of food.  It has squandered its oil bounty and can no longer produce enough to feed itself and can't afford the imports.  Ukraine seems a different story to me.  It is a major agricultural producer, that had people looking to expand trade with Europe and a government looking for closer ties with Russia.  In Thailand there is an urban rural dynamic at work where the majority of voters live in the rural areas and the urban elites don't like being governed by people they consider inferior.  My own experience in Thailand was that the food was pretty reasonably priced.  This urban vs, rural political battle has been going on for years and it is fought out with team T-shirts reds vs, yellow.


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