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December 24th, 2011

Food for Thoughts, Hunger for Deeds

BY Christian Ford

We here at HogSalt love a good picture because beauty, on a good day, is truth.  But on other days — most days — it’s the other way around, even if the truth revealed isn’t so lovely.

This jagged mountain range of a graph has a certain harsh beauty in its clarity.  The peaks that you’re looking at are food prices.  The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization,  whose mission is to ensure food security for the entire world, keeps track of global food prices.  They do this via a “basket” of staples — basic foods that make the difference between going hungry and not.  You don’t need me to tell you what this graph says about the price of that basket.

What might need more explanation are those little red lines with the country names and numbers on top.  These are countries where political and social unrest broke out.  The numbers are the count of those who died in the unrest.  So, there’s the Arab Spring, blooming on a summit of high food prices.

The authors of the study that produced this graph have interesting things to say.  But for me, the takeaway is pretty simple: all hell breaks loose when food gets too costly.  The authors of the study conveniently define “too costly”;  when prices spike past 210 on the FAO scale, the rioting starts.

Of course, a dollar’s worth of potatoes isn’t the same in Chicago as it is in Ukraine.  Different nationalities spend different percentages of their income on food.   In the United States, we spend less of our total income on food than any place else in the world: 7%.  In two Arab Spring countries, it’s 36% in Tunisia and 38% in Egypt.  Kazakhstan, where oil workers are striking under the slogan “Don’t Shoot the People,” and President Nursultan Nazarbaev keeps saying things like “there will be no Arab-style revolution,”  spends 35% of its income on food.  In Russia, where a huge protest is planned for Christmas Eve, people shell out 28% of their rubles for pishcha.  In China (32%), the 20,000 person strong settlement of Wukan has chased out the local cops and communist party staff as the entire village has risen up.

It’s enough to give you pause, this thought that food isn’t just sustenance, or entertainment, but also a force of history.  One way or the other, we’ll soon find out whether this study is on to something.  It turns out that underneath the price spikes, there’s a price trend, and the trend is up.  It’s up so much that the average price (forget the spikes) will pass the magic 210 number sometime between July of 2012 and August of 2013.  It makes me wonder what the FAO price index would have been in France in 1789, after two years of crummy harvests hadn’t put bread on the table and just before Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.”


Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand, Yaneer Bar-Yam, “The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East.”