Debating the Link Between Food Prices and Revolutions

Are Egyptians rioting over food prices? It's been suggested

This article is from the archive of our partner .

According to the latest data from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, food prices have reached an all time high, since the UN started tracking prices in the 1990s. This means, Time's Krista Mahir points out, we're wrestling with costs that are higher than the June 2008 prices that triggered food riots in Haiti and the Philippines. Tack on the FAO's statement that "the number of hungry people is higher in 2010 than before the food and economic crises of 2008-2009," and the fact that Egyptians spend about 40 percent of their income on food, and it would seem reasonable to think that rising food prices are behind what's happening in Egypt. In fact, a connection has been suggested several times in the past week.

Food, however, is a complex issue, particularly because prices are rising for everyone in just about every category the UN polls (meat is the one category where prices stayed stable), and yet Spain and Greenland, which are facing high prices and suffering from a struggling world economy, aren't being stormed by rioters. But food's role in Egypt's political chaos keeps coming up in debates both in terms of Egypt's fate, as well as what food prices could mean beyond the region. Here's some of what's being said:

  • Egypt Isn't About Hunger, though Scientific American's David Biello says food is definitely an exacerbating factor. It is also one countries need to pay close attention to, because what happens in Egypt is going to squeeze prices elsewhere, since "8 percent of global trade passes through the Suez Canal. If unrest in Egypt closes the canal, the price of commodities from food to oil could go even higher."
  • Food Prices Have the MidEast Worried  Biello notes that even though hunger isn't the sole reason behind Mubarak's ouster, neighbors are taking notice, "countries such as Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Yemen have been snapping up supplies of wheat in the world market to forestall any hint of food price spikes--or regime change" he says.
  • Don't Overstate Hunger's Role  In an interview with The American Prospect, the World Food Program's Rene McGuffin says yes, hunger has had a role, but blaming food costs for the amounts to laziness; she says the media gravitates towards the issue because angry, hungry people make for good copy and a good photo, but "the political turmoil that we're seeing in Egypt has been over a lot of issues, a lot of concerns ... whether they're poverty, inequality, and other issues."
  • The Longer This Lasts, the More Food Matters  Although arguing the food supply isn't the major force behind Egypt's chaos, the World Food Program's McGuffin also says drawn-out instability will bring it to the fore: "The longer the conflict goes on, the more intense or greater a contribution it can have. Egypt, like other countries, also has a history of food riots."
  • All Countries Should Watch Food Prices  Just as Tunisia's crisis was beginning, economist Nouriel Roubini was warning the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that if countries weren't worried about food prices now, they should because commodities prices-- meaning items like wheat, sugar, and coffee, as well as the more headline-grabbing oil and gas--can be the tipping point when it comes to stability. "What has happened in Tunisia and is happening right now in Egypt, but also the riots in Morocco, Algeria, Pakistan are related not only to high unemployment rates and to income and wealth inequality, but also to the very sharp rise in food and commodity prices," he says.

  • Even the U.S.?  According to the admittedly doomsday-focused National Inflation Association, the United States isn't immune to food price spikes--we've just been lucky that Americans generally spend only 13 percent of their income on food. In four years, however, the NIA says this is going to change, and "middle-class Americans will be spending at least 30% to 40% of their income on food, similar to Egyptians today."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.