In the winter of 1845, Charles Darwin witnessed “tremendous destruction” on his otherwise idyllic estate in the hamlet of Downe. Severe drought and extreme cold had killed 80 percent of the birds nesting in his gardens, meadows and woodlands. It was a harbinger of greater destruction to come.
Across Europe, suffering and bloodshed followed. A soaring urban population, drought and potato blight caused food shortages and skyrocketing prices. Within three years, two million Irish either fled the country or died of starvation. Polish peasants, wielding scythes and flails, murdered or mutilated some 1,500 noblemen. Rebellions broke out in Germany, Italy, Hungary and Belgium. A financial crisis and poor harvests triggered yet another French Revolution. Civil war even swept Switzerland.
This period of turmoil, in early 1848, became known as the Spring of Nations or Springtime of the Peoples. Back then, like in today’s Middle East, people suffering from economic malaise and a food crisis took up arms against incompetent and unjust rulers.
Years later, writing about the “struggle for existence” in On The Origins of Species, Darwin recalled his dead birds and how a shifting climate and extreme weather reduces food production in nature and “brings on the most severe struggle between the individuals, whether of the same or of distinct species.”
While the underlying causes of the 1848 revolutions are complex, food shortages, as Darwin posited, likely triggered the “severe struggle” that pitted the populace against each other and their autocratic rulers. Indeed, evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson argues that food is the “original limiting factor” that has driven expansive wars and territorial behaviour throughout human history. Hunger has driven humanity’s conquest of Earth.
New research using advanced computer models has quantified this age-old axiom that food scarcity creates social conflict. More worrisome, the research predicts we are heading into a winter of deep discontent.
Scientists at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have linked rising food prices with global unrest. The Arab Spring, according to NECSI scientists, was as much about hunger pains as hunger for political change.
Crunching data on social unrest and the FAO Food Price Index from 2004 to 2011, NECSI President Yaneer Bar-Yam and his team identified a “specific food price threshold above which protests become likely.” That threshold was reached in 2008 and 2011, periods of heightened food riots, social unrest and outright revolutions in some countries.
FIG. 1: Time dependence of FAO Food Price Index from January 2004 to May 2011. Red dashed vertical lines correspond to beginning dates of food riots and protests associated with major unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. The overall death toll is reported in parentheses. Blue vertical line indicates the date, December 13, 2010, on which NECSI submitted a report to the U.S. government, warning of the link between food prices, social unrest and political instability. Inset shows FAO Food Price Index from 1990 to 2011. Source NECSI.
“In food importing countries with widespread poverty, political organizations may be perceived to have a critical role in food security,” the scientists conclude. “Failure to provide security undermines the very reason for existence of the political system. Once this occurs, the resulting protests can reflect the wide range of reasons for dissatisfaction, broadening the scope of the protest, and masking the immediate trigger of the unrest.”
Mystified by the shocking price spikes, the researchers also looked into the cause. Increased global meat consumption, poor weather, a rising population, biofuels, market speculation, oil prices, volatile currencies—all have been attributed to creating spiraling prices.
Dr. Bar-Yam and his team created another dynamic mathematical model to tease out which factors were the primary cause. The conclusion: U.S. government policies of market deregulation and corn-to-ethanol biofuel subsidies precipitated the striking price spikes which, in turn, triggered unrest in the Middle East and beyond. Subsidies have steadily driven up prices over time while speculators have made them periodically skyrocket.
Researchers published their findings a year ago, but have just updated their findings with troubling new data. From June to July, the FAO Food Price Index jumped by six percent to 213 points, just above NECSI’s threshold of 210 but lower than the peak of 238 points reach in February 2011. NECSI scientists believe the data suggest we are on our way to a speculator-driven “massive price shock” that won’t be justified by declines in U.S. harvests due to drought.
FIG 2: The FAO Food Price Index shows that global prices jumped six percent between June and July 2012, which may represent the beginning of another “crop shock.”
“This summer, the American breadbasket has suffered debilitating droughts and high temperatures, leading to soaring corn and wheat prices in anticipation of a poor harvest,” says Dr. Bar-Yam. “We are on the verge of another crisis, the third in five years, and likely to be the worst yet, capable of causing new food riots and turmoil on a par with the Arab Spring.”
What’s so exciting about this fledgling science of complex systems is its predictive and prescriptive powers. NECSI isn’t just forecasting trouble, but proposing fixes.
“In order to prevent further crises in the food market, we recommended the halting of government support for ethanol conversion and the reversal of commodities market deregulation, which enables unlimited ﬁnancial speculation,” the researchers state.
NECSI has been updating their research as new data comes available and events unfold. Perhaps in its next iteration, it can further refine its forecasting. The FAO Food Price Index is a global aggregate and doesn’t take into account regional variances or factors. Some countries are more prone to food riots than others.
FIG. 3: Income and food as a percentage of a country’s Consumer Price Index. The chart plots which countries may be especially vulnerable to price shocks for food. Russian and Central Asia republics may be more resilient to price spikes since they can use revenues from their petroleum industries to subsidize food.
Researches could identify which countries and regions are at greater risk to erupt in violence and political instability by investigating the following factors:
- Vulnerability. How vulnerable is a country’s population to food price increases? Researchers should look at food expenditures as a percentage of household income or food inflation as a portion of a country’s consumer price index (CPI). Poorer countries and populations are more vulnerable than the well off since they spend a greater portion of their income on food.
- Dependence. How dependent is a country on imported food? China has insulated itself partly from global food price shocks by achieving domestic self-sufficiency in food production. Other developing countries, however, have increasingly become dependent on western aid and trade, making them more susceptible to “crop shocks.”
- Subsidies. To legitimize their autocratic rule, many regimes provide large fuel and food subsidies to their populations. Rising fuel and food costs can cripple a country’s finances or force a regime to reduce food subsidies or cut back other government services. According to the IMF, by 2008 food and fuel subsidies were eating up huge portions of government budgets in Egypt (31 percent), Tunisia (18 percent) and Syria (17 percent). Unable to provide basic food security, a regime’s legitimacy can crumble like an old scone. Subsidies are also prone to corruption which can further enrage a cynical, hungry population against a ruling elite.
If the FAO Food Price Index continues to rise in the following months, the world may face a long, bitter winter. And while humanity is capable of extraordinary altruism, hunger brings out the worst in us.
“Ten thousand years ago, the Neolithic revolution began to yield vastly larger amounts of food from cultivated crops and livestock, allowing rapid growth in human populations,” writes Edward O. Wilson in his recent The Social Conquest of Earth. “But that advance did not change human nature.”
Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray, 1859.
M. Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam, Yaneer Bar-Yam, UPDATE July 2012 — The Food Crises: The US Drought, July 23, 2012. [PDF]
M. Lagi, A.S. Gard-Murray and Y. Bar-Yam, Impact of ethanol conversion and speculation on Mexico corn imports, New England Complex Systems Institute, May 2012.
M. Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam, K.Z. Bertrand, Yaneer Bar-Yam, UPDATE February 2012 — The Food Crises: Predictive validation of a quantitative model of food prices including speculators and ethanol conversion. arXiv:1203.1313, March 6, 2012. [PDF]
M. Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam, K.Z. Bertrand, Yaneer Bar-Yam, The Food Crises: A Quantitative Model of Food Prices Including Speculators and Ethanol Conversion. arXiv:1109.4859, September 21, 2011.[PDF]
M. Lagi, K.Z. Bertrand, Y. Bar-Yam, The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East. arXiv:1108.2455, August 10, 2011. [PDF]
Edward O. Wilson. The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.