The Psychology of Food Riots

When Do Price Spikes Lead to Unrest?

The year 2010 was a tough one for the global food system. Wildfires, fueled by record temperatures and a summer drought, burned away much of Russia's wheat harvest, spurring the Kremlin to halt exports. Throughout the fall, commodities prices skyrocketed. The United Nations panicked and called an emergency summit in September. World food prices rose to a record high in December 2010. So far, 2011 has not been much better: in January, food prices were identified as one trigger for Tunisia's unrest as well as for riots across much of northern Africa, including Egypt, a country that depends heavily on Russian grain. It seems that a food crisis along the lines of the one in 2008, when rioters in dozens of countries furiously protested the price of grain, might again be in the works.

Assuming a connection among rising prices, hunger, and violent civic unrest seems logical. Many commentators have emphasized it, including Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who warned of mass starvation and other "dire consequences" if food prices were allowed to rise too high: "As we know . . . those kinds of questions sometimes end in war." For its part, the UN emergency summit last fall concluded with a reminder of the pledge taken during the 2009 World Food Summit: Countries must "refrain from taking measures that are inconsistent with the [World Trade Organization] rules." In other words, the UN reaffirmed that free trade and increased agricultural production are the best means to achieve food security.

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