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New Research: Food Riots, Governance and Climate Change

Protesters marching in Cairo, "Bread, Freedom, Social Justice By, Mariam Soliman from Cairo, Egypt

Protesters marching in Cairo, “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice By, Mariam Soliman from Cairo, Egypt

This is a cross-post from New Security Beat by Cullen Hendrix

*We draw special attention to the conclusion of the article (emphasis added):

Our research suggests that reducing urban biases, like food subsidies, may be good pro-poor policy, given the continued concentration of poverty in the countryside, but it carries political risks. Thus, developing country governments face a tradeoff in pursuing two separate but linked definitions of food security: food security as a component of human security, where pro-poor policies may be the best answer, and food security as a component of national security, where urban interests seem the most pressing.

In Food Riots, Researchers Find a Divide Between Democracies and Autocracies

Though the bull market for metals and energy may be ending, global food prices remain stubbornly high. The inflation-adjusted FAO Food Price Index is down from the near historic heights of 2007-08 and 2011 but still higher than at any point in the previous 30 years, putting a brake on several decades of progress in reducing world hunger.

High prices have also thrust food back onto the state security agenda. Food prices may have been among the factors that drew people into the streets across the Middle East and North Africa in late 2010, and in 2007-08, food price spikes led to protests and riots in 48 countries. Tellingly, these protests were most prevalent in Africa and Asia, which together are home to 92 percent of the world’s poor and chronically food insecure. Careful analysis bears out what has become conventional wisdom among food experts: high food prices, as measured by global commodity indexes, are most destabilizing in poor countries.

But poverty isn’t the only mediating factor. Food is an inherently political commodity, affected by subsidies, land policies, and other government interventions. What kind of government, then, is most likely to experience food-related instability? In a recently published article in the Journal of Peace ResearchStephan Haggard and I explore this question, assessing how autocracies and democracies mediate the relationship between global food prices and urban unrest in Africa and Asia from 1961 to 2010.

Bread and Circuses

Politics can affect the relationship between food prices and protest through two channels. First, governments may shield urban consumers from high global prices. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet Juvenal noted bread and circuses were useful tools for securing urban stability. His observation remains largely true today. Developing country governments often subsidize food purchases, especially those of urban dwellers, shifting welfare from rural producers (many of whom benefit from high prices) to urban consumers.

We hypothesized that autocratic governments are more likely to subsidize food prices than democratic governments. While urban dwellers can riot in the absence of elections and institutional checks on authority, rural dwellers have fewer channels to voice grievances. They need elections for their voices to count. Since it is much harder for rural populations to mobilize, autocratic governments may therefore tend to focus on urban populations.

Urban unrest is also affected by the opportunities for civil society to organize and mobilize. Irrespective of protesters’ motives, repressive authoritarian regimes are more likely to respond to demonstrations with draconian measures, raising the anticipated costs of mobilizing in the first place. Famine in North Korea may have claimed as many as a million lives during the first half of the 1990s, but no rioting or demonstrations occurred in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, food-related protests are routine in more open, permissive systems like India, where comparatively small price changes routinely lead to mass protest.

Our principal findings were two. First, democracies and to a lesser extent anocracies (or “hybrid regimes” that combine democratic and authoritarian elements) experience more urban unrest in times of high prices. Among autocracies, there is no relationship between food prices and urban unrest. This is consistent with what we understand about how subsidies and opportunity costs play out.

Second, we found that democracies and anocracies did indeed enact more pro-rural food policies than autocracies. In particular, democracies enact policies that favor urban areas less and rural areas more. These interventions take the form of enhancing farmer incomes and raising consumer prices, which often causes protests and rioting.

Climate Change’s Disproportionate Effect

Due to a host of factors ranging from growing affluence in the developing world and climate change to increased presence of institutional investors in commodity markets and demand for biofuels, food prices are likely to remain high for the foreseeable future.

The price shocks of the 2000s, and the political instability to which they contributed, have put food back on the development agenda in a major way. The events of 2007-2008 catalyzed the creation of major new development efforts, including the U.S. government’s $3.5 billion Feed the Future Program and the European Union’s €1 billion Food Facility, and reinvigorated debate over integrating food more fully into the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement mechanisms.

These policy interventions will face an uphill battle, however, as climate change imposes ever-heavier tolls on agriculture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts with medium confidence that food prices may rise as much as 84 percent by 2050, with increasing price volatility and some risk of periodic price spikes. Worse, these pressures are likely to be greatest in low latitude countries, where substantial shares of the population already face food insecurity.

In aggregate, global output potential is forecast to decrease by between 6 and 18 percentin areas currently under cultivation by the 2080s, but some major exporting countries at higher latitudes, particularly the United States, Canada, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Russia, and Ukraine, are forecast to increase agricultural yields. Yields in many tropical developing countries, including major rice exporters Thailand, India, and Vietnam, are meanwhile forecast to decline – in some cases by up to 38 percent.

Increased investment in food technology will be necessary to address these issues, but so will changes to food policy, especially in developing countries. Our research suggests that reducing urban biases, like food subsidies, may be good pro-poor policy, given the continued concentration of poverty in the countryside, but it carries political risks. Thus, developing country governments face a tradeoff in pursuing two separate but linked definitions of food security: food security as a component of human security, where pro-poor policies may be the best answer, and food security as a component of national security, where urban interests seem the most pressing.

Cullen Hendrix is assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Sources: International Monetary Fund, Journal of Peace Research, Peterson Institute for International Economics, Resources and Environment Economics, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


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