The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East

Cite as:

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).

Download PDF (also from arXiv or SSRN)


Social unrest may reflect a variety of factors such as poverty, unemployment, and social injustice. Despite the many possible contributing factors, the timing of violent protests in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 as well as earlier riots in 2008 coincides with large peaks in global food prices. We identify a specific food price threshold above which protests become likely. These observations suggest that protests may reflect not only long-standing political failings of governments, but also the sudden desperate straits of vulnerable populations. If food prices remain high, there is likely to be persistent and increasing global social disruption. Underlying the food price peaks we also find an ongoing trend of increasing prices. We extrapolate these trends and identify a crossing point to the domain of high impacts, even without price peaks, in 2012-2013. This implies that avoiding global food crises and associated social unrest requires rapid and concerted action.

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Press Release: Scientists show link between food pricing and global riots

A new Cambridge study issues stern warning for policy makers

(CAMBRIDGE, MA) -- A new study shows that the timing of outbreaks of violence rocking North Africa and the Middle East is linked to global food prices.

Today's headlines explode with stories of failed political systems, harsh regimes, and denial of rights underlying riots and warfare. The authors, however, point to rising food prices as a key factor too--not only in assessing the aftermath but in predicting future times of unrest.

The study, titled "The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East," is by Marco Lagi, Karla Bertrand and Yaneer-Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute.

Using detailed charts showing data from the FAO Food Price Index and the timing of the riots, the authors were able to demonstrate how food prices have a direct link to the tipping points of unrest and upheaval.

The authors also criticize the deregulation of commodities markets in the US as contibuting to the rise in food prices.

The authors issued a stern warning that if food prices remain high, disturbances will continue. Averting further crises this year and next requires quick and concerted action by policy makers, they added.

"Our predictions are conditional on the circumstances, and thus allow for policy interventions to change them. Whether policy makers will act depends on the various pressures that are applied to them, including both the public and special interests," said Prof. Bar-Yam.

Food price spikes and unrest

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