"Expert consensus grows on contribution of record high food prices to Middle East unrest"
Scientific American on Egypt: “… there is no doubt that rising food prices added fuel to an already combustible mix,” other MidEast countries “have been snapping up supplies of wheat in the world market to forestall any hint of food price spikes””or regime change”
E&E News: High food prices brought about by climate change have helped fuel the current unrest in the Middle East, the United Kingdom’s global warming envoy said yesterday.
Oxfam: “Food prices are just one of many factors contributing to the situation in Egypt, but they have helped provide a spark for recent unrest across the region.”
The Atlantic: “The foundation of Egypt’s economy is broken. Even worse, there is the acute shock of global food prices rising. Agricultural inflation puts a particular squeeze on Egypt’s middle class, because their paychecks go overwhelmingly toward nourishment.”
NPR: “Rising Food Prices Can Topple Governments, Too”
Slate: “Protesting on an Empty Stomach.”
The Guardian: “How extreme weather could create a global food crisis” [That’s my new article]
ClimateProgress works hard to identify the key climate and energy issues before they hit the mainstream media. That’s why I wrote this piece last August, “The Coming Food Crisis: Global food security is stretched to the breaking point, and Russia’s fires and Pakistan’s floods are making a bad situation worse.”
That’s why I began a multipart series on food insecurity in early January on the connection between extreme-weather (driven in part by climate change) and high food prices. Even I didn’t realize how timely it would be, although Lester Brown, an expert on the food-climate connection, had warned me a crisis could be right around the corner.
As unrest spread through the MidEast, it became increasingly obvious that higher food prices were playing a key triggering role. This link was predictably attacked by those who deny climate science — and a smaller group who seem to accept the science but then deny the reality of climate impacts (even though they purport to believe adaptation to climate impacts is the best climate strategy). We must understand the impacts we see today, because they are only going to get worse in the future.
The stories cited above are a very good start for anyone who wants to understand the various connections. Obviously, as I’ve said many times, the political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa had many causes, some underlying (like decades of anti-democratic repression) and some triggering. But to miss the food angle is to miss a key factor.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has a new report out, “World food prices reach new historic peak,” which is the source of the graph above (with added text by the NY Times). They have some other good charts, like the one on the right.
The NYT article on the FAO report explains:
Riots and demonstrations erupting across the Middle East are not directly inspired by rising food prices alone, experts noted, but that is one factor fueling the anger directed toward governments in the region. Egypt was among more than a dozen countries that experienced food riots in 2008….
Four main factors are seen as driving prices higher: weather, higher demand, smaller yields and crops diverted to biofuels. Volatile weather patterns often attributed to climate change are wreaking havoc with some harvests. Heavy rains in Australia damaged wheat to the extent that much of its usually high-quality crop has been downgraded to feed, experts noted.
Hard to disagree, though it’s odd they omitted the devastating heat wave that caused Russia to suspend grain exports from last summer through the end of their growing season this year. It’s also odd that the NYT omits the run-up in oil prices, which is a major contributor to the agricultural prices.
ClimateWire has two pieces today. The first, “Food prices hit record high after a year of severe crop damage” (subs. req’d) notes “average food prices around the world are higher than they were in the summer of 2008, when price shocks sparked riots in some parts of the world and governments scrambled to come up with a response.” The story explains source of the price hikes:
Drought, floods and wildfires devastate crops
FAO’s chart of the food price index’s recent history shows that the current upward march in prices began in the summer of 2010, when Russia and Canada both reportedly lost 20 percent of their wheat crops each to drought and wildfires. Devastation to crops caused by historic flooding in Pakistan only exacerbated price trends.
January’s increase mostly reflects spikes in wheat and corn prices. The wheat price spike apparently reflected damage to croplands caused by torrential monsoon flooding in northeastern Australia, which was hit again by what news reports characterized as the strongest cyclone to ever hit that nation.
Maximo Torero, director of markets, trade and institutions at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), acknowledged that the recent weather extremes in Australia and aftereffects of the problems in Russia and Pakistan have made wheat prices more volatile.
The second story, “Rising food prices helped spark Middle East unrest” (subs. req’d)
High food prices brought about by climate change have helped fuel the current unrest in the Middle East, the United Kingdom’s global warming envoy said yesterday.
John Ashton, the British foreign secretary’s special representative for climate change, called recent flooding and other weather events that sent cereal and wheat prices soaring through much of the world one of many factors in the already-fraught Middle East, where protests in Tunisia toppled the government and violent clashes continue in Egypt.
“The spark that lit the tinder in Tunisia was anger over rising food prices,” Ashton said in an interview with a small group of journalists.
“You can see that food prices is one of the things people have been concerned about, not only in Tunisia. I’m not saying climate change is the only factor, or even the main factor, for what we’re seeing in a number of Middle Eastern countries….” [C]limate change is a “stress multiplier” that will not diminish.
I had noted in my last piece, “High food prices are contributing to MidEast unrest,” the Washington Post headline (1/14): “Spike in global food prices contributes to Tunisian violence” and the Guardian headline (1/15): “Jordanians protest against soaring food prices.” And Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House, who was interviewed at Davos (click here) said the Egyptian riots “were driven partly of course by the rise of food prices.”
Slate‘s piece explains in detail how higher food prices are helping to fuel unrest in Egypt, “Protesting on an Empty Stomach.” One of the Atlantic’s two pieces, “The Economics of Egypt’s Revolt,” provides us this amazing chart (via Business Insider’s piece, “Egypt’s Economic Tragedy In 3 Simple Charts“):
That piece concludes:
It is not destiny that an impoverished population slammed by rising food prices will rise up against its political leadership. It is also not altogether unexpected. The fires and protests we’re seeing on television are part of a political movement whose spark was an economic crisis.
Obviously the country is more vulnerable to food inflation than others, since people are already paying such a high percentage of their income on food.
A second Atlantic piece notes:
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.
Oxfam just put out its analysis:
Teetering on the edge
Food prices are just one of many factors contributing to the situation in Egypt, but they have helped provide a spark for recent unrest across the region. It is exactly this mix of poverty and injustice that puts global stability at risk.
When the UN Food and Agriculture Organization announced January 5th of this year that food prices had reached an all time high, my colleague Gawain Kripke warned that, “the record rise in food prices is a grave reminder that until we act on the underlying causes of hunger and climate change, we will find ourselves perpetually on the knife’s edge of disaster.” A year of extreme weather, along with other short and long-term factors, had shocked our food system, disrupting supply chains and sending the price of many food items through the roof. Just days later rioters in Algeria were heard chanting, “Give us sugar!” as they kicked off a new wave of sometimes violent protests that haven shaken the tenuous foundation of stability across North Africa and the Middle East.
Scientific American has a powerful piece, “Are high food prices fueling revolution in Egypt?” which notes:
Even with government subsidies and ration cards for bread, the true price of wheat in Egypt is nearly 30 percent higher today than it was a year ago””thanks to global prices for that staple cereal that have increased nearly 80 percent in the same span….
Obviously, the current revolution in Egypt did not have one cause, but there is no doubt that rising food prices added fuel to an already combustible mix. And it is also clear that Egypt””and Tunisia before it””are not alone; world food prices in January were close to surpassing December’s levels, which were record highs and above those that prompted food riots in 2008, according to FAO. That could ultimately prove more destabilizing to regimes than any invasion or other calamity. Already 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.
The leaders of countries in the region understand the importance of stable food prices in maintaining political order.
So, yes, the spike in food prices is one key contributing factor to the political unrest we are seeing now. And yes, key contributing factors to higher food prices are dreadful energy policies and extreme weather. I have previously discussed at great length how many of the leading climate experts have explained the link between climate change and extreme weather (see here).
More extreme heat waves are one of the most basic predictions of climate science. Tamino calculated (at length) that global warming made the Moscow heat wave roughly eight times more likely: “Without global warming, this once-in-a-century-or-two event would have been closer to a once-in-a-millenium event.”
And it’s always worth repeating the explanation NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth provided me on the climate-deluge link:
… one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”
For more, see my new piece in the UK’s Guardian:
2010 was among the hottest and wettest years on record – we are entering a period of climate and food insecurity
ClimateProgress will continue to report on this important story. If people don’t understand current and future impacts, then we can have little chance of achieving a broad consensus for mitigation — and no hope of planning for adaptation.
- Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery: Rhetorical adaptation, however, is a political winner. Too bad it means preventable suffering for billions.