Are Rising Food Prices Causing Social Unrest?

I have written several posts on the major problem of rising global food prices. Recently, a friend brought up the threat of domestic food riots. I quickly brought up the problem of rising food costs, and theorized that a declining ability for people to feed their families is at least partially to blame for the increasingly bloody labor protests in South Africa.

South Africa is considered the world’s protest capitol. To be sure, the South Africans, used to generations of violent oppression have made a science of political protest. They are certainly within their rights to complain, dealing with massive inequality, political marginalization and a historically violent state.

Using the University of Michigan’s article database, I counted the number of newspaper articles containing the words “South Africa” and “protest” yearly from 1990 to 2012. Only articles written in English were considered. I combined this small database with the FAO’s yearly food price index to discover if there were some correlation between the two. The results of my search are in the graphic to the left.

Assuming that the number of articles on South African protests is correlated with the true number of protests, I found that there is a correlation between the two and that correlation is striking. I think it would be safe to conclude that the unprecedented increase in world food prices is contributing to massive social instability in South Africa.

I find this result frightening.

As a resource exporter dependent on international mineral traders and global pricing, domestic policy and corruption in South Africa are influenced and encouraged by the international community. This failure of policy to provide for the poor and protect the interests of workers (who merely demand fair pay) are likely contributing to violent unrest.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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