Food Week Post 1: The Price of Food Will Kill Us All

I’ve decided that this is food week on this blog and have prepared a series of posts regarding the very dire situation of increasing world food prices. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, world food prices have hit an all time historical high in 2011, and the trend shows no signs of abating. The prices of cereals, sugars, meat and dairy continue to rise as a result of climate change, insufficient production methods and rising demand for biofuels. Protectionist schemes such as US and European agricultural subsidies discourage the importing of food to developed nations, inhibiting the capacity for developing countries to improve agricultural infrastructure. Speculation on African and South American crop land by China, Korea and Saudi Arabia for future sources of grains intended for biofuels drive prices up even further. The refusal of the United States to develop strategies to combat and respond to climate change, continued economic policy that favors developed nations at the expense of the poor and the global grab for arible land will only insure that the situation becomes even more dire in the future.

The wealthy have little to fear from rising food commodity prices. It has long been shown that the wealthy are immune to the effects of famine and food insecurity, for obvious reasons. The lives are the poor, however, are extremely sensitive to changes in food prices. Even a modest increase shift in world food commodity prices can spell death for an infant born into poverty. Food insecurity also creates social insecurity, which can then lead to riots, social violence and ultimately armed conflict.

To explore this relationship, I took data from the FAO website for food commodity prices from 1980 to the present and merged them with the Armed Conflict Data Base (that I have written on before) and asked the question, do rising food prices influence the liklihood of conflict events?

I merged the ACLED data base with the FAO’s monthly food price index data, which includes prices indices for food, cereals, dairy, oils and meats. I then compared the two in a regression model to determine if any relationship exists between the number of conflict events in a month and the monthly prices of food.

The results were interesting. Overall food prices were not correlated with conflict events. Meats, dairy and oils, however, were. In fact, meat prices had an inverse relationship with conflict events, indicating that when meat prices increase, conflict decreases (filet mignon can save the world!). Dairy and oils, however, are positively associated with conflict events. Increasing milk and oil prices coincide with a rise in the number of conflict events.

Does this prove that food prices predict conflict events? In and of itself, no, though evidence here suggests that exporing this relationship is worth undertaking. In the next post, I will move on to regional relationships, isolating effects of food prices and conflict events in the major conflicts of the past 20 years, namely those of Afghanistan and those in the region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

3 responses to “Food Week Post 1: The Price of Food Will Kill Us All”

  1. stumpwater says :

    Glad to see you’re taking on this very important subject. I’m looking forward to your posts. However, in my opinion, any statistical analyses of food security will be meaningless if you don’t also thoroughly examine artificial constraints and pressures, such as the IMF forcing developing countries to produce crops that aren’t intended for local consumption, but rather, for the global market. Agriculture along these lines has nothing to do with food security and everything to do with commodities markets. Meat, sugar, and cereals production is an impediment to nutritional security in any country — don’t conflate market forces with nutritional and sustainable agricultural needs.

  2. alan2102 says :

    Peter: “meat prices had an inverse relationship with conflict events, indicating that when meat prices increase, conflict decreases (cheap meat can save the world!).”

    You must have meant that “expensive meat can save the world”, right? Higher meat prices, lower conflict. (Assuming the relationship to be causal, which it probably isn’t, but that’s another discussion; I’m just pointing out a typo-level error.)

  3. Pete Larson says :

    Yes, that’s been pointed out to me by a couple of other folks, haven’t had a chance to correct it. Yes, also these methods are inadequate at showing causality; they are merely an exploration. That’s for another post that’s coming soon.



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