2008 March 26 Wednesday
Food Price Riots Popping Up Around The World

Are rising food prices going to cause governments to go unstable and fall?

Bangkok, Thailand - - Rice farmers here are staying awake in shifts at night to guard their fields from thieves. In Peru, shortages of wheat flour are prompting the military to make bread with potato flour, a native crop. In Egypt, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso food riots have broken out in the past week.

Around the world, governments and aid groups are grappling with the escalating cost of basic grains. In December, 37 countries faced a food crisis, reports the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and 20 nations had imposed some form of food-price controls.

In Asia, where rice is on every plate, prices are shooting up almost daily. Premium Thai fragrant rice now costs $900 per ton, a nearly 30 percent rise from a month ago.

Exporters say the price could eclipse $1,000 per ton by June. Similarly, prices of white rice have climbed about 50 percent since January to $600 per ton and are projected to jump another 40 percent to $800 per ton in April.

High food prices have several causes. Population growth is one cause that is going to keep happening for many years to come. Industrialization of Asia has increased buying power for meat and therefore shifted more grain toward livestock feeding. A shift of grains toward biomass energy has reduced the amount of grain available for eating. Some droughts have contributed as well. Aside from the drought most of these causes are going to keep putting upward pressure on food prices.

If you are a middle class American the cost of food is a small enough percentage of our income that there's no need to panic. But in an extremely poor place like Haiti rises in commodities prices cause hunger.

"It's not likely that prices will go back to as low as we're used to," said Abdolreza Abbassian, economist and secretary of the Intergovernmental Group for Grains for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). "Currently if you're in Haiti, unless the government is subsidizing consumers, consumers have no choice but to cut consumption. It's a very brutal scenario, but that's what it is."

No one knows that better than Eugene Thermilon, 30, a Haitian day laborer who can no longer afford pasta to feed his wife and four children since the price nearly doubled to the local equivalent of US$0.57 (.37) a bag. Their only meal on a recent day was two cans of corn grits.

"Their stomachs were not even full," Thermilon said, walking toward his pink concrete house on the precipice of a garbage-filled ravine. By noon the next day, he still had nothing to feed them for dinner.

Modest proposal: Use US foreign aid to offer free contraceptives and family planning classes for all the people in Haiti.

Prices for basic dietary staples are up sharply in El Salvador.

Protesters beat on pots and pan at El Salvador's Central Bank denouncing prices for staples such as maize and rice. Retail price for beans has risen 68% since January 2007; 56.2% for rice and 37.5% for maize.

Last year Mexico City was the scene of tortilla riots.

The troubles erupted early last year. First, there were the tortilla riots in Mexico City: 75,000 angry demonstrators, mostly poor, taking to the streets to protest the surging price of a food staple. Then in Italy, merchants from Milan began clamoring about the cost of pasta. By year's end, protests had broken out in at least a dozen countries: in India over onions, in Indonesia over soybeans, and, last month, in the small African country of Burkina Faso, where hundreds of looters burned government buildings to protest soaring grain prices.

You can imagine that immigration advocates will point to instability in Mexico as a reason to let in poor starving Mexicans. Not so fast. Poor starving Mexico is now the second fattest nation in the world.

MEXICO CITY Fueled by the rising popularity of soft drinks and fast food restaurants, Mexico has become the second-fattest nation in the world. Mexican health officials say it could surpass the United States as the most obese country within 10 years if trends continue.

More than 71 percent of Mexican women and 66 percent of Mexican men are overweight, according to the latest national surveys.

People judge how they are doing versus how they were doing in the past. Younger fat Mexicans will become upset and express their anger long before they get really hungry. So even the fatter nations can be destabilized by rising food prices. America should deal with potential instability on its southern border by building a border barrier that will insulate us from some of the consequences of higher food prices.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2008 March 26 08:51 PM  Economics Agriculture

Toadal said at March 27, 2008 12:10 AM:

Don't feed Haitians or leave food for them to find. Haitians fed by Americans come to regard Americans as a food source and will become pests by stealing our food. Feeding can lead to unnaturally high population growth in areas where it occurs often. People's hearts go out to them when their cupboards are bare, and nobody wants to see them starve, but Haitians should still be able to survive on their own. The number of Haitians that can live in an area is dictated by the amount of food that's available. We change that equation and we change the dynamics of a whole bunch of things, and usually it's to the Haitians detriment.

HellKaiserRyo said at March 27, 2008 2:32 AM:

That's cruel, but we do agree that we must find a way generate sustainable populations.

Big Bill said at March 27, 2008 3:50 AM:

Remember? Just a year or two ago? Remember when the UN and other assorted leftists were blaming the US for subsidizing food? Remember all the NGOs that told us that American white people were the problem because white people made food so cheap that poor Mexican and African farmers could not compete. Prices were so low that they were unable to grow food cheap enough to make a buck? Hell, I heard leftists call it "food imperialism".

"If only the prices would climb, Africans and South Americans would be motivated to grow their own food and feed their own people," one actually told me.

I tried to tell him about Zimbabwe and all the rusting, decayed and fallow farms that Africans created when they drove off the white farmers. I tried to explain that no matter the global price of food, the white farmers WERE able to compete and WERE feeding all of Southern Africa, and that all they needed to do for food self sufficiency was to let the white farmers return, but he didn't want to hear me.

Now, mirabile dictum, the Marxist evil-white-folks line has changed. The Great Satan is still white people (of course) and American white people are still "food imperialists" (natch) but white people's sin is exactly the opposite: white people are not supplying enough grain at a low enough price!

There really is no way to please these people. Their story changes at will.

My story hasn't changed, however. Zimbabwe needs to beg its white farmers to come back (probably after executing Mugabe to evidence their bona fides) and South Africa, which is beginning to adopt the Mugabe solution, needs to stop immediately and permit white people their rural commandos that (for a short time) promised to stop the racial slaughter of rural white farmers. Africans have for generations bitten the hand that feeds them. We would be fools to hold out even a titbit at arm's length. I would encourage the Chinese to help them.

PS: the elephant in the living room? Population. Kenya's population rose from 6-7 million 35 years ago to 38 million today. If that happened to America in the last 35 years, America would have over 1.3 billion people, more than China or India. I suspect we would also have massive food and race riots.

PPS: Good luck on "generating sustainable populations". The obsession with squirting out as many babies as possible is at the root of the African psyche. Whenever white people through the UN, missionaries or other NGO offer a free immunization program or mass medical treatment for malaria or TB or yellow fever, etc., word invariably gets around that it is some form of birth control and that white folks are trying to exterminate black people. This is an almost universal reaction. Mathusian fecundity is an utter obsession.

c23 said at March 27, 2008 6:01 AM:

One of the articles you linked mentions that Thailand is banning food exports in order to keep domestic prices down. Think of the consequences for food importer nations if that becomes widespread.

Wolf-Dog said at March 27, 2008 6:53 AM:

Food shortage is issue especially in the Middle East, where not only is the population increasing very fast, but also the greenhouse effect is influencing that region even more. There are terrible water shortages in the Middle East, making agriculture even worse.

Question: In a few years, while the Peak Oil theory might become true, the food exporting countries such as U.S., Canada, Europe, might gain an advantage: Food can become fuel, but can fuel become food (other than fertilizers)?

Anonymous said at March 27, 2008 7:36 AM:

Big Bill,
Nice post and all true. No matter what white people do, we are horrible. We are either overfeeding the 3rd world or starving them. I wish the left would make up its collective mind. And the same bullshit with ethanol. The environmental movement (which is really the left) was all into ethanol. Now that their beloved 3rd worlders are "starving," ethanol is the most evil thing around.

See here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2205948,00.html

I'm fucking sick of it, all of it and the bullshit lies from these assholes and fucking communists. Let Africa starve, I could care less.

m said at March 27, 2008 1:51 PM:

The best way to help Africa is to quit helping it.

Yes, there will be a mess for 20 years and millions of deaths, but if they HAVE to get their act together they will. Otherwise their population will continue to explode and they will just create more and more poverty.

mensarefugee said at March 27, 2008 3:40 PM:

Feed an African. Wait twenty years, you'll have to feed 5 africans, twenty more years, 25 africans.

Of course, this is perfect for liberals - they get their endorphin kicks by charity - even if that means creating the need for charity.

Africans can feed themselves - but at a drastically lower population and level of civilization - it is what their genes dictate. Not my problem.

Randall Parker said at March 27, 2008 4:28 PM:

Big Bill,

Yes, of course population growth is the problem.

I hear Norman Borlaug idolized in libertarian cornucopian circles because he created wonder strains of grains. But he is one of the biggest contributors to human population growth and the extinction of other species. Without wonder grains the size of populations would be far more closely tied to their industrial productivity. With wonder grains poor dummies can breed like rabbits - and they do.


The world is going to become a very interesting place when a lengthening list of countries bans the export of fossil fuels and grains.


How do you propose to stop population growth aside from via hunger?

Bob Badour said at March 27, 2008 8:22 PM:

Not to speak for HellKaiserRyo, but aside from famine, the other methods have traditionally been war, pestilence and death. In a word: attrition.

Skot German said at March 27, 2008 9:05 PM:

I don't think the "poor dummies" in Africa and elsewhere can bring their populations under control in a humane way. Is there any evidence that they can do it?

guest said at March 27, 2008 10:38 PM:

Africans can feed themselves - but at a drastically lower population and level of civilization - it is what their genes dictate. Not my problem.

The most densely populated country in Africa is Mauritius. It's more densely populated than South Korea, the Netherlands, Belgium, Japan, or India. Mauritius is also a rich, first world country, which respects property rights and rule of law.

African countries are not "overpopulated", they're underdeveloped. The real issue is with economic institutions and respect for property rights. Economic development will attract talented engineers and managers to Africa as demand for them increases: microfinance institutions are major employers of such people even today, and they're willing to pay pretty much any price for them.

Kenelm Digby said at March 28, 2008 5:56 AM:

Mauritius is actually an island group in the Indian Ocean, populated by a mixed population of Africans, Indians and a few Europeans.
Having a small population it makes most of its money through a lucrative tourism trade, cashing-in on its proverbial 'tropical paradise' island theme.
To compare this little island group to the bulk nations of sub-saharan Africa is ridiculous - rather like comparing Disneyland to South Central Los Angeles.

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