Last year at the 2010 ASPO conference (and over the years at other places) I’ve highlighted the connection between oil prices and food prices – and the ways that our increasingly tightly tied oil and food systems unravel together. If you missed these graphs last week, they’ll give you the beginnings of the picture, but I can show you a few thousand more. In every conceivable way, we have worked to tie energy and food prices together – from our increasing reliance on globalized markets and shipping to our fertilizer dependence, to our growth in biofuel usage, to centralized meat production which involves heavy use of fossil fuels to enable large quantities of livestock to consume huge quantities of grains to a hundred other factors large and small. Our food system is more and more tightly tied to fluctuating energy prices.
This means none of us ever know what we’ll have to pay for food and energy, and for billions of people, means a constant struggle and vulnerability. Now from the New England Complex Systems Institute (hat tip to Gail Tverberg for sending this to me), we see that many people’s intuition that rising food prices are intimately tied to unrest and rioting are absolutely right:
Marco Lagi and buddies at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, say they’ve found a single factor that seems to trigger riots around the world.
This single factor is the price of food. Lagi and co say that when it rises above a certain threshold, social unrest sweeps the planet.
The evidence comes from two sources. The first is data gathered by the United Nations that plots the price of food against time, the so-called food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. The second is the date of riots around the world, whatever their cause. Both these sources are plotted on the same graph above.
This clearly seems to show that when the food price index rises above a certain threshold, the result is trouble around the world.
This isn’t rocket science. It stands to reason that people become desperate when food is unobtainable. It’s often said that any society is three square meals from anarchy.
But what’s interesting about this analysis is that Lagi and co say that high food prices don’t necessarily trigger riots themselves, they simply create the conditions in which social unrest can flourish. “These observations are consistent with a hypothesis that high global food prices are a precipitating condition for social unrest,” say Lagi and co.
In other words, high food prices lead to a kind of tipping point when almost anything can trigger a riot, like a lighted match in a dry forest.
Given this, it becomes a fundamental matter of world stability to uncouple food and oil – we must do so, because we simply cannot afford the consequences of failing to do so – the wars and violence that are the inevitable outcome of food insecurity are not a price anyone could be willing to pay.
There has been a lot of attention to the food system, but the framing of that attention has to change, as I’ve been arguing for years – the issues are less organic vs. conventional one agricultural technology vs. another – instead, the question is how to rebuild a food system that makes the best possible use of the fossil energies it does use, and that slowly unties the dangerous connections between food and energy.