Oil, Food, Riots, Instability

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.


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Why do they compare global food prices and occurence of riots? Why don't they instead compare local food prices and riots? Also, we've had a lot of riots recently in the 'Arab Spring', and we also have high food and oil prices. How do they control for the recent occurance of many, mostly likely /politically/ related riots skewing their data?

Also, if food and oil tracks with, effectively, global security, doesn't that argue for, not nationalization but Globalization of oil products? And isn't that in itself an arguement for American control of places like the middle east and central asia, along with intense exploitation of fossil fuel deposits, such as in the American offshore?

"Globalization" doesn't actually mean what it says on the cover - in practice, it means that decisions are made not by democratically-elected representatives (or other types of national leadership) but instead power and decision-making rests in the hands of a non-representative corporate elite whose decisions are not made in the interests of the public weal but instead in the interests of their share-holders and of their personal political prejudices.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 10 Oct 2011 #permalink


Someone should write a book, call it "A nation of farmers".

Wait, didn't you write that one?

At least the topic hasn't grown stale.

Blessed be!

RE: Globalization, right, I wondered if I should've been clear about meaning it in contrast to 'nationalization', rather than the normal use of globalization.

But I think my question still stands, food is super important, political security is super important, and oil controls both, in this reasoning. So shouldn't oil be controlled and regulated less like a commodity and more like a public health issue?

You might want to change that last sentence. Food is all about energy no matter what. The question is whether it's sustainable or not...

Schenk, I agree with you - I've long thought that energy is far too important and central to our society to be left in the hands of the free market.

Government should be there, not to spend its time passing stupid laws regulating behaviour, but to provide the core functions of society - education, transport, healthcare, environmental protection and energy.

I watched the movie "Syriana" the other night - and that movie shows exactly what I'm talking about.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 11 Oct 2011 #permalink

Vince and Schenck - I suspect that's coming, but we're not there yet. As for should, well, I'm with you...


Very interesting, much hard work from OP, thanks. Note however the resurgence of conservative religious attitudes and power, which pushes many to have more children than otherwise. No time to be complacent about population growth problems.

PS: What Vince said!

(Sorry, I meant this for that population thread, but glad to have given some props as deserved.)