As Global Food Prices Climb, So Does the Probability of Riots

Rising food prices set the stage for riots and instability

An interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
An interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs Factoryjoe

On Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ that spur human action, the most fundamental level are the “physiological needs”—things like hunger, thirst, sleep. So it’s no surprise that when the world is turned on its head and riots break out in the streets, one of the most common underlying factors seems to be the global price of food. As Motherboard says, describing a 2011 study, “If there’s a single factor that reliably sparks social unrest, it’s food becoming too scarce or too expensive.”

Comparing the food price index with the outbreak of riots during the past few years, Technology Review reports, scientists were able to find a stark link between food prices and instability. The threshold value for this weighted measure of the growth rate of food prices, they say, is 210. Motherboard:

henever the UN’s food price index, which measures the monthly change in the price of a basket of food commodities, climbs above 210, the conditions ripen for social unrest around the world. CSI doesn’t claim that any breach of 210 immediately leads to riots, obviously; just that the probability that riots will erupt grows much greater.

At present, the food price index has sat at or above 210 for the past year, barring May and June, 2012, when the index was still above 200. One important aspect pushing these high food prices was the powerful drought that gripped the United States and drove crop production into the ground in many places.

According to oceanographer Stefan Rahmstorf, next year may be even warmer than this year. An ever-present increase in global average temperatures will lead to an increase in the potential for droughts to occur, and with drought comes a dearth in crop production. And, with that, comes rising food prices and, potentially, riots.

More from

Stocking Series, Part 1: Wartime Rationing and Nylon Riots
When Food Changed History: The French Revolution

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.