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F
OCUS ON
H
UNGER AS A
F
ORE IGN
P
OL ICY
I
SSUE
H
EADING
O
FF THE
C
OMING
F
OOD
R
EVOLUTIONS
26
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A R C H 2 0 1 2
apidly rising food prices
do not automatically cause social and political upheaval.
But when combined with anger over other issues such as
corruption or injustice, such increases can be the match
that lights a dry forest. And in some cases, when food crises
get out of control and famines break out, they can cause
coups and revolutions. For example, during the Great Sa-
helian Famine of the early 1970s, 11 of the 13 countries
that suffered widespread deaths faced coups or coup at-
tempts; most notably Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
Similarly, the doubling of grain prices between 2006 and
mid-2008 set off violent protests in more than 30 develop-
ing countries, and led to the ouster of Haitian Prime Min-
ister Jacques Edouard Alexis in April 2008. Rapidly rising
food prices also drove last year’s Middle Eastern and North
African uprisings, often referred to as the Arab Spring, at
least as much as demands for political reform.
Consider Egypt, which subsidizes the price of bread.
That policy has protected the urban poor from acute
hunger, but the inability to afford most other foods has
forced many of them to survive mainly on bread. (The
price of tomatoes, another staple of the country’s diet, shot
up sixfold in 2010 alone.) So it should come as no surprise
that State Department surveys last year found that half of
the Egyptian population felt acute economic insecurity.
Last year, food prices jumped dramatically in northern
Sudan as production of sorghum, one of the country’s sta-
ple grains, fell by half. This spike has already stirred pop-
ular unrest in Khartoum and could lead (among many other
grievances) to political upheaval there.
While international food prices fell briefly in late 2008
due to the global economic slowdown, they resumed their
upwardmarch in 2009 and 2010, reaching a new peak early
last year. Such increases may slow again in 2012 as farm-
ers connected to international markets increase production
to take advantage of higher prices, but market volatility is
likely to be with us in future years.
The broad escalation in global food prices since 2003
represents the confluence of several factors. Remarkable
economic growth in China and India, among other devel-
oping economies, has led to burgeoning middle classes and
a correspondingly heightened demand for animal protein in
the family food basket. And since an appetite for meat re-
quires additional grain production to feed animal herds and
poultry flocks, prices for grain have risen, as well.
According to the International Food Policy Research
Institute, the decision of the United States to subsidize, and
the European Union to mandate, the grain-based produc-
tion of ethanol for use in biofuels caused up to 30 percent
of the increase in average grain prices between 2000 and
T
HE BEST WAY TO BREAK THE LINK BETWEEN FOOD
PRICE INCREASES AND ABSOLUTE POVERTY IS
THROUGH LONG
-
TERM DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS
.
B
Y
A
NDREW
S. N
ATSIOS