Soaring Bread Prices Could Cause Civil Unrest, Like in the Arab Spring

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  • Food scarcity is likely to surge in countries throughout the world due to Russia’s war with Ukraine.
  • In the past, that’s led to riots — most recently the Arab Spring and food crises in 2007 and 2008.
  • Even further in the past, the French Revolution was partially sparked by food instability.

When Vladimir Putin invaded Europe’s breadbasket, he may have set off shockwaves that could cause civil unrest worldwide.

Together, Ukraine and Russia produce nearly a third of the world’s wheat, 19% of the world’s corn, and 80% of its sunflower oil supply. The crisis in these countries means the world’s food supply chain will take a major hit, putting more people at risk of starvation throughout the globe.

“I would almost say that no country is going to be immune from this kind of trifecta of political risk: pandemic hangover, rising prices, and pressure on living standards,” Tina analyst Fordham, a global political risk, told Insider.

Soaring food prices, especially bread, have been a trigger for protests, civil unrest, and revolutions in France, Russia, and the Middle East in the past. With wheat prices up 70% in the last month, experts worry that countries with an unstable food supply that rely on Ukraine and Russia are at particular risk. Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Yemen, in particular, get more than half of their imported calories from the region — they’re looking at a possible surge of severe malnutrition and starvation.

Hunger has driven rebellions in very recent history

Two events in recent history renewed scholastic interest in the relationship between food prices and political instability, Slate’s Joshua Keating wrote in 2014. A food crisis in 2007 and 2008 due to weather shocks and trade restrictions to the food market triggered riots in countries like Haiti, Bangladesh, and Mozambique.

Food scarcity also played a large role in the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests in the Middle East in the early 2010s after international food prices shot up, unemployment rose, and frustration with corrupt political systems peaked.

One of the driving forces behind the Arab Spring, experts say, was the high cost of food. Shrinking farmlands, bad weather, and poor water distribution contributed to higher prices and, as a result, anti-government sentiment.

“I think that the prices of food mobilized people,” Rami Zurayk, an agronomy professor at the American University of Beirut, told PBS NewsHour about the Arab Spring.

In Syria, for instance, drought disrupted food production in the late 2000s. Poverty and food insecurity shot up in the country, and “the social unrest that had been simmering for a while in rural areas erupted into riots,” Giulia Soffiantini, a researcher for the Global Food Security Journalwrote in 2020. Soffiantini said that these riots largely involved many of those young people who had left their lands because of the drought.

“While the riots that swept through Syria in March 2011 are clearly a reaction to a brutal regime far from the needs of the people and a response to the wave of political change that began in Tunisia,” she said, “the civil war and the rise of rebel groups exemplifies the potential effects of food insecurity on political instability as a catalyst for social unrest.”

Civil unrest is one likely outcome of the impending food crisis, Fordham said, in addition to leaders becoming more unpopular, crime, increased health and malnutrition, especially for populations in countries that are at most risk. And she says that this is going to have a powerful impact on how people view their governments and leaders.

“This is a problem for every sitting incument leader: Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Joe Biden, this is the worst combination of factors for elected officials,” she said. “Countries having elections in the coming months are at special risk of tensions.”

Surging food prices have caused people to revolt in centuries past too

Bread shortages were flashpoints for unrest throughout history, including in the French Revolution in the late 18th century.

Tensions began in the 1700s in France, when the crown deregulated the domestic grain trade — meaning sellers were free to increase prices as they wished. That deregulation, among other factors such as a huge rise in population, contributed to food shortages and high costs. In April and May of 1775, at least 300 riots and expeditions occurred in the span of three weeks, in what was coined the “Flor War.”

The rioters set the prices of grain, flour, and bread back to lower levels, Cynthia A. Bouton, a women’s and gender studies professor specializing in French history, writes in her book, The Flour War. Farmers and merchants had no choice but to accept them, given that the alternative was pillaging.

Bouton describes people with families and jobs as being driven to rioting. The “average” person involved was “a middle-aged, married, semi-skilled wage-earning male or female with young children” whose family’s survival was threatened by the increasing price of grain.

“Food rioting flourished during the 18th century and the Revolutionary period, so much so that historians have often observed that food riots were the most classic form of popular protest during that period,” Bouton says.

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