This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. Click here to listen to the author discuss the global implications of rising food prices.
Get ready for a rocky year. From now on, rising prices, powerful storms, severe droughts and floods and other unexpected events are likely to play havoc with the fabric of global society, producing chaos and political unrest. Start with a simple fact: the prices of basic food staples are already approaching or exceeding their 2008 peaks, that year when deadly riots erupted in dozens of countries around the world.
It’s not surprising then that food and energy experts are beginning to warn that 2011 could be the year of living dangerously—and so could 2012, 2013 and on into the future. Add to the soaring cost of the grains that keep so many impoverished people alive a comparable rise in oil prices—again nearing levels not seen since the peak months of 2008—and you can already hear the first rumblings about the tenuous economic recovery being in danger of imminent collapse. Think of those rising energy prices as adding further fuel to global discontent.
Already, combined with staggering levels of youth unemployment and a deep mistrust of autocratic, repressive governments, food prices have sparked riots in Algeria and mass protests in Tunisia that, to the surprise of the world, ousted long-time dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his corrupt extended family. And many of the social stresses evident in those two countries are present across the Middle East and elsewhere. No one can predict where the next explosion will occur, but with food prices still climbing and other economic pressures mounting, more upheavals appear inevitable. These may be the first resource revolts to catch our attention, but they won’t be the last.
Put simply, global consumption patterns are now beginning to challenge the planet’s natural resource limits. Populations are still on the rise, and from Brazil to India, Turkey to China, new powers are rising as well. With them goes an urge for a more American-style life. Not surprisingly, the demand for basic commodities is significantly on the rise, even as supplies in many instances are shrinking. At the same time, climate change, itself a product of unbridled energy use, is adding to the pressure on supplies, and speculators are betting on a situation trending progressively worse. Add these together and the road ahead appears increasingly rocky.
Breadbaskets without Bread
Let’s begin with food, the most important and volatile of these commodities. Food prices declined in October 2008 after the onset of the global financial crisis, but that seems to have been an anomaly. The December 2010 index of global food prices compiled by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) hit a record 215, one point higher than in the spring of 2008. (In that index, based on a "bundle" of food staples, a baseline of 100 represents average prices in 2002–04.) In fact, some food products, including sugar, cooking oils and fats, are now trading substantially above their 2008 levels; others, including dairy products, grains and meat, are inching perilously close to record levels.
As 2011 begins, food experts fear that, within months, prices for key staples will climb above the 2008 threshold and stay there, causing extreme hardship for poor people around the world. "We are at a very high level," said a worried Abdolreza Abbassian, an economist at the FAO. "These levels in the previous episode led to problems and riots across the world."