Digest bites: Food riots

Food riots then – is that like an epic food fight? Most certainly not!

OK – fill me in. A food riot represents the breaking point for the public out of desperation for food, owing to high food prices, disease, crop failure, adverse weather conditions or pest attacks.

That’s a lot of common triggers… do I need my riot gear yet? Not quite. But there is some patchy speculation that the West could be headed for a food crisis in the next 10 years due to an increase in prices across commodities, a growing population and a worldwide hunger for a more luxurious, Westernised diet.

Has this kind of thing ever happened before? The most recent major crisis in living memory occurred in 2008, caused by droughts and a rise in oil prices. As a result, an evolution in the way commodities are traded has taken place, reflected in some nations by banning grain and other food exports. Some commentators have also alluded to price spikes triggering the Arab Spring. More recently though, there have been indicators of similar unrest, including tofu strikes in Indonesia, an increasing threat of revolt in Iran over the price of chicken and the rejection of a government proposal in India to use Western supermarket logistics to change its farming industry.

What sort of prices are we talking about here? A report from the World Bank following the 2008 crisis found that between 2005 and 2008, maize prices almost tripled, wheat prices increased 127% and rice increase by 170% — all despite a record harvest the world over. Not only this, but a rise in grain prices impacts livestock feed, not to mention the demand for biofuels to actually transport the food. The World Bank also estimates that demand for food will increase by 50% by 2030 because of population growth, increasing affluence and a larger middle class with Western dietary preferences.

Is any of this happening closer to home? Poor crop-growing conditions leading to high livestock feed prices has forced some pig farmers to withdraw from the market. The National Pig Association has said a 2013 pork shortage is “unavoidable”.

Is there any research about the future that I can scare myself with? Quite a lot. The US Director of Intelligence is one government body which has produced a mind-bogglingly in-depth report on what could happen between now and 2025. Amongst water scarcity, climate change and terrorism, it discusses food shortages, and points out that economic growth plus an increasing population by 1.2bn up to 2025 will have a very likely impact on food. It depressingly suggests we will be waving goodbye to our unprecedented age of prosperity (if we haven’t begun to already.)

Here in the UK though, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently published its Green Food Project report, which aimed to identify ways of mitigating this dire situation. It aims to form an evolving discussion that will inform future policy. But by its own admission it recognises its report is not conclusive, “and many of the challenges we need to get to grips with cannot be fixed easily enough in the short term.” Take a look at this month’s main feature to learn more about what one of the steering group members had to say.

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