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Food Prices and Global Instability

Food prices are skyrocketing across the world, and last month, they peaked to the highest levels since the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization began indexing them in 1990. In the Middle East, wheat prices are playing a role in the ongoing unrest, particularly in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer. Laurie Garrett, CFR’s senior fellow for global health, says the rising prices of staple grains in the region are adding to a “real sense of anger and injustice.”  She notes that though governments are attempting to hold prices down artificially, “very few governments can really get away with it because they just can’t afford it.” The food price crisis, she says, is “a destabilizing moment in terms of global governance” and to meet food demand going forward, the food production in the developing world must become more efficient and “every aspect of farming, harvesting, delivery, and distribution has to improve dramatically.”

The issue of food price inflation is playing a role in Egypt’s current uprising. Some countries in the region, such as Yemen, Kuwait, and Algeria, are relaxing food taxes, capping prices on food staples, or providing subsidies. How much of a destabilizing factor is food prices?

For the last two years, we’ve been in some pretty frightening bounces in food pricing all over the world, and we’ve seen certain key essential grains skyrocket in price. And what we see all over the world is that when the key commodity that women rely on as the essential grain in their culture’s cooking suddenly skyrockets, tempers flare. So for example, Mexico had the so-called “tortilla wars.” And it was because corn prices suddenly skyrocketed. We saw riots in Manila, and it was because rice suddenly skyrocketed.

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