Insights & Advice


Food, famine, and global unrest

Large crowds gather in Freedom Square in Yemen to protest during the Arab Spring, February 28, 2011
Taiz / Yemen – 28 Feb 2011: Mass crowds at Freedom Square in the Yemeni city of Taiz in the Arab Spring Revolution 2011 — Photo by Akram Alrasny

More than a decade ago, the Arab Spring roiled the Middle East from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen. Massive protests demanding freedom, equality and bread were met with repression and conflict. Could today’s growing scarcity of food spark another Spring of discontentment?

The origins of the name “Spring,” whether Arab or otherwise, was a term historians used to describe the Revolutions of 1848, known as the “People’s Spring.” It was a series of upheavals that swept through Europe at that time. Republican revolts took place first in Sicily, spreading to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. They all ended in failure and repression and were followed by widespread disillusionment among liberals.

The movement in the Middle East has had slightly better results, at least temporarily, in places like Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, where regime changes did occur. But for the most part, the same oppression, civil wars and tyranny exists today. Are we ripe for a reoccurrence either within the Arab world or elsewhere?

In the past, I explained how climate change, including the growing scarcity of water, has created a crisis in global food production. The coronavirus pandemic and the Ukraine war have made an already precarious situation worse. Sickness, supply chain shortages, inflation, and now war have decimated food production in every step of the agricultural process.

The farming labor force has been decimated by the coronavirus. Inflation and supply chain issues have forced cutbacks in everything from transportation to agricultural materials and equipment. Fertilizer has skyrocketed in price and supplies of it have become increasingly scarce. A variety of infections from swine to bird flu has assaulted herds and flocks throughout the world, while drought, flooding, and ice storms continue to batter crops worldwide.

The United Nations recently released a table which showed that food prices in January 2022 reached their highest level since 2011. The prices of meat, dairy and cereals climbed, while edible oils reached their highest level since tracking began in 1990. Consumers only need to compare prices today for coffee, pasta, butter, all kinds of grains, and protein to know that food prices have catapulted far past those January 2022 price levels.

Making a bad situation worse, the fighting in Ukraine and unrest in Russia threatens to reduce the world’s availability of important food staples, which the two countries export. They account for a large market share of the world’s sunflower oil (64%), wheat (23%), barley (19%) and corn (18%).

Ukraine has already lost $1.5 billion in grain exports since the war began, according to Ukraine Agricultural Ministry. Shortages of fuel and fertilizer, Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea (Ukraine’s main export route), the drain of labor as farmers enlist in the military, and the enemies’ mining of farmland in the north have conspired to make it all but impossible to farm in certain areas of Ukraine.

Planting season starts at the end of April. Ukraine’s Agriculture Minister, Roman Leshchenko, believes the country’s spring crop sowing area may more than halve this year from 2021 levels (of some seven million hectares). If the war continues, and all indications are that it will, even less will be planted. The result appears to be a continued rise in food, fuel, and possible famine. The impact of rising food prices affects different countries. Until recently, Asia, for example, has been spared the worst in food price increases due to a bumper rice crop. But that may change.

China, a nation that needs to feed 1.44 billion people, is facing deepening challenges in its production of rice, soybeans and corn. Exploding prices in fuel, combined with the price rise and scarcity of fertilizer have hamstrung farmers in the Northeast regions. In addition, China’s Covid lockdown policies have impacted the plowing of fields and sowing seeds. This area produces more than a fifth of China’s national grain output. The only alternative is to increase imports, which only compounds the existing worldwide food crisis as demand outstrips supply.

The shortfall in expected exports from Ukraine and Russia would primarily impact the Middle East and North Africa as it did back in 2011. Egypt, Libya, and Lebanon import more than two-thirds of these food staples from Ukraine and Russia. Some assume that governments in this region will resort to price controls on food, rather than face the possibility of another Arab Spring. However, most governments are already cash-strapped from fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

In Africa, conflicts in Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, combined with long-standing drought, the coronavirus, and the high price of oil have disrupted transportation and food production.

In Latin America, many people spend as much as 50-60% of their income on food. Inflation is higher as is the price for food and fuel. An ongoing wave of violent protests in Peru last week could be a sign of the future. The demonstrations were originally triggered by rising fuel costs, but quickly morphed into large, anti-government demonstrations and highway blockades.

Peru President Pedro Castillo was forced to declare a state of emergency, while placing Lima, the capital, under a curfew. Inflation in March 2022 was the highest in 26 years. Prices of food and fuel spiked almost 10% since last year. And Peru is not alone. Discontent is spreading. Leaders in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other developing countries, are facing increasing public pressure over the same issues. My bet is that we see more of the same as the year progresses.

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