World Food Riots: Causes & Explanations

Undergraduate Studies Essay for POL 460: Politics of Globalization (12/1/2008)

Food RiotWhat would you do if the cost of basic food, necessary for survival, suddenly became more than you could afford? Would you steal? Beg? Or simply just starve to death? For most Americans, this scenario is unfathomable. However, with the recent climb in food prices across the globe, it is a question that millions of people in third world countries are faced with.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2008, food riots broke out across the globe. The fundamental reason for these riots is simple: the drastic rise in food prices has made basic commodities like wheat, corn, and rice unaffordable for millions of people, mostly in poorer nations. As reported by in April of 2008, “Riots from Haiti to Bangladesh to Egypt over the soaring costs of basic foods have brought the issue to a boiling point and catapulted it to the forefront of the world’s attention (Riots…1).” In order to determine the cause of these food riots, one must identify the cause of the rise in food prices. In order to come to a conclusion on the cause, numerous sources were utilized, all of which came online. Established search engines, like Google and Yahoo, were excellent tools to uncover valuable websites where relevant articles could be found on the matter of world food riots., the New York Times online, Mail and Guardian online, and the Huffington Post were all excellent, trustworthy news websites where numerous articles were available on this topic. Besides these news websites, Google and Yahoo also revealed several other credible sources that contained rich information and insights in regards to world food riots and rising food prices. Also, the article “Global and National Sources of Political Protest: Third World Responses to the Debt Crisis” provided a look into the cause of similar kinds of riots that occurred in the 1980s. After reviewing over twenty sources, it is clear that the cause of the rising food prices and food riots is not a simple one. While certain themes and theories were more common than others, it is evident that several global factors are to blame.

Survival is the most basic instinct of mankind, and food is an essential element of survival. While the rise in food prices simply means less spending on material goods and entertainment for some, it means not enough money to even put food on the table for others. When nearly an entire community simply doesn’t have enough money to pay for basic food, they are forced to turn to an alternative. The rise in food prices has severely affected the world’s poorer nations, and the result has been an outbreak in riots. World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned in a recent speech that 33 countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices. In countries where buying food requires half to three-quarters of a poor person’s income, “there is no margin for survival,” he said (Davis 1). So just how much have food prices risen? They have steadily increased since 2001, but have seen a drastic increase in more recent years. According to the World Bank, wheat prices have gone up by 181 percent over the past three years, food prices around the globe have risen by 83 percent during the same period. In March, rice prices hit a 19-year high. Corn prices recently rose from $2.50 a bushel three years ago to $6, for the first time (Kane 1). A drop in food prices in the near future is not likely either.  Robert Zoellick predicts a sustained period of higher food costs, saying he expects prices to remain elevated through next year and stay above 2004 levels for at least the next seven years (Kane 1).

So what is causing the price of food to climb to such historic levels? Nearly everyone agrees that there have been a variety of factors responsible. One major cause has been the increase in the price of oil. New York Times writer Paul Krugman explains, “Modern farming is highly energy-intensive: a lot of B.T.U.’s go into producing fertilizer, running tractors and, not least, transporting farm products to consumers. With oil persistently above $100 per barrel, energy costs have become a major factor driving up agricultural costs (Krugman 1).” Author Raj Patel agrees, stating, “One of the problems with the way our food reaches us today is that it is industrial, it is very fossil fuel-intensive (Patel 1).” Charts 1, 2, 3, and 4 display the prices for Oil, Corn, Rice, and Wheat respectively over the course of the last year (Grains 1). There seems to be a direct correlation between the price of oil and the price of food, supporting Krugman’s and Patel’s argument.


Many feel that oil is not the only source of fuel that is causing the price of food to rise. Corn-based ethanol fuel is also thought to have contributed significantly to the price climb. Because the Bush administration has pushed so strongly to increase ethanol production, it has become a heated topic of debate. The reason the Bush administration has encouraged greater ethanol production is because it has been a key goal of theirs to boost supplies of renewable fuels to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign energy (Doering 1). However, because this type ethanol is produced from corn, the more corn used to produce ethanol, the less there is available to eat. Krugman states it simply, “Land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food (Krugman 1).” The rest is simple economics; if there is less supply being produced for human consumption, then the price of corn is going to rise. According to the Agriculture Department, ethanol makers will consume about one-quarter of the 13.1-billion-bushel U.S. corn crop this year, a forecast that is increasingly alarming world governments and food aid workers (Doering 1). However, because the Bush administration feels that ethanol is just one of many factors related to the increase in food prices, it seems unlikely that they will suppress the amount of ethanol production any time soon. For example, when asked about the food crisis and how it related to biofuels, such as ethanol, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the two were related but there were a host of other issues involved, such as high transportation costs of food (Doering 1). However, others writers such as William Engdahl, feel the effect of ethanol, and other biofuels, on food prices is far greater. Engdahl references a secret study completed by the World Bank that has been supposedly suppressed by the Bush administration. The London Guardian newspaper claims to have been given a copy of the suppressed report. In the study, the World Food Bank concludes that bio-fuels have forced food prices up by 75%, which is a drastic increase from an estimate by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who approximated that plant-derived fuels add only 3% to food prices (Engdahl 1). Former president Bill Clinton also feels strongly about ethanol, stating, “Corn is the single most inefficient way to produce ethanol because it uses a lot of energy and because it drives up the price of food (Riots…1).”

Fuel related variables are not the only factors impacting the food prices. A severe drought in Australia has vastly reduced the country’s production of rice. As New York Times writer Keith Bradsher writes, “Six long years of drought have taken a toll, reducing Australia’s rice crop by 98 percent” (Bradsher 1). Because Australia is one of the world’s top producers in rice, this decline in production has caused the price of rice to rise significantly. Bradsher also goes on to write, “Some farmers are abandoning rice, which requires large amounts of water, to plant less water-intensive crops like wheat or, especially here in southeastern Australia, wine grapes (Bradsher 1).” This is creating an even larger drop in supply. Several writers also argue that the changing diets of people in developing nations, specifically China, have contributed to rising food prices. Writer Raj Patel explains, “You’ve got an increasing demand for meat in developing countries. And as people get richer in those countries and they shift to something that looks more like an American diet, you have a situation where the grains are being diverted away from poor people and into livestock (Patel 1).” Paul Krugman adds, “Since it takes about 700 calories’ worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet increases the overall demand for grains (Krugman 1).” Each argument for the source of rising food prices presents valid points and most writers agree that the cause is a combination of each of these factors.

This is not the first time a multitude of riots have broken out across the globe in a short time period. Writers John Walton and Charles Ragin explain how protests and riots broke out in third world nations during the 1980s in response to the world debt crisis. In their article, they claim, “The principle conditions for the occurrence and severity of austerity protests are overurbanization and involvement of international agencies in domestic political-economic policy (Walton 876).” What this means, they explain, is that, “Countries with large, poor urban populations experience protests when governments impose policies with regressive social class consequences in the interest of servicing foreign debts (Walton 887).” The surplus of workers in the overurbanized sectors of third world countries put a lot of strain on the economy, and left many workers unemployed. The strict economic policies enforced by the international organizations then added even more stress on the people and the economy. In the 1980s, this formula ended up with a mass of riots. The primary cause for global riots during the 1980s and 2008 were both similar and different. They were similar in the sense that they both occurred when economics times were dramatically difficult in third world countries, however, the core reasons contrasted, extraordinary debt and climbing food prices.

Are there any solutions to the help alleviate the problems caused by the increase in food prices? World leaders are doing their best to improve the situation. In fact, during a meeting in June 2008, world leaders vowed to use “all means” to help victims of soaring prices that have stretched family budgets in rich countries and sparked food riots in others (Thurston 1). Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a clear simple answer, however, some experts have offered their advice. World Bank president Robert Zoellick called for the lifting of trade barriers that contribute to food price inflation. He claims, “These controls encourage hoarding, drive up prices and hurt the poorest people around the world who are struggling to feed themselves (Thurston 1).” Paul Krugman writes “The most immediate need is more aid to people in distress: the U.N.’s World Food Program put out a desperate appeal for more funds. We also need a pushback against biofuels, which turn out to have been a terrible mistake. But it’s not clear how much can be done. Cheap food, like cheap oil, may be a thing of the past (Krugman 1).” While developed countries are doing their best to help out poorer nations financially, the light at the end of the tunnel for third world countries seems to be in the distant future.


Works Cited

Barrett, Brendan. “What in the world is propelling food prices?” Our World 2.0. 04 July 2008. 15 Sept. 2008 <;.

Bradsher, Keith. “A Drought in Australia, a Global Shortage of Rice.” The New York Times. 17 Apr. 2008. 23 Sept. 2008 <;.

Davis, Bob, and Douglas Belkin. “Food Riots Skyrocket, World Leaders Have No Solutions.” The Huffington Post. 14 Apr. 2008. Wall Street Journal. 15 Sept. 2008 <;.

Doering, Christopher. “Bush officials defend ethanol as food prices rise.” Reuters. 15 Apr. 2008. 28 Sept. 2008 <;.

Engdahl, William. “World Bank Secret Report confirms Biofuel Cause of World Food Crisis.” Centre for Research on Globalization. 10 Jan. 2008. Global 15 Sept. 2008 <;.

Gall, Carlotta. “Hunger and Food Prices Push Afghanistan to Brink.” The New York Times. 16 Mar. 2008. 23 Sept. 2008 <;.

“GRAINS, CEREAL / OILSEED.” Commodity Futures Charts & Futures Quotes Menu. 28 Sept. 2008. 28 Sept. 2008 <;.

Grosbois, Alexandre. “Hike in world food prices sparks deadly riots in Africa.” Mail & Guardian Online. 06 Apr. 2008. 22 Sept. 2008 <;.

Kane, Mary. “Is This the End of Cheap Food?” The Huffington Post. 23 Apr. 2008. 28 Sept. 2008 <;.

Krugman, Paul. “Grains Gone Wild.” The New York Times. 07 Apr. 2008. 23 Sept. 2008 <;.

Martin, Andrew. “World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut.” The New York Times. 18 May 2008. 23 Sept. 2008 <!_q3egu0q26ggko_o..t_.q7c_yt_!p0-6a00_egq26uq3e!p0-6a00_ytsgup0mrk,u>.

Patel, Raj. “Stuffed and Starved.” Democracy Now! 08 Apr. 2008. 15 Sept. 2008 <;.

Pradhan, Sharat. “Food riots, anger as floods swamp South Asia.” Mail & Guradian Online. 22 Apr. 2008. 22 Sept. 2008 <;.

“Riots, instability spread as food prices skyrocket.” 14 Apr. 2008. 15 Sept. 2008 <;.

“S&P GSCI Crude Oil Tot Ret Idx ETN (OIL).” Yahoo Finance. 28 Sept. 2008. 28 Sept. 2008;range=1y;indicator=volume;charttype=line;crosshair=on;ohlcvalues=0;logscale=on;source=undefined.

“Somalis riot over food prices.” 05 Mar. 2008. 15 Sept. 2008 <;.

Taylor, Rob. “World Bank says food crisis, silent famine to continue.” Mail & Guardian Online. 03 Sept. 2008. 22 Sept. 2008 <;.

Thurston, Michael. “World leaders grapple to agree food-crisis plan.” Mail & Guardian Online. 05 June 2008. 22 Sept. 2008 <;.

“U.S. to give $200M in food aid.” 21 Apr. 2008. 15 Sept. 2008 <;.

Walton, John, and Charles Ragin. “Global and National Sources of Political Protest: Third World Responses to the Debt Crisis.” American Sociological Review 55 (1990): 1-16.

Watts, Jonathan. “Food Riots of the 21st Century.” Marxism Mailing List Archive. 06 Jan. 2008. 22 Sept. 2008 <;.

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