Actually, food riots might not be the 'new normal'

This week, Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed warned in the Guardian that food riots, spurred on by increasing prices and volatility, are going to make social unrest like the Arab Spring the "new normal." 

We now know that the fundamental triggers for the Arab spring were unprecedented food price rises. The first sign things were unraveling hit in 2008, when a global rice shortage coincided with dramatic increases in staple food prices, triggering food riots across the middle east, north Africa and south Asia. A month before the fall of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported record high food prices for dairy, meat, sugar and cereals.

Since 2008, global food prices have been consistently higher than in preceding decades, despite wild fluctuations. This year, even with prices stabilizing, the food price index remains at 210 - which some experts believe is the threshold beyond which civil unrest becomes probable. The FAO warns that 2013 could see prices increase later owing to tight grain stocks from last year's adverse crop weather.   

Citing a Royal Society Paper, Ahmed claims that "we may face the prospect of civilisational collapse within this century." 

Or not, says Marc Bellemare, a Duke University agricultural economist who is currently studying the effects of price volatility on social unrest. The main problem, he points out, is that food prices are actually going back down. According to Bellemare, Ahmed's analysis falls short by not taking inflation -- how much food you can buy today with your money versus what you could have gotten before for the same amount -- into account.

As Bellemare told FP

The analysis on which this claim rests is one that looks purely at the correlation between food prices and food riots, and thus does not disentangle the causal relationship from that correlation. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the FAO's food price index is indeed equal to 210, but that is nominal price measure. In other words, because that number is not adjusted for inflation, comparing an index of 210 today with an index of 210 just a few years ago is like comparing apples and oranges. To truly speak of price thresholds, one should instead look at real prices. That is, at prices that are adjusted for inflation. Real prices tell a different story; one which shows that food prices today are not much higher than they were in September 2007, well before the food price crisis of 2008.   

Yesterday, in fact, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization stated that the current food price index is stable, and that wheat harvests are expected to yield increased production.

Ahmed, in other words, is right that "inequality, debt, climate change, fossil fuel dependency and the global food crisis" are major issues that will lead to many long-term problems -- some of which we're already seeing. But it's not so clear that fights over food will play the cataclysmic role he expects. 

Photo by MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images


The archduke with the dragon tattoo

Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian archduke whose assassination by a Serbian nationalist in 1914 set off World War I, has always been more famous for his death than for his life. But, as Der Spiegel recently reported, thanks to rediscovered and newly published travel diaries from his 1892 journey around the world, readers will be able to get a new look at the complex personality of the young heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne -- who was at once an avid hunter and a conservationist, at once supercilious and vocally anti-imperialist.

Judging by Der Spiegel's report, the 2,000 or so pages of notes, written in a "powerfully elegant" style, give a fascinating account of an adventure that, though high-profile at the time (the entourage at certain points contained over 400 people), seems to have largely been forgotten.

FF (as the archduke signed his name in his notes) was just 28 years old at the time of his journey. Here are some highlights from this not-so-typical grand tour:

  • Getting a dragon tattooed on his arm in Japan
  • A tiger hunt in the foothills of the Himalayas, with 203 elephants
  • Bargaining with a cannibal woman for a bag of nuts
  • A battle with a lizard in Ceylon ("I approached the lizard as St. George approached the dragon.")
  • Tropical birds flying out of a cake, and champagne in the jungle with the Nizam of Hyderabad
  • The hunting list: sting rays in India, crocodiles in Jakarta, kangaroos in Australia, vultures, koalas, skunks, and storks

According to Der Spiegel, FF had nuanced opinions about the United States, which he saw as both heroic and ruthless. On one hand, he wrote, "Citizens of the Union" have the potential "to be larger than life, to be Übermenschen." On the other, he found the Wild West to be disappointing. He lamented the shrinking forests and the suffering of the Native Americans. Moreover, the "hoped-for grizzly bears refused to run in front of his rifle, cowboys cavalierly put their feet on the table in his presence, and smoking was prohibited everywhere."

This is going to be some fantastic reading.