U.S. Drought Could Cause Global Unrest (Offering Yet Another Reason to Drop the Ethanol Mandate)

As if my previous post about the “invisible depression” weren’t depressing enough, here’s a post about how rising food costs lead to increased social unrest:

What happens after another bubble is a pressing question, said Bar-Yam. In both 2007 and 2010, massive unrest almost immediately followed food price surges, tracking market behavior with uncanny synchronization. Some Middle East experts say that rising prices even triggered the Arab Spring, providing a spark that ignited long-simmering tensions and resentments.

While the exact role played by food is difficult to isolate, a new NECSI analysis of the 2008 Yemeni uprising supports the spark hypothesis. In a paper released July 24, NECSI found that the geographical character of violence changed immediately after the price spikes, shifting from ethnically localized to widespread.

FAO food price index between 2004 and 2012, with incidents of social unrest plotted against prices. Image: NECSI

“I think the analysis has merit,” said political geographer Charles Schmitz of Towson University. “The food prices did disturb things. The legitimacy of the government was undermined.”

While some might see the Arab Spring’s catalysis as a positive side effect, food shortages and panicked riots are hardly the most desirable path to social change. To keep prices under control, experts have recommended limiting financial speculation in commodity markets and using biofuel crops for food instead.

“In the short run, USDA needs to figure out a way to remove the mandate on ethanol use from corn,” said Timmer. “If we could free up 20 to 30 percent of the U.S. crop, reduced as it is, it would bring corn prices down very quickly.”

New speculation limits are scheduled to be enacted by year’s end, but drought means that may be too late, said Bar-Yam. In the meantime, the USDA has rebuffed all requests to reduce corn biofuel allotments.

“These are new tools for understanding social change,” said Bar-Yam of NECSI’s modeling. “The thing we’re worried about is that they’re pointing to global catastrophe in a short period of time.”


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