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The Food Riots of 2013
August 21, 2011 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute say they've uncovered a pattern that triggers riots wherever it's found. What is that pattern? The price of food. When it rises to a certain level, social unrest & violence are soon to follow. According to their calculations the food price index is due to peak in August of 2013, assuming no corrective action is taken. The original paper is here.
posted by scalefree (49 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Last week I wanted to make fresh salsa and bought 3 tomatos, an onion, garlic, cilantro, parsley and chips. The bill was $25. Why aren't their constant riots in Brooklyn?
posted by nathancaswell at 11:13 AM on August 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


Anyone have pointers to food price index numbers for regions around the world? Does data like this exist at any usable level of granularity?
posted by migurski at 11:16 AM on August 21, 2011


Soviet Union suffers worst wheat harvest in 55 years... Labor and food riots in Poland. Soviet troops invade... Cuba and Nicaragua reach troop strength goals of 500,000. El Salvador and Honduras fall... Greens Party gains control of West German Parliament. Demands withdrawal of nuclear weapons from European soil... Mexico plunged into revolution... NATO dissolves. United States stands alone.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:17 AM on August 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here’s one for the world, goes back 20 years. I’m thinking of something more localized.
posted by migurski at 11:18 AM on August 21, 2011


World Bank has some data you may be able to use.
posted by scalefree at 11:27 AM on August 21, 2011


Well I now know what I have to watch this afternoon, Nathan.
posted by codswallop at 11:28 AM on August 21, 2011


Here you go. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has a monthly Global Food Price Monitor report detailing food prices at world, regional and country level.
posted by scalefree at 11:30 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why aren't their constant riots in Brooklyn?

There are, but you probably haven't heard of them.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:33 AM on August 21, 2011 [56 favorites]


nathan, I don't know where the hell you're shopping, but you should find somewhere else.
posted by curious nu at 11:40 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is surprising? This is news? The phrase "food riot" goes back at least to the eighteenth century and no doubt earlier.

I got to get me one of them jobs where you restate the obvious and get paid for it.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:40 AM on August 21, 2011


Why aren't their constant riots in Brooklyn?

Last night I went to a new place in South Boston where a friend was tending bar. The place looks decent, clean, modern and has plenty of staff, two flat screens and background music but definitely lacking in the unique charm department. More like upscale pizza parlor than bistro. She started pouring me a Guinness and handed me a menu. $32 for a filet mignon with one side dish.

I looked up in shock.

Without flinching, she said: "We're getting killed on Yelp." That's where your first-world riots take place.
posted by jsavimbi at 11:43 AM on August 21, 2011 [9 favorites]


They've identified the inflection point where social violence is triggered. I don't think anybody's done that before.
posted by scalefree at 11:44 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Lagi and co say that two main factors have driven the increase in the food price index. The first is traders speculating on the price of food, a problem that has been exacerbated in recent years by the deregulation of the commodities markets and the removal of trading limits for buyers and sellers.

So riots are the "free markets'" way of correcting itself?
posted by Max Power at 11:48 AM on August 21, 2011 [14 favorites]


I got to get me one of them jobs where you restate the obvious and get paid for it.

Science journalism?
posted by lucidium at 11:49 AM on August 21, 2011


I'm reading the paper now, but is it me or are they using "food riots", "riots", and "social unrest" as it suits their data, but without necessarily defining their terms.

This seems to be a messy proposition. Do the riots recently seen in the UK qualify as "food riots"? They were clearly "riots" and "social unrest". What about the LA Riots in the 1990's, or the race riots of the mid-century?

Here we show that food prices are the precipitating condition for social unrest.

Are we talking all social unrest? If we're saying that food prices are predictors of food riots, but we can only define "food riots" after the fact, is this really predictive?

I think they have a good hypothesis, but I don't see how they can get beyond a correlation to identify a causative factor, and thus really be predictive.

I got to get me one of them jobs where you restate the obvious and get paid for it.

There's a great book: "Everything is Obvious: *Once you know the answer" that covers this.
posted by herda05 at 11:53 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love how predictably simplistic people who bill themselves as "complexity" specialists are. THE NATION THAT CONTROLS THE GLOBAL FOOD PRICE INDEX CONTROLS THE UNIVERSE!
posted by RogerB at 12:12 PM on August 21, 2011


Isn't the hallmark of complex systems that they're complex? If (new_food_price > old_food_price) Riot; kind of lacks the tangled loops I'd expect in a complex system.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:15 PM on August 21, 2011


This is surprising? This is news? The phrase "food riot" goes back at least to the eighteenth century and no doubt earlier.

I got to get me one of them jobs where you restate the obvious and get paid for it.


What is obvious is not always true, and what is true is not always obvious. That's why we have science. In their paper, they note that "food riots" are a long-standing phenomenon. However, they are making very specific claims which go well beyond simply noting the existence of "food riots." Further, they are actually making a very "non-obvious" claim, one which goes against much of the conventional wisdom, particularly concerning the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world - because the assumption there is overwhelmingly that these are fundamentally political in origin. And they make a rather important prediction on the basis of their data and analysis.

Whether they are correct or not in all this is something else, but just dismissing it as "obvious" is to miss the point entirely.
posted by williampratt at 12:23 PM on August 21, 2011 [12 favorites]


nathan, I don't know where the hell you're shopping, but you should find somewhere else.

It was my fault, I usually shop at Fairway but I was coming home from work and I stopped by a place in Dumbo that is a complete fucking ripoff. I should have known better.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:43 PM on August 21, 2011


Today (true story) I wanted to make some fresh salsa for lunch. I stepped out back and picked some tomatillos, tomatoes, cherry peppers and cilantro and then added some store-bought lime juice and garlic. Together the store-bought stuff probably cost me about a dollar. The seeds? Mostly traded or saved from last year. The compost? Made it myself.

I'm well aware that it's not so easy to grow your own food in Brooklyn. But seriously, people: if you can grow something, do. As long as we've got an ever-growing, ever-hungrier global middle class, a broken food distribution system that is prone to disruption by political unrest, greedy commodity speculators unchecked by decent regulation, and climate change-fueled disasters devastating crops worldwide, food prices are going to keep going up and up and up. If Americans want to keep eating cheap food, more of us are going to need to learn to get our hands dirty.

We're actually incredibly lucky in the U.S. -- the average American spends very little on food as a percentage of income compared to most people in other parts of the world. Right now, the average U.S. household spends about seven percent of its annual income on food; in many other areas of the world it's perfectly ordinary to spend 30-40% of one's income on food.
posted by BlueJae at 12:54 PM on August 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


Seriously, if I'd bought that quantity of food and the register had shown me $25 as the total for my purchase, I would have experienced Involuntary Shocked Face, followed by "fuck that" and walking out of the store.
posted by hippybear at 12:54 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Further, they are actually making a very "non-obvious" claim, one which goes against much of the conventional wisdom, particularly concerning the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world - because the assumption there is overwhelmingly that these are fundamentally political in origin.

Related. Egyptian bread riots 1977, Arab spring, dependency on wheat imported from US, etc. Analytical stuff in the first couple of articles on the article page, the WBEZ, the first text interview. In the book, the related interviews, its reviews, and the Saveur article, some unusual takes on food's role in bonding during times of crisis and shortage.
posted by Ahab at 1:02 PM on August 21, 2011


WBEZ interview.
posted by Ahab at 1:03 PM on August 21, 2011


See also
posted by stbalbach at 1:57 PM on August 21, 2011


was it the cause of the French Revolution? Wikipedia:"Adherents of most historical models identify many of the same features of the Ancien Régime as being among the causes of the Revolution. Economic factors included hunger and malnutrition in the most destitute segments of the population, due to rising bread prices."
posted by eggtooth at 2:04 PM on August 21, 2011


RIMMER: Three days without food, and the walls of civilisation come
tumbling down!

LISTER: What d'you mean?

RIMMER: They say that every society is only three meals away from
revolution. Deprive a culture of food for three meals, and you'll
have an anarchy. And it's true, isn't it? You haven't eaten for a
couple of days, and you've turned into a barbarian.


Red Dwarf, Series III episode 2
posted by 445supermag at 2:19 PM on August 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Last week I went out to buy some fresh ingredients for a mexican dinner, but then realized I had already ate. A birds made a beautiful silhouette in a sunset sky. Also, I was drunk.
posted by uni verse at 3:25 PM on August 21, 2011


Why do they always blame bread prices...why can't they, say, blame cheese?
posted by eggtooth at 3:42 PM on August 21, 2011


Who wants to eat bread anyway, it's full of carbs!
posted by Joe Chip at 3:44 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why do they always blame bread prices...why can't they, say, blame cheese?

also, I was drunk...
posted by eggtooth at 3:45 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Last week I wanted to make fresh salsa and bought 3 tomatos, an onion, garlic, cilantro, parsley and chips. The bill was $25. Why aren't their constant riots in Brooklyn?"

I took a kimchi class and everyone had to buy their own daikon to bring. When we introduced each other we had to say how much our daikon cost. The guy in DUMBO paid $5 for his! I paid $.50 for mine in Queens.
posted by melissam at 3:45 PM on August 21, 2011


god...the name DUMBO kinda gives it away...
posted by eggtooth at 3:48 PM on August 21, 2011


The guy in DUMBO paid $5 for his

Pretty much. You can spend $70 at Foragers for a handful of things.
posted by sweetkid at 3:48 PM on August 21, 2011


It wasn't even Foragers, it was fucking Bridgefresh.
posted by nathancaswell at 3:52 PM on August 21, 2011


No way, that's a lot for Bridge Fresh.
posted by sweetkid at 3:53 PM on August 21, 2011


It's People Like You That Are Eating Expensive Food that are causing all this trouble...
posted by eggtooth at 3:55 PM on August 21, 2011


"We're getting killed on Yelp."

There's probably a reason for that.
posted by carping demon at 4:21 PM on August 21, 2011


Further, they are actually making a very "non-obvious" claim, one which goes against much of the conventional wisdom, particularly concerning the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world - because the assumption there is overwhelmingly that these are fundamentally political in origin. And they make a rather important prediction on the basis of their data and analysis.

Whose conventional wisdom would this be? Think tanks and government? Pretty self interested groups, those, frequently guilty of, as I say, re-stating the obvious for money. Or better yet, complexifying matters when simplicity would do. Step back, man. We're scientists. (I mean, Jesus Christ, these people call their little group the New England Complex Systems Institute? No undue disrespect to whatever it is they do, but come on, that moniker just screams out satire.)

I digress. Not obvious? The article itself concedes that this isn't rocket science, though then tries to suggest that new and high prices are a pre-condition to riots is somehow crucial and insightful. Well, no, not really. Mostly it's just lining up the silverware nicely. The basic not-rocket-science concept has been around for centuries, as any historian could have told them. Alas, there are none at the institute.

I concede that quantifying the subject is nice, perhaps even useful - but to imagine that the idea is breakthrough stuff is absurd. And if there are conventional thinkers in positions of power who are surprised by this report, we are in worse shape than I thought.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:50 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


it's funny that people who claim to work in a "complexity institute" would even try to predict food prices two years from now.

Also they seemed to have missed examples where widespread food shortages did not result in social unrest. E.g. North Korea for the past few years as well as the severe famines in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.
posted by storybored at 5:30 PM on August 21, 2011


I like the name: "New England Complex Systems Institute?" It suggests a willingness to
question...even themselves.
posted by eggtooth at 5:36 PM on August 21, 2011


Holodomor
posted by Tom-B at 5:44 PM on August 21, 2011


If these projections are correct, it probably means war between India and Pakistan (rather than Cuban/Soviet paratroopers landing in Colorado). We may see riots or upheavals in other countries (as we have already seen in North Africa and the Middle East), but in most cases, these disturbances will remain internal to the nations in question. In the case of both India and Pakistan, we have the presence of an entrenched political class, a tradition of mutual enmity, and enough people living close enough to the margin to present a serious crisis should the price of grain change by a large enough percentage.

In the case of India, we are already seeing increasingly popular protests against corruption. Increases in food prices are not going to help this, but a war against a familiar external threat might re-channel some of this sentiment. In the case of Pakistan, there are a number of possibilities. The country is already on the verge of civil war itself, and the potential exists for another military coup, further disintegration of authority in the tribal areas, or general political disorder. A war with India might provide more support for a program of national unity. Given the right level of social disruption within either country, the right provocation, and relatively supportive media organs, mobilization is a possibility for either side.

It will be like World War I for Asia, with the exciting possibility of going nuclear.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:54 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Holodomor"

The Soviet Union was a police state, especially at that time. If any Ukrainians disobeyed orders, they were immediately stomped on. Maybe some did riot inside the isolated communes and regions, but since those areas were sealed off by soldiers and left to starve no one ever found out until later.

Anyway, isn't rampant speculation in a vital resource like food something we should put a stop to regardless? I don't see why Goldman Sachs should get a cut every time I buy a loaf of bread. And ethanol subsidies are a waste that we don't need in this time of economic instability.
posted by Kevin Street at 7:52 PM on August 21, 2011


In the case of India, we are already seeing increasingly popular protests against corruption.

Actually it's less of a protest _against_ corruption, and more of a protest _for_ a certain bill that would apparently negatively impact corruption. The distinction is subtle, but quite crucial; because there is a clear end-game here in the minds of the protestors - the passage of the Jan Lok Pal bill - these protests need not necessarily end such open-ended states as social unrest or even regime-change.

So I scanned through the citations for the graph that Tech Review re-published, with a specific eye towards the Indian citations; seems like they've essentially mapped Google hits for "food riots" with changes in the Food Price Index. This, to me, is problematic for two reasons:

1) At least in the case of India, the notion of "perceived inadequate food" in a household is quite diverse across the country; some states report this figure as "0", while others have an extraordinarily high number. Essentially, there are factors other than the mere price involved here; which is perhaps why the riots didn't happen at the peaks for instance. I wonder how this would change their model.

2) It also wholly ignores other sectarian violence that took place elsewhere in that time-period.
posted by the cydonian at 8:35 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why aren't their constant riots in Brooklyn?

DUMBO =/= "all of Brooklyn." Many of us know to go to Sunset Park or Kings Plaza for the food there because it's mad cheap.

Also, the upscale delis are best thought of as "oh shit I forgot to pick up a tomato and company's coming in a half hour and oh crap I'm also out of toilet paper" emergency shops.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:34 AM on August 22, 2011


I do Fresh Direct and try to avoid the Dumbo fancies. I'm often unsuccessful though.
posted by sweetkid at 10:35 AM on August 22, 2011


I'm forty and this theory was in my very old textbooks at high school (in the old days, up to the early 80s, school and library books were top quality sewn hardbacks designed to last through decades of heavy wear and tear. Now they're designed to be replaced as cheaply as possible each season. Although, since we're still on Lord of the Flies for English O level/GCSE/16yo exam, the old approach could still work sometimes.)
posted by maiamaia at 1:55 PM on August 22, 2011


Why do they always blame bread prices...why can't they, say, blame cheese?

1764, Nottingham Goose Fair, The Cheese Riots: “...an increase of a third on the price of cheese compared with the previous year resulted in the outraged punters launching an attack on the stall holders at the fair. Huge cheeses were bowled down the street, with the frightened owners following them. Finally the Dragoons had to be sent in to control the mob after the attempts by the local mayor had resulted in his dignity being flattened by a 100lb cheese.”
posted by tallus at 2:09 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Correlation <> causation? Think of all the hundreds of potential factors that could affect food price and also affect social stability.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 9:39 PM on August 23, 2011


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