Why you should be skeptical about food riots

Much is being made of the food riots in Mozambique. The global food system and climate change are held to blame. Many predict a future of ever-increasing riots as climate shocks intensify.

Here’s what a closer look at your economics and political science can tell you.

Expect price volatility to fall over time. Globalization and growth should reduce price spikes in future. More countries are producing crops. Climate shocks in Argentina are not that tied to climate shocks in Russia or China, and so price volatility from supply shocks should be going down. Falling transport costs also mean that more substitutes are available, further reducing price volatility. So things should be getting better over time, not worse, especially if trade allows countries to diversify their diet. Envision a future of diminishing instability.

Don’t forget the dogs that don’t bark. Grain prices are rising everywhere, yet most places do not riot. Why exactly are we blaming global grain prices?

Is there even a sytematic relationship between prices and riots? Mozambique’s violence, and the food riots of 2008, might be evidence that higher prices lead to riots. But we also see riots in periods when there are no price changes, or times of falling prices. In short, we see a lot of riots. I’m almost finished a paper right now that demolishes the myth that falling export prices lead to political instability. I suspect someone could do the same with decent riot and import data. I predict no correlation. My hypothesis? These external shocks are not the real cause of violence, but at best a trigger. And there are no shortage of triggers.

For riots, look to poor policing, not poverty. Whether Jakarta, Toronto, or Maputo, there is no shortage of anger or unrest. Unrest and violence are endemic. It is the escalation of violence we need to explain. If poor places are more likely to be violent, it’s often because states police these places more poorly, not because poor people are more violent.

Look to local policy, not global markets, for the real instability. Bread prices climbed 30% in Maputo, apparently due to Russian wildfires. But global wheat prices have only risen 5%. Why the disproportionate effect? I wish I knew, except I haven’t a single report from the ground that points out the disparity, let alone one that searches for an answer. Government market interference? Poor ports and transport? Speculation or collusion by local traders? Odd quotas or import restrictions? I yearn for real information.

The punchline: Are bread prices the proximate cause of the riots? Probably. Are they the root cause? Unlikely. Are global grain markets to blame? Unclear. How about bad domestic policy? Almost certainly. How about shallow and alarmist journalism about those poor, violent, unwashed nations? There are some things you can bet your life on.