South African Riots: Repercussion of the Global Food Crisis and US Drought
High and volatile global food prices have led to food riots and played a critical role in triggering the Arab Spring revolutions in recent years. The severe drought in the US in the summer of 2012 led to a new increase in food prices. Through the fall, they remained at a threshold above which the riots and revolutions had predominantly occurred. Global prices at this level create conditions where an exacerbating local circumstance can trigger unrest. Global corn (maize) prices reached new highs, and countries that depend mostly on maize are more likely to experience high local food prices and associated pressures toward social unrest. Here we analyze the conditions in South Africa, which is a heavily maize-dependent country. Coinciding with increased consumer food indices this summer, massive labor strikes in mining and agriculture have led to the greatest single incident of social violence since the fall of apartheid in 1994. Worker demands for dramatic pay increases reflect that their wages have not kept up with drastic increases in the prices of necessities, especially food. Without attention to the global food price situation, more incidents of food-based social instability are likely to arise. Other countries that have manifested food-related protests and riots in 2012 include Haiti and Argentina. Moreover, these cases of unrest are just the most visible symptom of widespread suffering of poor populations worldwide due to elevated food prices. Policy decisions that would directly impact food prices are decreasing the conversion of maize to ethanol in the US, and reimposing regulations on commodity futures markets to prevent excessive speculation, which we have shown causes bubbles and crashes in these markets. Absent such policy actions, governments and companies should track and mitigate the impact of high and volatile food prices on citizens and employees.
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