© Barry Malone/ReutersThe researchers point to two main factors driving the increase in food prices
The waves of social unrest and political instability seen recently around the world have coincided with large peaks in global food prices, US researchers have found.

They warn that unless something is done urgently to address rising food prices, it could trigger more widespread trouble in the near future.

Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, and colleagues, correlated the dates of riots around the world with data from the United Nations that plots changes in the price of food.

They found evidence that episodes of social unrest in North Africa and the Middle East coincided closely with peaks in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Food Price Index.

Reporting their findings on the pre-press website the researchers say that although the riots reflect many factors such as the long-standing political failings of governments, high food prices provide a tipping point.

"There are indeed many factors that can contribute to unrest," Bar-Yam explains. "What we see, however, is that these conditions can persist for many years without causing this level of protest, rebellion and revolution .... Then food prices go up to a certain level and social order falls apart."

Specifically, the researchers found strong statistical evidence that social unrest and rioting occurred when the Food Price Index hit sharp peaks above a figure of 210.

On 13 December last year, the researchers say, they wrote to the US government pointing out the link between global food prices and unrest. Four days later, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in protest at government policies, an event that catalyzed social unrest throughout the Middle East.

Reaching a threshold

Although Bar-Yam and colleagues correlated outbreaks of unrest with food price peaks, they also warn that the underlying price trend is increasing so quickly that it will soon breach a threshold.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the Food Price Index has been above 210 since February this year.

This is a worrying situation, says Bar-Yam.
"The problem is that every society in the world has poor and disaffected populations. Social disorder is contagious. The more we see it happening elsewhere the more it becomes imaginable where one lives."

"As we saw in London recently, even relatively affluent people ... who do not have to worry about having enough food, can get caught up in conditions of social disorder and exploit them for remarkably small benefits."

"What we see therefore is a rising force of food prices driving a general collective transition to disorder around the world."
Deregulation, biofuel driving prices

The researchers point to two main factors driving the increase in food prices. The first is the deregulation of commodity markets, especially in the United States, United Kingdom and Japan, which allows prices to fluctuate widely. The second is the use of corn to produce ethanol for biofuel.

Unless these two factors are addressed, the researchers see an ominous future that they estimate could arrive within the next couple of years.

"This scenario we see unfolding is very much the scenario that people have been warning about as a global societal collapse," says Bar-Yam. "The immediate scenario we see is driven by specific local decisions: corn to ethanol conversion and commodity market deregulation. These decisions, which could be reversed if policy makers change their positions, turn out to be the critical ones."

He says the question is whether the world will be able to respond effectively to the precursors of widespread social disorder.
"How far down the road we will have to go until the warnings are being heard? The further things go, the more difficult it will be to change direction and the more damage will be done in the meantime."

Comment: For a more in depth look at rising food prices and the global food crisis read the following articles:

World Food Crisis Looms as Prices Soar to Record High

World Food Prices Surge to Record, Passing Levels That Sparked 2008 Riots

Food Prices Jump Most Since 1974

20 Signs That A Horrific Global Food Crisis Is Coming:
In case you haven't noticed, the world is on the verge of a horrific global food crisis. At some point, this crisis will affect you and your family. It may not be today, and it may not be tomorrow, but it is going to happen. Crazy weather and horrifying natural disasters have played havoc with agricultural production in many areas of the globe over the past couple of years. Meanwhile, the price of oil has begun to skyrocket. The entire global economy is predicated on the ability to use massive amounts of inexpensive oil to cheaply produce food and other goods and transport them over vast distances. Without cheap oil the whole game changes. Topsoil is being depleted at a staggering rate and key aquifers all over the world are being drained at an alarming pace. Global food prices are already at an all-time high and they continue to move up aggressively. So what is going to happen to our world when hundreds of millions more people cannot afford to feed themselves?

Most Americans are so accustomed to supermarkets that are absolutely packed to the gills with massive amounts of really inexpensive food that they cannot even imagine that life could be any other way. Unfortunately, that era is ending.

There are all kinds of indications that we are now entering a time when there will not be nearly enough food for everyone in the world. As competition for food supplies increases, food prices are going to go up. In fact, at some point they are going to go way up.