01.11.2016

Food Prices and Social Unrest: Good News, Bad News, and Opportunity

When it comes to food prices around the world, there is good news and bad news.  The good news is that food prices have been decreasing over the past three years. After spikes in 2008 and 2011, commodities prices have trended downwards.  This makes it easier for families all over the world to put more food on the dinner table.

This is an important point for national security. Researchers have tied political instability and social strife to the two recent spikes in food prices. One recent study found that “food riots” are more likely to happen in politically unstable countries when prices rise. The “Arab Spring” of civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa is cited as a leading example of this connection.  Rising food prices have led to instability in many other parts of the world as well.

The bad news is that scientists, looking at the El Nino weather system developing over the Pacific Ocean, are predicting that food prices will start to rise again. El Nino, which draws its strength from a warmer ocean, is triggering drought and curtailing production of rice and other key food staples in Southeast Asia.  At the same time, meteorologists worry that these conditions could lead to drought in the Midwest US next spring, shortening the growing season and lowering production of wheat, corn and soybean crops in 2016.

James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, has identified food shortages and hunger in regions of strategic importance to the United States as a threat to national security because these conditions can trigger instability. With drought conditions expected for major agricultural regions around the world, can higher food prices be avoided?

Research that improves U.S. agricultural productivity and food transportation systems can help prevent hunger as a disruptive element throughout the world. The USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative has funded a number of research projects that will help farmers adapt practices and varieties of crops and animals that are dependent upon less water.

In free market economies, food prices will always ebb and flow. But if production can continue despite adverse weather conditions, we can smooth out the spikes that threaten our national security. We need additional agricultural research to make sure the good-news scenario continues.


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