Download the Webzine: Food Riots


Hello, my name is Evan Fraser and I work at the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada. As anyone who has followed this video series knows, climate change, population growth, and high-energy prices mean that farmers may struggle over the next generation to produce enough food for everyone.

This video is about one of the possible political impacts of the food crisis: food riots.

2010 was a rough year for the global food system; droughts and wildfires consumed about 25% of Russia’s wheat harvest and the Kremlin deciding to stop exporting wheat to international markets [1].  Food prices sky-rocketed, and the countries of the Middle East, which regularly bought this Russian wheat, were hardest hit [2].

Within months, food riots had spread across the Arab world and the food price crisis of late 2010 is now seen as the beginning of the Arab Spring – the toppling of Arab governments across the Middle East that unfolded in 2011 [3].

Experts watched these events in horror and many of us wondered “if food prices remain high and volatile over the next generation, is this a sign of things to come?”

Many think so. One newspaper article I read argued: “a hungry man is an angry man” [4]. In another: “Nothing sends a person into the street quite like an empty stomach” [5].  Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund, said: “as we know … questions [about food security] sometimes end in war” [6]

And as a result, a great many experts argued that thanks to population growth we will need to produce a lot more food if we want to keep prices low and prevent more rioting [7].

But while assuming a connection between food shortages, rising food prices, hunger and violence seems logical, on closer inspection things become less clear. For instance, the places in the world where people are hungriest is not necessarily where the food riots happened [8].

Similarly, across the 1990s and 2000s, the world’s food supply stayed both stable and comfortably ahead of demand [9] – in the early 1990s we had about 2600 cal per person per day on the planet by the year 2010 there were about 2850 cal per person per day [10].

All this suggests that those links between food shortages, rising food prices, hunger and violence are much more complicated, and simply producing more food won’t mean there is any less violence [11].

To explore this issue in more detail I’ve worked with a small team on the social and political consequences of food price rises [illustration of Lauren, Jen and Alexander]. I began by interviewing people from Cameroon about the causes of the 2008 food riots.

I expected to hear the people were hungry and hungry people were desperate but instead what I heard was different.

One respondent told me that the riots were caused when “a group of merchants took advantage of everyone … [The merchants are] cut throat business guys who don’t give a damn about people.“

What strikes me as interesting about this comment is that the speaker is not linking desperation and riots but rather is saying that the riots were caused by moral outrage and anger [12].

Our team then conducted extensive interviews in both Haiti and Cameron, both countries that experienced bad riots in 2008 [13].  And in both countries we saw a number of similarities.

For instance, in both places corruption, poverty, urban unemployment, globalization and political marginalization were key factors that led people to riot over food prices. Not food shortages [14].

These results are important because the sort of policies that the experts often believe will stop food riots normally focus on promoting high-quality seeds and other modern agricultural tools to boost production [15].  But the poor cannot afford these [16]. So promoting these of tools may displace poor people from their land, forcing them to migrate to cities where they become the urban poor – disenfranchised and alienated from the economic system – and likely to riot.

We also observed that food price rises can be used as a political tool to bring down entrenched and powerful governments.  And we saw evidence that political opponents organized food protests even when there was actually enough food.

Does this mean we don’t need to promote agricultural productivity?  I don’t think so. Indeed, as we face world of 9 billion people and climate change we are going to need to produce all the food we can.

But the policies that lead to greater agricultural production must be seen in a different light to policies geared at reducing food riots. If policymakers in the future want to avoid a repeat of food riots then they need to address unemployment, urban poverty and political reform. But this is a separate activity from policies to increase food production that could focus on seeds, fertilizer and equipment.


[1] Prompted by extreme climate events that decimated Russian agriculture in 2010, the government made the decision to halt grain exports in an effort to stabilize domestic grain and meat prices. This report examines the effects of this decision on both national and international scales.

Welton, George. The Impact of Russia’s 2010 Grain Export Ban. Rep. OXFAM, 28 June 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2014. <….

[2] Due to the combination of poor Russian and Canadian wheat harvests, as well as prolific wheat rust throughout Europe, 2010 saw wheat prices rise 90% over a period of just five weeks. Dwindling wheat supplies and rapidly rising prices then led to threats of dire food shortages throughout the Middle East.

Garrett, Laurie. “Wheat Supplies and Food Fears.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 09 Aug. 2010. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <>.

[3] In this article published by the Council on Foreign Affairs, Dr. Evan Fraser argues that rapid increases in food prices, due largely to the Russian grain export ban, are connected with the rise of civil unrest in the Middle East and Northern Africa in 2008.

Fraser, Evan, and Andrew Rimas. “The Psychology of Food Riots: When Do Price Spikes Lead to Unrest?” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2014. <….

[4] In this publication, the FAO Assistant Director-General argues that food insecurity poses a significant safety risk, as it often initiates dangerous protests and food riots.

María Sumpsi Viñas, José. “A Hungry Man Is an Angry Man.” Food and Security. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <>.

[5] In his book about how rising oil costs will end the economic expansion of the world’s most industrialized nations, Jeff Rubin argues that we can expect further social unrest in the Middle East as rising food costs outpace growing revenue from the region’s oil exports. Rubin, Jeff. The End of Growth. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2012. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <….

[6] During the 2008 global food crisis, international leaders feared that intense food riots and protests could escalate into civil wars in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. “UN Agency Chief Warns of Food Crisis ‘civil War'” AFP. Agence France-Presse, 25 Apr. 2008. Web. 28 Mar. 2014 <….

[7] There are numerous factors that will lead to rising food costs over the next few decades. This article published by National Geographic cites increased meat consumption, climate change, and population growth as three major pressures that will have global food price repercussions – this is linked to the potential for increased food riots and violence.

Bourne, Joel K., Jr. “The Global Food Crisis: The End of Plenty.” National Geographic Magazine. National Geographic Society, June 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <>.

[8] This article about the recent increase of food riots includes a world map that identifies nations in which food riots have occurred. These are not the only regions where there is food insecurity, highlighting that citizens around the world react differently to the pressures of rising food costs.

Dyer, Gwynne. “The Future of Food Riots.” CrisisBoom. N.p., 9 Jan. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <>.

[9] The FAO reports that food production has been increasing globally, in both developed and developing nations, since the early 1990s.

Feeding the World. Rep. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <>.

[10] This report from 1996 summarizes the long-term increase in calorie-per-person-per-day availability and makes predictions for future global food security. “The Situation Today- Hunger Amid Plenty.”

Agriculture and Food Security. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1996. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <>.

If you are interested in researching this topic further, the FAO has an excellent database for food security information, including global food production and food supply data for all of the world’s nations.

“FAOSTAT Gateway.” FAOSTAT. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <>.

[11] During the global food price spikes of 2007-2008, the food riots were most prevalent in urban Africa. This paper compares the international and local media representations of these events; the study finds that international sources suggested that these riots were caused by advanced poverty and hunger. In contrast, local media found that there were much more complex factors at work in leading to this level of violence.

Sneyd, Lauren Q., Alexander Legwegoh, and Evan D. G. Fraser. “Food Riots: Media Perspectives on the Causes of Food Protest in Africa.” Food Security 5.4 (2013): 485-97. Springer. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <>.

[12] Injustice and a sense of having been wronged are crucial elements leading people to riot in the name of food security. This connection between “moral outrage” and food riots is explained in an article published in Foreign Affairs, by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas.

Fraser, Evan D. G., and Andrew Rimas. “The Psychology of Food Riots.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, Inc., 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <….

[13] Alexander Legwegoh, a Cameroonian academic and an expert on urban poverty and food security, argues that the serious food riots experienced in Cameroon in 2008 were caused in large part by retailers who stockpiled grain during the shortage, forcing prices to climb.

Fraser, Evan D. G., and Andrew Rimas. “The Psychology of Food Riots.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, Inc., 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <….

[14] In their study of recent food riots in Cameroon, Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas found that factors such as people’s perceptions of the fairness of food prices and concerns over profiteering were more important causes of food riots than physical food shortages.

See also:  McDonald, Bryan. “Food Price Shocks and Instability Highlight Weaknesses in Governance and Markets.” New Security Beat. Environmental Change and Security Program, 9 Feb. 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <….

[15] Technological advancements in agriculture have kept food production rising over the past century, however the rate of progress may be slowing. Rather than investing only in agri-technology, the UN states that progress will come from “multi-functional” agriculture, which will include poverty reduction, water conservation, and climate change adaptation.

Clover, Charles. “Food Shortages: How Will We Feed the World?” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Ltd., 22 Apr. 2008. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <….

[16] Many worry that recent development in the agribusiness industry has put new agricultural technologies and seed varieties out of reach of smallholder farmers. No longer encouraged to save seeds, and unable to purchase expensive equipment, smallholders struggle to increase yields.

“Challenges Facing Smallholder Farmers.” South Africa Changemakers. Southern Africa Trust, Jan. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <>.