Gwynne Dyer: The future of food riots

If all the food in the world were shared out evenly, there would be enough to go around.

That has been true for centuries now: if food was scarce, the problem was that it wasn’t in the right place, but there was no global shortage. However, that will not be true much longer.

The food riots began in Algeria more than a week ago, and they are going to spread. During the last global food shortage in 2008, there was serious rioting in Mexico, Indonesia, and Egypt. We may expect to see that again this time, only bigger and more widespread.

Most people in these countries live in a cash economy, and a large proportion live in cities. They buy their food, they don’t grow it.

That makes them very vulnerable, because they have to eat almost as much as people in rich countries do, but their incomes are much lower.

The poor, urban multitudes in these countries (including China and India) spend up to half of their income on food, compared to only about 10 percent in the rich countries. When food prices soar, these people quickly find that they simply lack the money to go on feeding themselves and their children properly—and food prices now are at an all-time high.

“We are entering a danger territory,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization, on January 5.

The price of a basket of cereals, oils, dairy, meat, and sugar that reflects global consumption patterns has risen steadily for six months. It has just broken through the previous record, set during the last food panic in June 2008.

“There is still room for prices to go up much higher,” Abbassian added, “if, for example, the dry conditions in Argentina become a drought, and if we start having problems with winter kill in the northern hemisphere for the wheat crops.”

After the loss of at least a third of the Russian and Ukrainina grain crop in last summer’s heat wave and the devastating floods in Australia and Pakistan, there’s no margin for error left.

It was Russia and India banning grain exports in order to keep domestic prices down that set the food prices on the international market soaring.

Most countries cannot insulate themselves from this global price rise, because they depend on imports for a lot of domestic consumption. But this means that a lot of their population cannot buy enough food for their families, so they go hungry. Then they get angry, and the riots start.

Is this food emergency a result of global warming? Maybe, but all these droughts, heat waves and floods could also just be a run of really bad luck.

What is nearly certain is that the warming will continue, and that in the future there will be many more weather disasters due to climate change. Food production is going to take a big hit.

Global food prices are already spiking whenever there are a few local crop failures, because the supply barely meets demand even now. As the big emerging economies grow, Chinese and Indian and Indonesian citizens eat more meat, which places a great strain on grain supplies.

Moreover, world population is now passing through seven billion, on its way to nine billion by 2050. We will need a lot more food than we used to.

Some short-term fixes are possible. If the U.S. government ended the subsidies for growing maize (corn) for “bio-fuels”, it would return about a quarter of U.S. crop land to food production.

If people ate a little less meat, if more African land was brought into production, if more food was eaten and less was thrown away, then maybe we could buy ourselves another 15 or 20 years before demand really outstripped supply.

On the other hand, about a third of all the irrigated land in the world depends on pumping groundwater up from aquifers that are rapidly depleting. When the flow of irrigation water stops, the yield of that highly productive land will drop hugely.

Desertification is spreading in many regions, and a large amount of good agricultural land is simply being paved over each year. We have a serious problem here.

Climate change is going to make the situation immeasurably worse. The modest warming that we have experienced so far may not be the main cause of the floods, droughts, and violent storms that have hurt this year’s crops, but the rise in temperature will continue because we cannot find the political will to stop the greenhouse-gas emissions.

The rule of thumb is that we lose about 10 percent of world food production for every rise of one degree C in average global temperature. So the shortages will grow and the price of food will rise inexorably over the years. The riots will return again and again.

In some places the rioting will turn into revolution. In others, the rioters will become refugees and push up against the borders of countries that don’t want to let them in.

Or maybe we can get the warming under control before it does too much damage. Hold your breath, squeeze your eyes tight shut, and wish for a miracle.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book, Crawling from the Wreckage, was published recently in Canada by Random House.




Jan 9, 2011 at 9:30pm > "Algerians are exceptionally upset with the fact that in a recent ranking on the quality of life" > "Technology created 50 rainstorms in Abu Dhabi's Al Ain region last year" (as with all recent Olympics - weather mod'ing is pretty fashionable these days).


Jan 9, 2011 at 10:36pm

Desalination using dirt cheap clean and green off peak nuclear power is the obvious answer. A group is trying to start just such a plant in Fresno Ca.

Mark Taylor

Jan 10, 2011 at 7:16am

Another solution -- rarely discussed in media -- is to reduce the number of human population. Unlimited growth is impossible on a limit planet anyway. That way we would have enough for everybody.

Rick Schettino, Editor,

Jan 10, 2011 at 8:25am

I fully expect disruptive technologies such as solar and wind energy, desalination and genetic engineering to radically change food production and nutrition within 40 years. Decentralized energy and desalination will make it easier to to undertake farming in more remote locations, while technologies such as synthetic biology, Genetic Code 2.0 (4-bit DNA), artificial proteins, and who knows what else will likely lead to easier ways to mass produce the basic elements of nutrition. - Rick Schettino, Editor,


Jan 10, 2011 at 8:34am

We could start by eating commodity speculators. Typical trading at exchanges last less than a minute, each time driving the price up, bit by bit.
Then turn to our pet dogs. An average dog has an ecological footprint of two SUV's.

Pat Crowe

Jan 10, 2011 at 9:55am

Soylent green.

petr aardvark

Jan 10, 2011 at 10:30am

when rapture comes I plan to eat the pets left behind.


Jan 10, 2011 at 11:38am

re: Mark Taylor "Another solution -- rarely discussed in media -- is to reduce the number of human population."

I assume you're volunteering to go first?

There ALREADY is enough for everyone, but the majority of the planet's food supply is destroyed each year to keep prices up. It's called false scarcity.


Jan 11, 2011 at 2:51am

Yawn....the chicken littles are at it again. I've heard their squawkings since grade school in the 70's. Beyond tiresome.

Vince Shank

Jan 11, 2011 at 4:51am

Food riots in Algeria? The French conducted a brutal colonial war there less than a half century ago that featured, among other things, the widespread torture of civilians by the French army. Dyer can't be bothered to spill a drop of ink on that but if the United States had been can guess the rest. Somehow he failed to manage to gush over the "superb professionalism" of Al-Quaida fighters in this piece too, totally unrelated I know but Dyer can usually find a way...last week the Ivory Coast and now this. You're slipping, Gwynne! Maybe you can get Sunil Ram to ghost a piece for you and get the fire back in your belly!