West Africa Rising: Could rising food prices spark Egypt-style revolt in Africa?

Soaring food prices – such as wheat, which has hit a 2-1/2-year high – could feed political tumult in Africa, despite earlier proclamations that an Egypt-style revolt would not spread to sub-Saharan Africa.

By , Correspondent

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    Ethiopian farmers walk in their wheat field in Abay, in this Oct. 21, 2009 file photo. Soaring food prices for wheat now sit at a 2 1/2-year high, and Egypt – currently the world's biggest exporter of televised scenes involving young men waving flags – just happens to be wheat's biggest importer.
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West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Egypt's revolution was triggered by many sparks, one of which was bread; or rather wheat, a staple whose soaring price and insufficient supply could become the dry wood for political tumult across the African continent this year.

Prices for that staple crop now sit at a 2 1/2-year high, and Egypt – currently the world's biggest exporter of televised scenes involving young men waving flags – just happens to be wheat's biggest importer. And while academics will have semesters ad infinitum to weigh the relative importance of Twitter vs. bread in the fall of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the more immediate question could be what comes next across Egypt's backyard: sub-Saharan Africa.

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Thirty African countries are scheduled to hold elections over the next 12 months. The list includes food-scarce nations like Chad and Madagascar, alongside terminally unstable lands like Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And yet, as of last month, food prices are already sitting on a record high. Last week, the United Nations announced average food prices climbed 25 percent in the past year, including a 3.4 percent jump in January alone.

"It's easy to see how the food supply can translate directly into political unrest," Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute think tank in Washington, told The Guardian.

What's not easy to see, he added, is how the economy of what we eat will fundamentally improve over decades and elections to come.

To be sure, some of 2011's costly cuisine has been caused by short-term disasters, like erratic weather in Russia or bad crops in Canada.

But the affordability of food is also being undermined by longer-term trends, such as the growing chunk of farmland now dedicated to cultivating biofuels, or the emergence of China as a net food importer.

Underground water reserves in drylands like Saudi Arabia, Mr. Brown added, are on the wane. Plus, given the vagaries of climate change, Russia's wheat-withering changeable weather could prove to be a new norm.

"This isn't just about the Muslim Brotherhood and it isn't just about politics," the economist Jefferey Sachs told Reuters. "This is about hunger, about poverty, about food production, about a change of world economy. This is one large swathe of 10,000 miles of potential instability."

Spoken like an economist, rather than a political scientist. And whether Mr. Sachs is right or not remains to be seen.

We'll be watching.

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