The French Revolution is probably history’s most famous food riot. It came about due to the aristocracy ignoring widespread hunger among peasants — an episode in history we now erroneously associate with “let them eat cake.” The French had forgotten what the Romans figured out 2,000 years before, and implemented via their bread and circuses policy: a well-fed, entertained, and somewhat free population doesn’t overthrow the government.
We like to think that we revolt against tyranny, but the truth is that we don’t mind tyranny that much, as long as there are enough things for us to eat and be amused by. However, when the food runs out and people believe their rulers are standing in the way of nourishment, governments will fall. And in that respect, the Arab Spring was no different than the French Revolution: it started when Tunisian police confiscated a 26 year-old street vendor‘s fruit cart, which was the only, meager source of income for his mother and six sisters; he set himself on fire in front of the governor’s office, after shouting “How do you expect me to make a living?”
In 2011, researchers noticed that the number one predictor of riots worldwide in the prior 5 years, was the price of food. Since 1990, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has been calculating a monthly food price index and if that number is above 210, recent history shows that riots become a lot more likely. The data fits this month’s American consulate riots which are supposedly due to the Muhammad video, but are probably more about the price of food — the current index is at 213. People will put up with a lot, but once they can’t afford to eat and death looms around the corner, consequences disappear and they begin to think of their legacy: it’s better to die in a riot while trying to change the world than to die of starvation in your bed.
During the Arab spring, the food price index was around 230. Due to widespread drought, prices are expected to rise 3 to 4% in 2013, likely putting the index above 220 and causing even more rioting. Meanwhile, America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic caused by food being too cheap — so cheap, in fact, that 40% of it gets thrown away.