On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouzazi set himself on fire in front of a government office—an act that came to symbolize rebellion against autocracy and economic insecurity, and that eventually sparked the Arab Spring.
Just four days before Bouzazi’s self-immolation, Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based New England Complex Systems Institute, sent a note to the U.S. government predicting exactly that a wave of protests would unfold in the Middle East in response to sudden spikes in global food prices. By mapping a range of factors that influence social unrest, he and his team tracked earlier riots to peaks in global food prices, identifying a price threshold above which protests become likely, and delivered an ominous message that a tipping point into conflict was near.
Today, Bar-Yam sees economic fallout from Russia’s invasion in Ukraine—which are exacerbating already-surging food prices—as causing a “regime of risk” that makes further riots and political unrest more likely elsewhere in the world. Wheat futures are reaching record highs, Russian grocery stores are experiencing a run on sugar, and countries are bracing for food shortages.
What this could mean as food prices skyrocket is still unknown. But to understand future fallout from surging food prices, it’s important to look to the past. Bar-Yam spoke with Motherboard over the phone to unpack what led to the Arab Spring, what he saw coming, and what could happen today. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you start by telling me how, in 2010, you predicted the political unrest in the Middle East that came to be known as the Arab Spring?
As a result of the  financial crisis there was a huge influx of money into the commodity markets—speculative money that was not driven by fundamentals, i.e. the supply and demand part, but was just driven by the shock of the fact that the mortgage market and the stock market were not good places to invest money. So it got moved into the commodity markets and created a huge peak in commodity prices—not just food, but also oil and so on. That peak triggered food riots.
There was another driver of food prices, which is fundamental—it has to do with supply and demand. Ethanol policy: This was taking huge amounts of corn, 50 percent of US corn, and turning it into ethanol for use in cars. And 50 percent of US corn is a huge fraction of the global food supply, and resulted in progressively increasing food prices as the amount of ethanol produced increased. So we had these two different reasons for food price increases. One was speculative, non-fundamental and the other one was the fundamental fact that grain was being taken out of the food supply system and into a different context.
So, the food supply, the mortgage market effects in the US affected global food prices, which affected people's ability to feed their families around the world. We were able to see the riots that happened in 2007-08, and so we could of course use that to figure out at what point it would become untenable for people. We sent a paper in to the government saying it was four days before Mohammed Bouzazi [sparked the Arab Spring in Tunisia by lighting himself on fire] warning of the possibility of food riots and political instability.
We’re not really seeing food riots right now, but we are seeing food shortages: Countries are halting their wheat exports, Russian shoppers are fighting over sugar in grocery stores, for example. As a complex systems analyst, what are you keeping an eye on right now as a potential trigger for lingering social unrest?
Russia and Ukraine are suppliers of a large fraction of the global wheat supply. The problem is that food prices were already hot before the war, the invasion of Ukraine. So the increase in food prices already was in a regime that we would consider to be dangerous. We are in a regime of risk that things will break out. There's no doubt that people who are vulnerable to not being able to feed their families—this is going to affect them. And the threshold at which riots happen will be influenced by some of the things and one of them, almost surely, is the pandemic. The pandemic is playing a role in everyone's context. And whether that causes the threshold to go up or down, we would have to analyze.
One of the lessons that we should all learn is that if we don't take responsibility for protecting people from this kind of disruption, you know, their ability to feed their families, then there are very dire consequences that can happen. And as an example, the Arab Spring included what happened in Syria, and in Syria, the result of the disruption there of the social order was many years of huge amounts of loss of life, a refugee crisis, the area was the incubation place for ISIS. And so it's linked to also a huge amount of terrorism around the world. It's really hard to overstate the dramatic consequences of what happens when you have this kind of cascading effect that results in social disruption.
Do you think that sanctions or export bans on food and materials, either punitive or preventative, will affect the risk of lingering social unrest in eastern Europe cascading from the war?
The bottom line with food prices going up now, the way they are —and again, food prices going up because of the food supply from Ukraine is on top of already very high food prices — a fundamental reason in this case for food concerns may also trigger speculative pricing that we may have a combination of things that is quite severe. And, because investors often invest in a basket of commodities, when oil prices go up, food prices also have a tendency to go up because they invest in index funds.
It's a very simple system. Food prices go up, people can’t feed their families. There's a threshold at which riots happen. And people will, under those circumstances, seek food that exists. They'll go into grain stores, or they'll go into supermarkets, and they'll steal food or whatever it is, because they don't have the ability to feel their families and supermarkets or markets or whatever it is. And it's the conflict that that gives rise to that is the launching point for the social disorder. So, that's a very simple dynamic. It's not at all subtle. And, you know, when we analyze food price increases, it makes sense that there are these two different drivers — one is the fundamental driver, which, in this case, is the loss of supply of grain in particular. And the other one is the speculative nature of the commodity markets. And the details of exactly how that's working are not essential for us to understand, because it's the food prices that are the thing that are driving the violence.
Is there anything else that governments can do right now to protect their citizens amid the threat of food insecurity?
Direct subsidy would be the immediate thing to do because you want off the challenge right now. The longer term is we really need to stabilize the markets. The other major thing is the ethanol business should really be fixed. You know, again, people think that this would cause gas prices to increase or something like that, but it's a very minor perturbation on the energy system. But it's a very major disturbance for the food system.