Stephen Pincock in ABC Science:
They warn that unless something is done urgently to address rising food prices, it could trigger more widespread trouble in the near future.
Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute , and colleagues, correlated the dates of riots around the world with data from the United Nations that plots changes in the price of food.
They found evidence that episodes of social unrest in North Africa and the Middle East coincided closely with peaks in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Food Price Index.
Reporting their findings on the pre-press website arXiv.org the researchers say that although the riots reflect many factors such as the long-standing political failings of governments, high food prices provide a tipping point.
“There are indeed many factors that can contribute to unrest,” Bar-Yam explains. “What we see, however, is that these conditions can persist for many years without causing this level of protest, rebellion and revolution …. Then food prices go up to a certain level and social order falls apart.”
Specifically, the researchers found strong statistical evidence that social unrest and rioting occurred when the Food Price Index hit sharp peaks above a figure of 210.
On 13 December last year, the researchers say, they wrote to the US government pointing out the link between global food prices and unrest. Four days later, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in protest at government policies, an event that catalysed social unrest throughout the Middle East.