Cullen Hendrix on Food Prices and Politics



After peaking in 2012-13, the FAO food and cereal price indices have fallen fairly steadily. As seen in the figure below, North Korea appears to have benefited from this change in world market prices as food prices have stabilized. But if the won were to depreciate or food prices to trend back up, importers such as North Korea are particularly vulnerable.


Cullen Hendrix has written a useful piece for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations entitled When Hunger Strikes: How Food Security Abroad Matters for National Security at Home (.pdf here). Surveying existing research (including some of our own) and new data from the World Bank Food Price Crisis Observatory, he notes the aggregate relationship between food price increases, protests and even insurgency. He notes that regime type matters: that protests are more likely in democratic than autocratic countries. But he also argues that “when such protests do arise in autocratic nations, however, they are likely to be highly destabilizing” citing as examples Egypt, Libya, and Syria and a list of 12 African countries that are particularly vulnerable to the food insecurity-political insecurity nexus.

The essay closes with a number of policy implications for both the US and importers, such as developing strategic grain reserves in key regions, facilitating commodity hedging, and changing both agricultural and food subsidy policies. A question for Hendrix is whether food-related protests are necessarily a bad thing if they force governments toward greater accountability or policy changes. In North Korea, the food-political instability link is most likely to emerge around the periodic efforts of the regime to control markets in which traders make a living; such markets are most vulnerable to the regime’s control efforts if prices—in either dollars or won—were to trend up.

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