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Soaring food prices could trigger mass unrest

A Libyan protester during the Arab Spring in 2011. Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty

Man does not live by bread alone. Nonetheless, says The Economist, “its scarcity makes people furious”. The last time food prices spiked as badly as they have today, back in late 2010, it kicked off the Arab Spring uprisings that ousted four presidents and sparked horrific civil wars in Syria and Libya. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has upended the global markets for both grain and energy, creating “the most excruciating form of inflation”. Historically, soaring food and fuel prices have been strong indicators of “mass protests, riots and political violence”.

The big problem is that governments are already massively indebted and short of cash after Covid. The IMF says 41 countries are in “debt distress” or at high risk of it. Sri Lanka has defaulted on its loans and “melted down”: hungry mobs have set fire to vehicles and invaded government buildings. Riots have erupted in Peru over living standards. Pakistan is urging citizens to “drink less tea” to save money. Colombians have elected a “left-wing radical” as president. The greatest risk of mob violence is in badly run countries that depend on food and fuel imports, and have large groups of unemployed young men. Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia are all tinderboxes. Bodies like the IMF must tread carefully – bailing out “woeful” governments doesn’t help anyone. But they need to act swiftly. The longer this anger is allowed to fester, “the more likely it is to explode”.