Statement By WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran On The Role Of Food In Civil Unrest Across The Middle East

Published on 04 February 2011

The events unfolding across the Middle East these past few weeks serve as a warning to us all about the important role that food security plays in calming public anger and bolstering stability.

Across the region, we have seen civil protests driven by a complex array of different factors, but all sharing one thing in common – growing anxiety about rising food prices and concern about access to food.  

In many of the protests, demonstrators have brandished loaves of bread or displayed banners expressing anger about the rising cost of food staples such as lentils.  These are the nutritional building blocks of life, and if people feel that rising prices are pushing these food items out of reach, growing anxiety adds to the general feeling of exclusion, resentment and despair.

The protests and disturbances in the Middle East coincide with another period of rising global food prices.  The UN Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index in January reached a new historic peak, rising for the seventh consecutive month and surpassing the peak of the 2007-2008 food price crisis.

This upward pressure adds further stress to the carefully calibrated systems in place to bring enough food into countries to feed hungry populations, and provide the subsidies that ensure it is sold at prices that are accessible to the poor and the vulnerable.

We are entering an era of food volatility and disruptions in supplies. This is a very serious business for the world.  We think that we are in an era where we have to be very serious about food supply.

We are encouraged to know that these issues will be firmly on the agenda of the G20 meetings this year, along with ways to address possible reactions such as export bans, which should not be allowed to impact humanitarian work, and the importance of  establishing food reserves close to potentially food-insecure areas.

When it comes to food, the margins between stability and chaos are perilously thin.  It is still too early to quantify the role that rising food prices are playing in the current wave of discontent, but we know that during the high food price crisis in 2008, food prices were a factor in causing riots and anti-government protests. Volatility on the markets can translate quickly to volatility on the streets and we all should remain vigilant.