Food Security Hits Home

For my second field paper at UCLA, I’ve been working on a project investigating correlations between food insecurity and various kinds of political instability. This subject received renewed attention from political scientists and development economists after the global Food Price Crisis of 2007-8, where prices for the four major staple grains (wheat, corn, rice and soybeans) jumped 200-300% in months.

It got another big shot in the arm when food prices went even higher in 2010-11 and the Arab Spring revolutions broke out contemporaneously. There were many anecdotal suggestions that high food prices contributed to regime-toppling unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere. A new wave of academic research has discovered some empirical truth in the claim, although there is disagreement as to whether high prices, price volatility or both are causing the instability, and no detailed mechanisms have been identified.

Do high food prices cause regime change? How about food price volatility? If so, can food insecurity collapse a regime all by itself, or do other factors (such as poor growth) need to be present as well? Are there systematic differences in how food insecurity works in democracies and autocracies? How about wealthy countries and poor ones? These are the questions I’m looking at.

Out of all of those topics, the last one is probably the least controversial. The assumption has been that political instability caused by food insecurity is basically confined to the developing world, and is especially prevalent in extremely poor countries that are also net food importers (designated Low Income Food Deficit Countries).

We don’t need to do a fancy large-N study to understand that food insecurity is a big problem in Africa and some parts of Asia, where food costs account for 50% or more of household budgets. All we need to do is take a look at what’s happening in Somalia right now, where corrosive political effects of serious food insecurity are on full display. Even the Al Shabaab Islamist militant group–an epitome of the homegrown militia that is supposed to flourish in failed states–appears to be splitting apart under the economic and human pressures imposed by the famine.

The Somali Famine of 2011

When it comes to wealthy countries like the United States, however, where food costs amount to 10-15% of household budgets, food insecurity as such isn’t supposed to be a big deal. Although it may have some impact at the margins–maybe affecting our choice of grocery store, or how often we go out to eat–we don’t have crowds of hungry people in the streets screaming for bread, let alone millions of starving people in the countryside, and we probably never will.

That’s something to be thankful for. But we should start worrying about food insecurity and its political ramifications nonetheless. Food insecurity has arrived in the developed world in style, and its insidious effects, while still subtle, are starting to make themselves known.

A new study out of the University of Washington finds that healthy food is significantly more expensive than unhealthy food. This is not surprising. The more alarming result is that a healthy diet–even as defined by the US Department of Health, which is hardly a paragon of nutrition science–is simply no longer affordable for many Americans.

According to the study, hitting the government’s daily recommended allowance for potassium adds an average of $380 to the average consumer’s food costs. That’s another $32 a month per person per year for a single nutrient; when you start looking at other important nutrients as well, and buying for a family instead of an individual, costs rise considerably from there.

What do you do if you can’t afford good food? Simple enough–you eat bad food. The study also finds that a 1% increase in saturated fat and sugar consumption on the part of a consumer will lead to a significant decline in his or her food budget. If there is little to no margin for error, you are going to go for those cheap, tasty calories.

Here’s what the findings boil down to: wealthy people eat freshly grown meats, fruits and vegetables purchased at Whole Foods; poor people eat petrochemicals via the industrial corn food chain, which spits out processed, preserved and fast foods.

So even if poor people don’t starve in the U.S., they sure as heck suffer from obesity at radically higher rates. Obese people may not appear to be hungry, but in fact, obesity is often a manifestation of starvation–only for nutrients, not calories.

The health effects aren’t as immediate, but they are deadly nonetheless, and although the social and political costs are defrayed, they do come due eventually. By one estimate, the obesity epidemic has added $174 billion to our national health care costs. Obviously, the political debate about how to address such costs is only beginning.

Obese American Children

Diffuse economic pressures like these ratchet up over time, and as they do, they lower the standard of living. This in turn can produce demands for redistribution and widespread frustration with the political process. It can most certainly lead to political instability in the long term, particularly if the impact on well-being is differential by income, ethnicity, or geography. We may be witnessing the incipient stages of that process.

Food insecurity in the U.S. doesn’t look like food insecurity in Somalia, but I would argue it is quite serious nonetheless.