The Dangers From Rising Food Prices

Costlier commodities could trigger unrest in poor countries and may curtail food aid to refugees.

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In Mexico City, hundreds of corn producers protest against the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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Food is not normally on anyone's Top 10 list for national security concern. But U.S. intelligence agencies are watching global food prices—and their precipitous rise—very carefully.

In his annual threat assessment to Congress, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell notes that wheat prices have shot up 60 percent in 2007 alone, while the prices of some key commodities, like vegetable oil, are at near-record levels.

The reasons for the higher prices are relatively obvious: rising energy costs, weak harvests, and very high demand. But the national security connection comes in when intelligence analysts look at what these high prices can foment. "The double impact of high energy and food prices is increasing the risk of social and political instability in vulnerable countries," McConnell warns in his report to Congress. As examples, he cites recent corn protests in Mexico and bread riots in Morocco.

The cost of food could also threaten several governments facing elections this year, particularly in Pakistan where food prices are becoming an urgent issue for voters. In other key countries that the CIA watches closely, like Russia, China, India, and Vietnam, governments are starting to take drastic measures to safeguard food supplies, such as banning food exports or boosting production subsidies, that can have broader regional or economic effects.

Another key problem: Aid agencies are struggling to afford the amount of food aid required by vulnerable populations. On top of the high commodity prices, they also face steeper transportation costs (again, because oil is so expensive). "For example, the [United Nations] World Food Program's food costs have increased by more than 50 percent over the past five years and are projected to grow another 35 percent by the end of the decade," McConnell says. This could make it even more difficult for aid agencies to serve refugee populations in the coming year.