Rising Cereal Prices and Political Violence in The Croplands of Africa

By David Ubilava, Senior Lecturer of Economics, University of Sydney, Justin V. Hastings, Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of International Relations and Comparative Politics, University of Sydney, and Kadir Atalay Associate Professor in Economics, University of Sydney. Originally published at VoxEU.

We tend to associate rioting and mass protest with cities, but a surge in agricultural commodity prices can incite social unrest in rural areas as well. This column shows that rising cereal prices pose an elevated risk of violence in Africa, where agriculture represents a large share of the economy. The authors find that attacks on civilians increase during the harvest season and dissipate as the year progresses – findings that can help pinpoint, on a yearly basis, when conflicts will worsen and where enhanced food security and civilian protections should be deployed.

Rising food prices hurt poor people around the globe, especially in low- and middle-income countries (Artuk 2022, Chepeliev 2022). And in places where the rule of law is rarely the primary governing principle for negotiations among involved parties, rising food prices can also lead to riots and social unrest (Bellemare 2015, Ubilava 2022).

While protests and riots are typically urban phenomena, a surge in agricultural commodity prices, particularly of cereal grains, can trigger conflict in rural areas as the value of appropriable output increases (McGuirk and Burke 2020). Understanding the peculiarities of agrarian conflict is important in countries where agriculture represents a large share of the economy and employs a considerable share of the population. Most African countries fall in this category.

An important nuance of agriculture is its seasonality: farmers generate income when they harvest and then sell their crops. And the seasonality of agricultural income translates into a seasonality of conflict.

In our new study (Ubilava et al. 2022), we examine 55,000 attacks staged between 1997 and 2020 by different perpetrators, such as state forces, rebel groups, and political and identity militias (ACLED Project, Raleigh et al. 2010), and find that violence against civilians increases during the harvest season and dissipate as the year progresses.1

Seasonal violence in Africa emanates largely from the governments’ own political militias: different factions vie for dominance by attacking their rivals and rivals’ supporters at a time when they are realising their income for the year – during the harvest. Depriving their rivals of that income is a great way to do the most damage, to put their own faction in an advantageous position, and, if their militias steal the harvest, to make money for themselves.

To put the main results of the study into perspective: at a location with ‘average’ cropland, a 35% year-on-year increase in cereal prices – a change comparable to that observed in March and April of 2022 (FAO 2022) – will lead to a 6% increase in violence in the harvest month and the subsequent month relative to the baseline probability of violence in the African croplands. Figure 1 illustrates this.

Figure 1 The seasonal effect of cereal prices shocks on political violence

To the extent that different cereals are grown in different parts of Africa, and because harvest seasons vary across locations (Sachs et al. 2010), there may be varying hot spots across the continent as the calendar year progresses. Figure 2 summarises the harvest seasons of major cereal grains (namely of maize, rice, sorghum, and wheat) across Africa. A year-on-year increase in the global prices of these cereal grains during boreal spring can have very different geographical repercussions than a similar price increase during boreal autumn, for example.

Figure 2 Harvest season of major cereals grown across Africa

The key finding of the study, which identifies a crucial temporal nuance in the income–conflict nexus, helps pinpoint, on a yearly basis, when conflicts are going to get worse: harvest time is when the money for many people in developing countries comes in, but also the moment of greatest risk. Moreover, as pro-government militias appear to be the most likely perpetrator, aid to countries may be better directed at governments that have clamped down on factional fighting.

In summary, soaring global commodity prices of cereal grains increase the risk of conflict not only in urban areas but also in rural areas of low- and middle-income countries. Thus, in addition to vigilance in urban areas that are prone to social unrest, there may also be a need to enhance food security or protect civilians in agricultural areas during harvest seasons as a means of protecting the food supply.

References available at the original.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. jinn

    They seem to be suggesting that high grain prices are bad for African economies in general and rural Africans in particular.
    The logic is as follows. High cereal prices make these Africans more affluent and greater affluence causes a greater risk of somebody else trying to steal from them. The data they present in support of this assertion is that in the last 25 years Africa has had about 190 incidents of rural violence per month which increases to around 200 in the months after harvest.

    “This column shows that rising cereal prices pose an elevated risk of violence in Africa, where agriculture represents a large share of the economy. ”
    What about the benefits to the an economy when farmers can make a living from their production?
    What about the decades of the West flooding 3rd world agricultural economies with cheap cereal grains such that tens of millions of 3rd world farmers have been forced to abandon their livilihood and end up in 3rd world urban slums?
    There would be a lot more rural Africans benefiting from the current high grain prices had there not been the preceding 50 years of post-colonial unfair competition from the West.

  2. Joe Well

    This made me think of the avocado wars in Mexico, a relatively highly developed OECD member. The new normal has a lot of conflict in store for a lot of places.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      A lot of the avocado “wars” are aggression and extortion by the various Mexican-government -permitted-and-encouraged cartels. If the Indian and near-Indian base of Mexican society were to have another “Revolution of 1910” by which they could actually gain the physical power to exterminate every leader and cadre of the cartels and every Mexican government/police person who is cartel supportive or cartel-adjacent, the cartel problem would be solved.

      I suspect the “cartels” are really just a modern expression of the Spanish conquistador anti-culture people who conquered Indian Mexico to begin with and have occupied it unto this very day.

  3. Daniel Raphael

    Systemic violence, organized to minimize/destroy rivals while gathering to oneself whatever sources of wealth & power are available, is the core function and value of capitalism. It isn’t just US troops showing up in Somalia to “do business” with those who annoy its current cutout in a particular marketplace–the same process is undertaken by other major capitalist powers. The same process occusr within the home marketplace, as US citizens, e.g., experience increased frequency and scope of shortages and empty shelves.

    It’s worth mentioning that all this will accelerate and the crisis deepen because of the framing, underlying process of climate degradation. Food to eat is becoming scarcer, water to drink ditto, “security” in any form a chimera. This isn’t fiction, and it isn’t exaggeration. Alas, if only it were.

  4. Cat Burglar

    “…as pro-government militias appear to be the most likely perpetrator, aid to countries may be better directed at governments that have clamped own on factional fighting.”

    So a state that has demonstrated a monopoly on violence by putting down competitors could be a better aid target, because it can steal in peace. How would support for such a government advance development goals of western aid policy?

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I assume your question is literal and not sarcastic or rhetorical. I assume that because the Western AidGivers give their aid to exactly that sort of governments. And they do have a reason for doing so.
      So indeed, the question is . . . . just exactly what is the goal? Because they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t have a goal which is advanced by doing it.

      I remember back around 1980 or so, seeing a story in the Wall Street Journal about how the Tarahumara Indians had traditionally been left alone by the Mexican drug cartels of their day. But when Mexico rammed some roads into Tarahumara country with World Bank loans, the cartels followed the roads and drove out all the Tarahumara villagers within reach of a road to take over their land for growing cartel drugs. Since that is actually exACTly the outcome the World Bank and the Mexican Drug Cartel Government WANTed right from the start, of COURSE the World Bank loaned Mexico even more money to drive even more roads even deeper into Tarahumara country.

  5. lance ringquist

    not one word about free trade and cash crops.

    “The game of Darwinian economics and the enshrinement of market-miracle
    theology is really the systematic looting of the pockets and purses of
    the middle class”
    Jerry M. Landay of Bristol

    if you read the article, and have at least one functioning brain cell, you will see the fraud that is called free trade, its simply destroying sovereignty, for the purpose of looting.


    Ending Famine in malawi

    the destructiveness of free trade, it breeds cash crops, lincoln understood this well; it reinforces what we’ve all discussed: The post-NAFTA crapifcaiton of clothing; “free trade is simply the absence of democratic control, it allows corporation to roam the globe at will, seeking the cheapest most exploited labor, lack of environmental enforced regulations, all in a tax free environment.”


    Many of us have been saying for a long time that unchecked, liberalised global trade is a disaster waiting to happen. No one listened. Now it’s happened.”


    “Keeping Clothes Out of the Garbage” [Anthropocene]. “The industry, driven by fast fashion, has steadily become one of the most serious polluters in the world. Clothing manufacture was never exactly tidy, what with toxic dyes, copious amounts of water needed for growing fiber and processing fabrics, and waste from factories. But in 2015, carbon emissions from clothes surpassed those emitted from all international flights and all maritime shipping combined.

    Cotton, for example, uses more pesticides than any other crop—and organic cotton takes up more land and much more water than conventionally grown cotton. At the same time, clothes are worn for less time than they ever have been previously.” • This is a very good summary, and it reinforces what we’ve all discussed: The post-NAFTA crapifcaiton of clothing.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If foreign cotton and foreign clothing were legally banned from entering America, then American farmers could grow cotton in America again for American clothing makers to make clothing in America again. America has enough land in high-rainfall areas that the “more” land and “more” water taken by organic cotton ( which was the only cotton there was right up till the Civil War) that organic cotton would not be an issue in America.

      And a ban on alien cotton from places where either pesticides or ” more land” or “more water” is an issue will make those things not-an-issue in those places from which the alien cotton would not be allowed to enter any more.

      But we can’t ban foreign cotton and clothing until we abolish Free Trade. If we don’t abolish Free Trade, there is precisely zero we can do about the ” Fast Fashion” and “more land and water” or “more pesticides” problem or any other problem with alien cotton.

      1. JBird4049

        Tariffs, which are a way of protecting American farms and businesses, need to be used just as they were for about two centuries. It is the reason why we had all those industries including the cotton mills. Interesting how “the American System,” which created the American economy over two centuries was dumped along with Bretton Woods when the average American was getting prosperous and powerful. Those pesky unions just had to go.

        Unfortunately, the combined Democratic-Republican-Big Money system has to be overthrown. A bit of a project.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          If it can’t be overthrown, perhaps it can be undermined. Or at least undermined to the point of being weakened enough to where it can then be overthrown.

          One possible step in that direction might be the formation of a Protectionist Party. ( I don’t know if one can do too many things at once. Could one create a Legal Abortion and Protectionism Party)?

  6. Dave in Austin

    Read these numbers carefully. The variation for these attacks is only plus-or-minus 4%, not really large in the grand scheme of militia-warlord based taxing systems. Much or the “Arab Spring” in places like Tunisia and eastern Syria was caused by bad harvests which drove up prices and turned into protests. War and and food shortages are often related

    The data base being usedhere (https://acleddata.com/#/dashboard) looks like an absolute goldmine of information on all sorts of conflicts. If you are a data miner, this is worth looking at.

  7. David

    It’s hard to know where to start. I don’t know what the database is, but if it includes violence by state forces, rebel groups, and political and identity militias”, and has 55,000 incidents over 25 years, throughout a continent as vast as Africa, where many countries experience few of these attacks and some experience large numbers, where (I strongly suspect) large, small and intermediate-scale incidents are all lumped together, where many of these incidents will be disputed or unverified, where countries with subsistence farming are not distinguished from those with agriculture based around domestic consumption or those producing cash crops for export, and all you can find is a six per cent difference … then the authors would be better employed doing something else. Shouldn’t economists be obliged to get a licence before writing about things they don’t understand?

    1. Greg

      The database is ACLED, https://acleddata.com/ with original paper here https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022343310378914

      Judging purely by the references, which are almost entirely western stuff about Ukraine from 2022, this is a rushed out correlation-as-paper to capitalise on current events.

      I’m sure more knowledgable people could tear into the NGO curating the data, but I don’t know enough to do that. The founders and funders imply, at least to me, that they’re going to have a certain view on things.

      ACLED is a registered non-profit organization with 501(c)(3) status in the United States. ACLED receives financial support from the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the United States Department of State, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the German Federal Foreign Office, the Tableau Foundation, the International Organization for Migration, and The University of Texas at Austin.

      ACLED’s coverage of the United States began as part of the US Crisis Monitor, a special project made possible through support from the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Since the economists’ real mission is to spread disunderstanding to all who read what they write, and to spread pro-upper-class agnatology on every subject they pollute with their presence, no . . . . they will not be obliged to get a “license”. Unless one considers their university credential to BE their license. In which case one faces the fact that they are actually doing exactly what they are deliberately licensed on purpose to do.

    3. lance ringquist

      paul krugman barked and brayed the glories of free trade for decades, and smeared those who were against it as uncivilized, then one day he said if he had only known that free trade did not work.

      you can’t make this stuff up.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Paul Krugman was auditioning for fame and fortune. He knew what Free Trade would do. So did Bill Clinton. They both just wanted a rich reward from the Free Trade Class if that class’s minions like Krugman and Clinton could get Free Trade achieved.

        In my spiteful opinion.

  8. Sardaukar

    What a day, when you pause to consider this model for distribution 😳 Of course, this is how it plays out at the macro; only, many of us are several degrees removed from the action, due to our hard work and perseverance.

  9. Dave in Austin

    On Monday RAND Corp. released a report on the “Defend Taiwan” problem:
    “Implications of a Coercive Quarantine of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China”
    https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1279-1.html Definitely worth a read.

    The Ukraine War seems to have dropped off the front pages, but here are two comments:

    First, the whole “Severodonetsk Cauldron” story seems a bit off. A week ago the Russians advanced to within 15 km of closing the gap and isolating the 10-20,000-man pocket. The last paved road out is now blocked by artillery fire but the Russian advance seem to have stopped. There is no heavy fighting to close the gap. The Ukrainian say there are still 15,000 of the original 125,000 civilians left in the city of Severodonetsks. According to the Ukrainians, four of them were killed yesterday by artillery, a remarkably small number for the number of shells being fired. Two days ago the Russians knocked down the last bridge the Ukrainians could use to evacuate heavy equipment from the city. Pictures of the fallen bridge show a piece of military equipment on top of the wreckage. Did the Russians intentionally destroy the bridge or did they do it inadvertently while aiming at the equipment? The Ukrainians do not want to lose the soldiers. The gap is largely open fields and soldiers can, in theory, walk out. NATO can replace the equipment. The Russians now appear to have a limited war aim of occupying the entire Oblasts (administrative regions) of Donersk and Luhansk, to “protect the victims”, the war aims they originally stated.

    Is there some sort of quiet agreement between the Russians and Ukrainians designed to keep city from becoming another Melitopol and let the Ukrainian soldiers go? I can’t tell. But the last few day’s moves on the ground make me wonder.

    This reminds me a bit of Azovstal, which also appears in retrospect to have been theater. The Ukrainians were surrounded and didn’t want to die so they went underground… for weeks. There were a few wounded (75 of the 3,000, 50+ “women fighters” (mobilized border guards) and about 250 civilians (mostly plant workers plus the wives and girlfriends of the defenders). There seems to have been a tacit cease fire- the 3,500 Ukrainians could easily have done night-time raids and fired mortars and rockets into the city; they didn’t. The Donetsk people and the Russians could easily have poured 50 gallons of gasoline in from the top, let it evaporate and lit a match (which was done by both the Germans and Russians in WWII). They didn’t. The claim that “We surrendered to save the wounded” is nonsense; the Russians would have happily taken the wounded and sent them off to hospitals.

    During WWII and in French Indochina, surrounded garrisons began to individually and in small groups “check out”, stop fighting and hide. The attackers, based on the small number fighting against them, always underestimated how many people were hiding in the rubble. When the final surrenders came and people gave up, the number of POWs was often 2-3 times the number expected. Examples are Bataan (The Japanese expected 5,000 and got more than 20,000) Stalingrad (when Paulus gave up more than 57,000 crawled out of the wreckage), and Dien Bien Phu (the Vietnamese expected 5,000 or so and got 12,000). In cases like Baa tan and Dien Bien Phu the defenders had been on half-rations for months and were run down, which led to the death of many of the captives at the hands of the overwhelmed victors.

    On the other hand the Azovstal defenders looked plump, well-fed and none of them had that “two thousand yard stare” that real extended combat produces (look up the famous painting of that name by Tom Lea). The surrender looked more like Yorktown in 1789 than Bataan in 1942. Sometimes behind the terrible headlines we discover fairly civilized people.

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