Start main page content

The fight in food prices

- Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi

New research due this year show link between relative increase in food and beer prices with levels of crime and violent behaviour.

To say that South Africa is a country with high levels of violence is not new – the crime statistics shock us every year. It’s to be expected that our divided past would affect us but the reasons behind the nature of our society today are deeper than trans-generational trauma. 

While the causes of violence and the links between poverty and mental illness have been researched globally, and to an extent locally, a new paper has found that relative increases in food and beer prices can be linked to crime levels and violent behaviour in South Africa. 

Authored by Dr Gareth Roberts, Professor Tendai Gwatidzo and Dr Dambala Kutela in the Department of Economics, School of Economic and Business Sciences at Wits, the paper, The Effects of the Price of Food and Beer on Crime in South Africa is due to be published early in 2019. 

The researchers looked at the South African Police Service’s crime statistics in every province for each month between January 2008 and March 2012. They combined those with data released by Statistics South Africa of the consumer price indices of different goods and service categories in these provinces. This allowed them to estimate the impact of food and beer prices on crime. However, methodological constraints make it difficult to determine in which provinces the impact was the highest. 

“We can show the correlation between food prices and crime in different provinces – but correlation is not causation. What we try to do in the paper is identify the causal effect and to do that, we have to exploit differences in these prices in different provinces at different times,” says Roberts. 

While Roberts acknowledges that it is difficult to identify causality in applied microeconomics, a key finding from the study is that a relative increase of food prices leads to an increase in certain types of crime. Conversely, an increase in the relative price of beer resulted in a decrease in some crimes.

A relative increase in food prices leads to an increase in certain types of crime. © Lauren Mulligan | 

Increased theft when food prices rise, crimes of a sexual nature down when beer price goes up 

“We show that an increase in the relative price of food leads to an increase in many types of violent crime and theft, while an increase in the price of beer generally does the opposite, including for crimes of a sexual nature. This tells us that there is a socioeconomic component to the high level of crime in South Africa. It also tells us that the availability of alcohol plays a role,” says Roberts. 

However, it’s almost impossible to know exactly why the increase in beer prices leads to a decrease in the numbers of crimes of sexual violence. 

“One possible explanation is that the consumption of alcohol is sometimes associated with aggression and with people not being as alert as they normally would be. If the price of beer goes up and a person has one less beer, this may reduce their chances of becoming more aggressive, or of being less alert,” says Roberts. 

The research also touches on the topic of hunger. The authors hypothesise that a possible explanation for rising food prices and corresponding increased levels of theft is that hungry poor people may have to steal to feed themselves. 

“In the case of beer, we suspect that a relative increase in the price of beer reduces consumption at the margin – that is, consumers now have only one beer instead of two and are less likely to become aggressive and less likely to be exposed to theft. That said, this is only an overall net effect – it’s possible people could steal to afford beer.” 

The study may have implications for policy, as it’s possible that the VAT zero rating on certain items of food, and sin taxes, reduce crime. Policy-makers should also plan for a possible spike in crime when food prices increase. 

“This may happen if domestic production of food becomes constrained in some way. However, it’s difficult to generalise beyond the main findings at this stage,” says Roberts. 

  • Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi is a freelance journalist.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the sixth issue, themed: #HungerGames where our researchers and academics unpack the latest research on food security, food science, food politics and governance, nutrition and food-related issues such as obesity, diets, breastfeeding, and body image.