2010 was a rough year for the global food system; droughts and wildfires consumed about 25% of Russia’s wheat harvest and the Kremlin halted exports to international markets. Food prices skyrocketed, and the countries of the Middle East, which regularly bought this Russian wheat, were hardest hit.
Within months, food riots had spread across the Arab world and the food price crisis of late 2010 is now seen as the beginning of the Arab Spring - the toppling of Arab governments that unfolded in 2011.
Experts watched these events in horror and many of us have wondered if this was the tip of the iceberg: if food prices remain
high and volatile over the next generation, are the food riots of a few years ago a sign of things to come?
Many think so. One newspaper article I read quoted Bob Marley’s song: “a hungry man is an angry man.” In another: “Nothing sends a person into the street quite like an empty stomach.” Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund, said: “as we know … questions [about food security] sometimes end in war.”
And as a result, a great many experts argued that thanks to population growth we will need to produce a lot more food if we want to keep prices low and prevent more rioting.
But while assuming a connection between food shortages, rising food prices, hunger and violence seems logical, on closer inspection things become less clear. For instance, the places in the world where people are hungriest are not necessarily where the food riots happened.
Similarly, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the world’s food supply stayed both stable and comfortably ahead of demand - in the early 1990s we had about 2600 kcal per person per day on the planet; by the year 2010 there were about 2850 kcal per person per day.
All this suggests that those links between food shortages, rising food prices, hunger and violence are much more complicated, and simply producing more food won’t mean there is any less violence.
To explore this issue in more detail I’ve worked with a small team on the social and political consequences of food price rises. I began by interviewing people from Cameroon about the causes of the 2008 food riots.
I expected to hear the people were hungry and hungry people were desperate but instead what I heard was different.
One respondent told me that the riots were caused when “a group of merchants took advantage of everyone … [The merchants are] cutthroat business guys who don’t give a damn about people.”
What struck me as interesting about this comment is that the speaker was not linking desperation and riots but rather was saying that the riots were caused by moral outrage and anger.
To follow up on this, our team conducted extensive interviews in both Haiti and Cameron, both countries that experienced bad riots in 2008. And in both countries we saw a number of similarities.
For instance, in both places corruption, poverty, urban unemployment, globalization and political marginalization were key factors that led people to riot over food prices. Not food shortages.
These results are important because the sorts of policies that the experts often believe will stop food riots normally focus on promoting high-quality seeds and other modern agricultural tools to boost production. But the poor cannot afford these. So promoting these of tools may displace poor people from their land, forcing them to migrate to cities where they become the urban poor – disenfranchised and alienated from the economic system – and likely to riot.
We also observed that food price rises can be used as a political tool to bring down entrenched and powerful governments. And we saw evidence that political opponents organized food protests even when there was actually enough food.
Does this mean we don’t need to promote agricultural productivity? I don’t think so. Indeed, as we face world of 9 billion people and climate change we are going to need to produce all the food we can.
But the policies that lead to greater agricultural production must be seen in a different light to policies geared at reducing food riots. If policymakers in the future want to avoid a repeat of food riots then they need to address unemployment, urban poverty and political reform. But this is a separate activity from policies to increase food production that could focus on seeds, fertilizer and equipment.
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Evan Fraser is a Professor of Geography and holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Guelph in Canada and is the author of Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. Funding for this project came from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.