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The politics of chaos in food crises: food riots in Venezuela

Burning shopping cart on rioting streets

Food riots are usually rooted in other political issues

The world has recently turned its attention to Venezuela, where a struggling economy combined with food shortages has raised tensions, resulting in the emergence of protests and deadly food riots.

The Venezuelan riots arise after months of difficult access to food, and a hunger that sweeps the nation, seeing most Venezuelans eating one meal a day or less, and prompting nutritionists to forecast a generation of shorter citizens suffering from ill-health, resulting from undernutrition.[1]

Casting our gaze back in time, we can see that the current situation in Venezuela reflects many of the common experiences of food-insecure nations that have been subjected to food riots in the past.

Although in 2007 – 2008 the global food crisis was caused by rising oil prices; in Venezuela, it’s the opposite. Declining oil prices are blamed for the unrest, because oil exports are the country’s main income, and without that income, the country can’t import food.

In the aftermath of the riots of the 2007-2008 global economic downturn, scientists in our team at Feeding 9 Billion, a research group at the University of Guelph, turned our attention to the causes. Our research team carefully researched the sociocultural, political, and economic circumstances in Haiti and Cameroon, nations both afflicted by serious, deadly food riots in 2007-2008. One of the things we learned studying these issues is the fact that food prices and hunger do not create the conditions for rioting.  Rather, changes in food prices often are the trigger that exposes deeply seeded political and economic problems in a country and launches people into the street.[2]

This is almost certainly the case in Venezuela today too.

What we can see in the context of Venezuela is a serious vulnerability resulting from the country’s import-dependence. In Venezuela, this reliance on food imports is a factor of strict price controls by the socialist government, which have acted to discourage local production in favour of cheaper imports. Furthermore, the agricultural production that does exist has been hard-hit by a major drought, which has reduced yields significantly. Taken together, Venezuela is facing a critical shortage of food for its citizens.

To deal with this food shortage, President Nicolás Maduro responded with more direct control of food distribution[3]. Early this month, he rolled out a program for distributing price-controlled food products in a move that has some commentators drawing comparisons to rationing in Cuba[4] (though Maduro is clear to characterize this program as short-term, which contrasts to Cuba where government-controlled food rationing has been effective since 1962). It is not so much the increased control over limited food stocks that has incensed Venezuelans; but rather, the way this program is being put into practice. Specifically, socialist party members are charged with the distribution of these foods, while opposition party members criticize the system for “blackmailing people through their stomach”[5] to support the current government. Venezuela’s intense political clashing, failed economic policies, and current food shortages are fully intertwined, and these circumstances manifest in protests and riots on the ground.

In today’s globalized food system, we cannot view these current riots as a factor of food shortages specifically and uniquely. Rather, we need to see that these riots are a symptom of shortages caused by global economic fluxes, national-level policies on agriculture and food procurement, and abnormal weather (exacerbated by El Niño, but set to continue in the context of a changing climate). As we face the challenge of feeding nine billion people on this globe by 2050, food will continue to be the battleground over which the challenges we face in politics, economics, and climatic change will be enacted.

To learn more about food riots, visit the Feeding 9 Billion YouTube channel, where Professor Evan Fraser has created an animated video on this topic.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/24/venezuela-crisis-basic-food-shortages

[2] In their study of recent food riots in Cameroon, Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas found that factors such as people’s perceptions of the fairness of food prices and concerns over profiteering were more important causes of food riots than physical food shortages. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/tunisia/2011-01-30/psychology-food-riots

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/15/venezuelan-city-curfew-mass-looting-cumana

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/20/world/americas/venezuelans-ransack-stores-as-hunger-stalks-crumbling-nation.html?_r=1

[5] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36486246