During the global food crisis of 2007 and 2008, the price of wheat and rice nearly doubled, triggering riots and social unrest in countries as far flung as Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Mexico, Nepal and Yemen. Caused by a combination of rising oil prices, a greater demand for biofuels, trade shocks in the food market and bad weather, according to an assessment by the European Commission, the crisis offered a glimpse into a possible global future where a growing population responds to hunger with violence in the streets.
Many experts recommend scientific advancements and better systems for producing and distributing food in the face of climate change as solutions, but this may be the easy part of preventing this anarchic future. In the long history of food riots — including, most famously, the French Revolution, when bad harvests fanned the flames of political upheaval — perceptions of unfairness and injustice have been key factors driving rioting. Addressing these perceptions and what causes them is a far more complex challenge than increasing food production.
“Doing interviews with people in Cameroon about the food riots there, what I heard was that they were caused because ‘the merchants were cutthroat business guys who didn’t give a damn about anything.’ This is a subtly different argument than saying that hunger and desperation caused the riots,” says Evan Fraser, professor of geography and Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Guelph. Fraser is also author of the 2010 book Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, and part of the team behind the food-security website Feeding 9 Billion. Fraser became interested in issues around food as a boy growing up on farmland in Ontario’s Niagara region.
When starvation becomes deprivation
According to Fraser, many poor people on the planet who lack food suffer in silence because they can’t identify anyone they can blame. “It’s the people who may be better off, living in a city where the infrastructure doesn’t work, where they don’t have jobs and where they perceive the political or economic elite are profiting from their discomfort or their deprivation — those are the people who go into the streets when a food crisis comes along,” says Fraser. “If you want to stop this from happening, it’s far more complicated than increasing production or opening the taps of international trade.”
The United Nations has found there is currently an ample 2,850 dietary calories available per day for every man, woman and child on the planet. There are almost two billion overweight or obese people and about 800 million undernourished people globally. Meanwhile, we waste about one-third of the food we produce. While climate change, degradation of agricultural land, water scarcity and a growing population will certainly put pressure on supply over the coming decades, inequality and waste are also driving the crisis.
Moving away from 20th-century practices
“We need to do whatever we can do at the technological end to create agri-food systems that make better use of our resources, so we produce more crops with what we have in terms of inputs like fertilizer and water,” says Fraser. That’s a big shift from the recent past, when the incentives for food and farming were about boosting production and not paying attention to things like disease resistance, drug resistance or things that promote resiliency.
“Slowly rising food prices may not be a terrible thing if you use that time in a respectful and methodical way to put in supports for lower income people”
Beyond technological innovation, how governments and businesses respond to changing prices and food shortages will be crucial for preventing future riots. Transparency, fairness and a focus on justice might prevent people from casting leaders as villains. Speed of change is also important. Gradual price increases, rather than shockingly fast ones, allow people to adapt their eating habits and make them feel less like an elite is forcing change upon them.
“Volatile food prices are horrendously damaging to societies,” says Fraser. “Slowly rising food prices may not be a terrible thing if you use that time in a respectful and methodical way to put in supports for lower income people.”
Some countries took stock from the last food crisis. India and China, for example, have built up their reserves of rice to reduce the shock of wild price fluctuations. Indeed, global food reserves have increased, helping drive down international food prices to their lowest level since 2011. (Canada is an exception, as prices here have been affected by both the low dollar and the drought in California that produces many of our fruits and vegetables.)
But preventing food riots in the future will require smart policies over the next 50 years. “Whatever mechanisms we can adopt to create a more level playing field and a more equitable distribution of resources, is going to enhance our resilience,” says Fraser.