Over the past fortnight another corporate conglomerate has bid to replace the evil empire Monsanto as the most problematic business within the global food industry. It has emerged that the Swiss-based Glencore, a commodity trader specialising in energy and food which was listed publicly for the first time this week, was partly responsible for causing the hike in food prices at the end of last year when it became clear that Russia’s grain crop would be badly damaged by catastrophic fires. Raj Patel explains:
Glencore has now revealed its traders placed bets that the price of wheat would go up. On 2 August Glencore’s head of Russian grain trading called on Russia’s government to ban wheat exports. Three days later, that’s what it did. The price of wheat went up by 15% in two days. Of course, just because a senior executive at one of the world’s most powerful companies suggested a course of action that a country chose to follow doesn’t mean Glencore made it happen. But happen it did, and the consequences rippled round the world.
At the time, Mozambique experienced a massive uprising in response to increased food and fuel prices. Protests were organised via text messages and, in actions that foreshadowed those of governments in the Arab spring, the Mozambican state responded by shutting down text capability for pre-paid phones and sweeping up hundreds of protesters. Over a dozen people died, many were injured, and millions of dollars of damage was caused. It’s safe to say that tens of thousands were pushed further towards hunger as a result of the higher wheat prices.
Six months later, the Arab world exploded. The riots which began the insurrection in Tunisia were partly in response to high food prices. In Egypt, the government increased spending on wheat to compensate for a fifty percent hike in the cost of imported grain and cereals – even so, the price of bread rose by a quarter in Cairo’s private markets. In Libya, expensive and scarce food has fuelled the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. Even the World Bank has woken up to the connection between food prices and political unrest, and warned that unstable regimes in North Africa and the Middle East were seriously undermined by discontent over the price of staples, like bread and pulses.
This association of high food prices and revolution isn’t anything new, as this graph posted by Paul Mason on his blog, shows:
Bread Prices, 1848 and 2011
What this graphic demonstrates is the extent to which political instability and the cost of food, and bread especially, are connected. This is particularly interesting because the graph links the Springtime of the Peoples, the ‘failed’ revolutions of 1848, with this year’s Arab Spring. In 1848, only four countries were immune to the revolution which swept Europe: Russia and Poland, and Britain and Belgium. The first two had small middle classes – the group largely responsible for the upheaval in the rest of Europe – and very efficient means of controlling and monitoring dissent. The second two had strong, flexible constitutional governments which could implement change and respond effectively to demands for reform.
High food prices are not, then, the main cause of revolutions, but it is telling that Britain could feed her population for less than did other nations in Europe in 1848. With the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846 and improvements in technology which allowed commodities to be shipped around the world more quickly, grain prices remained low in Britain throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.
I think that it’s best to think about food protests as catalysts for revolutions: they cause people who would not normally take to the streets – women in particular – to become involved in anti-government demonstrations. Protesting about food prices or shortages is not an especially politically partisan activity. Food protests demand simply that the state successfully distribute food and regulate prices – that it, in other words, fulfil one of its most basic obligations to its citizens.
As the Nobel prize-winning economist and all-round good egg Amartya Sen argued in his classic Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), food shortages and famines tend to occur not when there isn’t enough food to go around, but, rather, when it isn’t distributed effectively. This happens when systems of exchange – a labourer works in exchange for money which she can exchange for food – break down or change radically. Writing in 1976, Sen explained:
A recent example was the 1974 famine in Bangladesh. The flood that destroyed the crop did reduce the availability of food, but the sharp decline in employment and the failure of exchange entitlement of labour was immediate, and the famine was made severe by that.
The European potato crop failed in the mid-1840s because of an infection of Phytophthora infestans, but it was only in Ireland that this caused widespread and devastating famine. In 1845, at least a third of the Irish population ate only potatoes. When the blight destroyed the year’s supply of potatoes there seemed to be nothing else to eat. Why? After all, not all Irish people were dependent on potatoes in the mid-nineteenth century: about half ate grains as well. A century and a half previously, all the Irish ate a considerably more varied diet. The difference was that the system of assizes – rules originating during the medieval period which governed the weight, quality, and distribution of bread – were repealed in 1838, allowing the price of bread the rise according to market forces. This meant that the Irish who were starving in 1845, and these were, overwhelmingly, the poorest proportion of the population, weren’t able to buy bread – of which there was enough to feed everyone.
Famines are caused by bad harvests, but they are also the product of dysfunctional systems of trade and distribution. It’s little wonder that they should cause revolutions: they demonstrate very clearly when governments are no longer able to respond to the needs of populations. In France, the Flour War erupted in 1775 after the introduction of laissez-faire economic policies caused the ancient guild system to go into a terminal decline: the groups of merchants who had once controlled the pricing and trade of grain and flour in France were no longer responsible for doing so, and bread prices rocketed. The widespread violence – caused frequently by women – forced Louis XVI to fire Jacques Turgot, his controller general.
This was a prime example of the state’s inability to feed and care for its subjects. The War was also partly responsible for politicising poor French women, who on 5 October 1789 marched to Versailles to demand that Louis sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and that he lower the price of bread. This very, very angry mob of women forced the royal family not only to accede to the new revolutionary Assembly, but to move to Paris.
The Women's March to Versailles, 5 October 1789
It isn’t necessarily the case the famine and food shortages will cause revolution: there was a catastrophic famine in North Korea in the mid-nineties and the country still has periodic food shortages, but dissent has not been allowed to grow into any significant anti-government activity. This is due to the effectiveness of North Korea’s security forces and to the fact that North Koreans are simply too hungry, too tired, and too broken to overthrow their leadership. They have been starved into submission.
But food shortages are responsible for other mass movements too. The Cape Colony experienced a series of bad droughts during the second half of the nineteenth century, the worst of which occurred in the late 1850s and early 1860s, at the same time as outbreaks of rust on the wheat and the appearance of the oidium mildew on vineyards. The Cape’s newspapers described the increasingly desperate situation in rural areas: all the water dried up in Swellendam, farmers lost their sheep and horses, and the land was too dry to plough; there were allegations that farmers were stealing water from neighbouring farms’ rivers in Ladysmith; in Victoria West and Calvinia the cost of meat, groceries and other household goods rose sharply, and transporting produce to Port Elizabeth was almost impossible as draught animals were in short supply. Finding freshly-slaughtered mutton – the meat of choice in the Cape – was difficult. On top of this, the population, many of whom had already been weakened physically by food shortages, was also subjected to ‘unusually virulent’ epidemics of measles, typhus, and ‘white sore throat’ (diphtheria).
It is no coincidence that the 1860 Great Revival began in the worst affected rural areas. From the 1850s onwards, the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church – numerically the biggest church in the Colony and the most politically powerful – had encouraged its members to pray for revival and religious ‘awakening’. Religious revivals are group manifestations of intense emotion, ranging from weeping and fainting to trances and speaking in tongues during which supplicants pray for conversion and salvation. Clergymen ascribed these outbursts of extreme religious enthusiasm to the presence of the Holy Spirit, but they were as much the product of social and economic change as anything else. There were at least three major revivals which swept most of the congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church in the nineteenth century (in 1860, 1874-1875, and 1884-1885), as well as several smaller, more localised ones.
The Great Revival in 1860 began in the colony’s impoverished, hungry, and desperate rural interior. It was brought to the attention of the church’s leadership when a fifteen year-old coloured servant girl went into an ecstatic trance during a service in Worcester – then the parish of Andrew Murray jnr, one of the church’s most prominent ministers. The girl lived in the rural village of Montagu and was visiting friends in Worcester. Her behaviour, which whipped the other congregants into a religious frenzy, mimicked that which had taken root at her church in Montagu. The revival subsequently from Worcester throughout the Cape.
The colonial state – rightly – blamed farmers’ unwillingness to conserve water during times of plenty for the devastating effects of the drought. But others – including members of the Dutch Reformed Church – accused the Cape’s government of not doing enough to help them, and believed that the scarcity of rain and food were a punishment from God. People’s willingness to turn to the church and to religion – away, in other words, from the state – showed that the authority of the state was being undermined by the crisis.
Similar circumstances contributed to the uprisings in the Arab world: instead of turning to charismatic religion, people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere demanded the removal of unpopular, corrupt, and dysfunctional regimes. In a time of increasing food scarcity and volatility, governments will have to work harder to prove their necessity to their citizenry.
Texts quoted here:
Cynthia A. Bouton, The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993).
L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (London: Granta, 2010).
S.E. Duff, ‘What will this child be? Children, Childhood, and the Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape Colony, 1860-1895’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 2010).
Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.
Barbara Clark Smith, ‘Food Rioters and the American Revolution,’ The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 3-38.
Wayne Dooling, Slavery, Emancipation, and Colonial Rule in South Africa (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007).
Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).
André du Toit, ‘The Cape Afrikaners’ Failed Liberal Moment, 1850-1870,’ in Democratic Liberalism in South Africa: Its History and Prospect, eds. Jeffrey Butler, Richard Elphick, and David Welsh (Middletown and Cape Town: Wesleyan University Press and David Philip, 1987), pp. 35-64.
Walter J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, trans. R.A. Wilson (London: SCM, 1976).
Steven Laurence Kaplan, Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade during the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).
C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.
Rhoads Murphey, ‘Provisioning Istanbul: The State and Subsistence in the Early Modern Middle East,’ Food and Foodways 2 (1988), pp. 217-263.
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