Last February, World Bank President Robert Zoellick noted that the inability of poor people to feed themselves and their families contributed greatly to the civil unrest that swept across Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. And even as food prices have eased slightly since their record highs last January, newly appointed Food and Agriculture Organization director, General Jose Graziano da Silva, has already indicated that food prices and their volatility will remain high for the year.
Since 2008, the geopolitics of food, both on the production and consumption side, has become a growing crisis on the one hand, and a call for social revolution on the other. What Lester Brown called the “21st-century Food War” is the inflationary and supply-side unraveling of food prices for many developing nations.
Sharp increases in the four main food staples—wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans—have managed to push many of the 2 billion poorest people on the planet, who already spend between 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, into an even more perilous state of hunger and malnutrition. Arguably the largest player in the Arab Spring revolutions, Egypt alone imported roughly 70% of its wheat in 2010; making Egypt and its 86 million citizens the largest wheat importer in the world.
It should come as no surprise that in the spring of last year, the Egyptian interim government outlined a multistage strategy for improving domestic wheat production by increasing financial incentives to local farmers.
More than just an attempt to undo years of agricultural neglect during President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the actions of the interim government show its keen awareness of the relationship between food prices and civil unrest. The Egypt government witnessed this during the 1977 “Bread Riots,” when the government attempted to end subsidies of oil, wheat, and other grains, and more recently during the 2008 food riots. Agricultural self-sufficiency seems to be a new attempt by the current government to curb future uprisings.
In December of 2011, head of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Shenngun Fan, commented that high food prices were a contributing factor in fueling the Arab Spring. And while David Biello of Scientific American was careful to note that the Egyptian revolution was the result of a number of factors, the inability of the government to rein in spiraling food costs with government subsidies only “added fuel to an already combustible mix.”
Along with macroeconomic shifts in food prices, the relationship between these global movements and food is steeped in symbolic gestures. Take for example the iconic image of a Yemeni man during the protests in Sana’a with two loaves of baguettes plastic-wrapped to his head. Or Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26 year old Tunisian street vendor—scraping out a living selling produce on the streets of Sidi Bouzid—and de-facto martyr of the Arab Spring, who after being spat upon and humiliated by municipal officer Faida Hamdi for not having a proper vendor permit, promptly obtained a can of petroleum and immolated himself in front of the governor’s office.
Out of the Arab Spring revolutions, the importance of food has not only lent credence to realities of inequality, corruption, and desperation, but has also provided an emblematic demarcation for what kinds of abuse people will no longer endure. For author Anna Badken, the attaching to one’s head of breads, tin-pot cervellieres, and frying-pan basinets during street protests in Yemen, Tunisia, and Egypt, was an attempt by protesters to form solidarity through the belief that “food in the Middle East is the most elemental expression of humanity.” It wasn’t, as Badken explained, the idea that these kitchen utensils would protect against the shelling of tear gas canisters, but instead the acknowledgment of food’s central role in Arab culture.
As then-President Jacques Edouard Alexis and the Haitian government learned, after it was overthrown during the 2007-2008 food riots, the inability of a country to manage its food prices will undoubtedly lead to its undoing. When your own population of 9 million, more than half of whom live on a dollar a day, liken their condition of food insecurity to “Clorox hunger”—the feeling that one’s stomach is literally being eaten away by bleach—it is clear that the state has failed to provide its citizens with the most basic needs.
Of course, providing these needs is easier said than done, as the Egyptian government found out. Even after increasing the subsidy for the wheat used in the mandatory production of affordable baladi—the food stamp-like bread program for the poorest of Egyptians—Mubarak was still ousted from power after eighteen days of demonstrations. This is not to mention the 175,000 tons of wheat that the Egyptian government bought from the United States and Australia in the beginning of 2011. Even a six-month wheat reserve did very little to quell dissent.
Our increasingly globalized food system has only magnified the degree to which food crises, though often experienced asymmetrically among countries, have made us even more interconnected. The adoption of neoliberal trade policies during the 1990s—the “development ladder” experiment that was ostensibly supposed to turn peasants into high-tech, highly educated factory laborers—worked instead to eviscerate domestic crop production throughout the developing world.
It is no wonder that last summer, former President Bill Clinton apologized to the Haitian government for the role that his administration—specifically the importing of subsidized US rice—had on their economy. This wasn’t an attempt by Clinton to revise his place in history, but a reflective awareness on the limitations of free trade policies.
The 21st-century Food War that we are now facing is one of increased bifurcation between the meat-centered, high calorie, packaged food diets of highly developed nations and the volatility of staple crop prices in the developing world.
When the price of wheat hit a record high of $346 a ton in February of 2011, the cost of bread in the United States only ticked up by a few nickels. While people in the developing world are largely purchasing the raw food staple items themselves, the majority of our food costs come from the packaging, advertising, and transportation of the food product—the wheat that goes into making a loaf of bread is a small fraction of the total cost.
From effects of climate change on food production to concerns over the impact of glyphosate-laden corn on the honey bee population, our current global food system has tethered itself almost exclusively to the problematic principles of unbridled market capitalism: cost-cutting mechanization, ruthless efficiency, and ethical hollowness.
We need look no further than the reckless impunity involved in the recent practice of “land grabbing” in many African countries. In 2009 alone, deals for 110 million acres of farmland were sought by wealthy foreign investors, an increase of 100 million acres from the previous year. This has been dubbed the “neo-colonization” of Africa, as foreign nations see these investments as a means of limiting exposure to future price volatility.
Still, when food is talked about in the context of social revolution, it is too often folded into a general discussion of grievances against the state. It is problematic, and, as we’ve seen over the last couple years, false to assume that lowering food prices, along with addressing other basic needs, will be enough to assuage unrest. Undoubtedly, the inability of people to afford daily meals will always be an immediate concern, but food represents more than just fluctuating nickel and dime prices on the Chicago Board of Trade. Food isn’t merely the canary in the coal mine for testing civil unrest, but a proverbial Rubicon, the place where the existential question “can I go on living another day under these conditions?” is finally asked.
What we are now facing seems to represent the beginning of a permanent food crisis. While dipping slightly from 2011 highs, the prices of most major food staples are well above 2005 levels—and nowhere close to costs before 2001. There seems to be no returning to the days of cheap food and invisible hunger disguised in a ruse of free trade and neo-liberal economic growth. Remarkably, from the United States to the Middle East, the importance of food seems to remain at the center of these struggles.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is by no means oblivious to concerns over our current food system. Among calls for ending corporate welfare and reducing the mounting wealth disparity between top earners and the 99%, concerns over our “big Ag” food system lie at the heart of the movement.
On September 29th, 2011, 12 days into the occupation of Zuccotti Park, the General Assembly of OWS published a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City.” Along with a number of grievances, members of the NYC General Assembly declared, “they have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.”
How then can these movements take back a dysfunctional and unjust food system?
In the 1969 pamphlet, To Feed Our Children, the Black Panther Party wrote, “hunger is one of the means of oppression and it must be halted.” Out of these conditions of inequity and rampant food insecurity, the Black Panthers even declared the last point of their ten-point plan to include the rights of “land” and “bread” ownership.
Across the country, various Occupy movements have latched onto this notion of food oppression and begun forming relationships with farmers and the sustainable food movement. Occupy Memphis and the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association have recently partnered to protest implied practices of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In occupied Frank Ogawa Plaza, attendees of the 15th Annual Community Food Security Conference gave “soapbox” speeches to Occupy Oakland about our current food system. And last December, food activists and farmers alike organized the highly publicized Occupy Wall Street Farmers’ March from the La Plaza Cultural Community Garden to Zuccotti Park.
Started last October, the OWS Food Justice group has emerged as a powerful voice within the alternative food movement. Meeting every Friday night in the heart of New York’s financial district, OWS Food Justice sees coalition building and organized marches as a way of raising awareness for food rights and inequality.
“The struggle for food justice,” Corbin Laedlein, a member of OWS Food Justice, says, “is about dismantling oppressive institutions, policies, and practices while simultaneously creating a new food system that is based upon the principles of justice and sustainability.”
Here in the United States, a presumptive myth continues to be that our only food problems are that we spend too little and eat too much. As a nation of people who take in, on average, a little less than 3,800 calories per day and, as reported by the USDA, spend 10% of our income on food, the myth has some degree of merit. But this overlooks many of the root problems, and furthermore, oversimplifies the corrosive effect that poverty, overwork, and cheap calories have on our communities and waistlines.
As argued last year by conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation, the fact that the obesity rate has increased over the last thirty years is evidence enough to them that food insecurity is no longer a problem in the United States. Even if we disregard the fact that recipients of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), still referred to by many as food stamps, have increased by 64% since 2008, what we’re now facing is a caloric race to the bottom. As we continue to grow poorer, we are forced to stretch our dollars toward the most calories at the cheapest prices.
This isn’t simply a question of personal responsibility, but the frank realities of poverty—something we continue to feel uncomfortable talking about in this country. Since the beginning of the Great Recession, the poverty rate has sharply risen to a record high of 15.1% of all Americans. As Bryan Walsh reported in a 2009 article for Time, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that a dollar could buy 950 more calories of chips than vegetables. A year prior to the onset of the recession, researchers out of the University of Washington found that it costs $3.52 a day to eat 2000 calories of junk food as opposed to $36.32 for more nutritious foods. Healthcare costs for obesity already total over $190 billion a year, and feckless statements like “let them eat less” or “have them grow more” are not going to make these problems go away.
In solving these food problems, what we don’t need is platitudes or unrealistic expectations, as another OWS Food Justice member, Lakshman Kalasapudi, explains, “I don’t think OWS will bring on the revolution. Realistically, I think it’s just a platform for like-minded people and people of all different backgrounds to come together and work on issues.”
Just the idea that food truly matters, on some level, might be what helps to bring us all together in the end.
Food must remain at the center of any struggle for social and economic justice. More than just a means for building coalitions, food—whether it is through rising prices, loss of farmland and rural communities, or unlabeled GMO food—provides people with a shared experience for understanding oppression and injustice.
While the severity of hunger and food insecurity is undeniably unequal among nations and people, the reaches of an erratic and all-consuming food system affects us all. Charges of elitism volleyed against this nascent movement are beginning to seem desperate, as people become more aware of our industrialized food system’s failings. If we are to believe that the future of food is not one of constant sickness, scarcity and crisis, then an edible revolution is not only needed, but inevitable.