F9B: The Illustrated Series


Download the Webzine: Food Riots (Part 1) and (Part 2)


Hello, my name is Evan Fraser and I work at the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada. As anyone who has followed this video series knows, climate change, population growth, and high-energy prices mean that farmers may struggle over the next generation to produce enough food for everyone.

This video is about one of the possible political impacts of the food crisis: food riots.

2010 was a rough year for the global food system; droughts and wildfires consumed about 25% of Russia’s wheat harvest and the Kremlin deciding to stop exporting wheat to international markets.  Food prices sky-rocketed, 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 across the Middle East that unfolded in 2011.

Experts watched these events in horror and many of us wondered “if food prices remain high and volatile over the next generation, is this a sign of things to come?”

Many think so. One newspaper article I read argued: “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 is not necessarily where the food riots happened.

Similarly, across 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 cal per person per day on the planet by the year 2010 there were about 2850 cal 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 [illustration of Lauren, Jen and Alexander]. 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] cut throat business guys who don’t give a damn about people.“

What strikes me as interesting about this comment is that the speaker is not linking desperation and riots but rather is saying that the riots were caused by moral outrage and anger.

Our team then 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 sort 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.