Farewell to Food Riots?

It has been a good year by the generally dismal standards of world food security.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation reports that perennial hunger hotspots – Bangladesh, Ghana, Nicaragua – have halved under-nourishment in a generation. In India, where one-quarter of the world’s hungry live, citizen activism is helping make the right to food a reality. World food price inflation recently dropped to its lowest level in four years, after a bumper cereal crop.

So as the FAO convenes its Committee on Food Security this week, celebrating 10 years of Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food, they might be inclined to pat themselves on the back. 

Not so fast.

Ten years of guidance on the right to food hardly set the world alight – let alone put food on the table.

Hungry people rarely protest, so what sparks food riots?

What did set the world alight– and put hunger back on the policy table – was the turbulent unruliness of the global food crisis.

Map of 2008 global food crisis
Map of 2008 global food crisis hotspots. Credit: Christian Guthler – Flickr

Basic food costs nearly trebled and staple prices spiked at unimagined levels in 2008 and then, unbelievably, again in 2010-11.

Food riots erupted in dozens of countries and Port-au-Prince, Maputo and Ouagadougou saw heavy street action – often met by an even heavier police response. Lives were lost, people were hurt, economic life disrupted, property damaged, regimes toppled, elections lost. Some say the Arab Spring was triggered by fury over bread prices. The after-shocks of the protests still reverberate through the global system.

The signals sent by food rights are loud but they are not clear. It should be no great mystery as to why people protest when prices spike or food is scarce: food absorbs half of the incomes of most people in poor countries, so that people went from having wages left over to rumbling bellies in a matter of weeks. 

Yet, as we know, hungry people rarely protest. (It is one reason they go unfed.)

So what about the food crises of 2008 and 2011 brought people onto the streets? 

Struck by resemblances to food riots in other key moments of capitalist history, researchers in Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Mozambique and the UK decided to look behind the headlines. We were not convinced that these were the desperate reflexes of hunger. We saw these as struggles for the right to food – whether politely civil society-backed or via riot. We wanted to know what they achieved.

Food riots work (usually)

The research found that riots (usually) work. All protest is dangerous – nobody takes the fight to a state armed with water cannon and tear gas without an excellent reason. But in 2008 and 2011 the reasons were as good as they get. Prices were accelerating in an out-of-control way that had nothing to do with how much food was grown or sold. People recognised this as the sign of rigged markets, believing that the rice-dealers of Dhaka and the millers of Maputo were getting fat on their hunger. 

Not everyone suffered from higher prices, but for some this was the thin edge.

Protestors were mainly urban folk, often recently detached from the rural livelihoods that once guaranteed them basic food security. They were not the poorest, but they live lives of great precariousness (as we saw in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh). These people walk the tightrope of the flexible global economy, largely without a safety net. They are mostly young, concentrated, articulate, connected and growing in numbers. They are sometimes hungry. Their views of the food system diagnosed its problems with the clarity that comes with life-and-death situations.

It’s not about cheaper food

Protesters were not just after cheap food: they wanted assurance of control, or as the peasants’ movement La Via Campesina has it, sovereignty, over food.

UK campaigners (2012). Credit: World Dev Movement (Flickr)

Resistance to the idea of a right to profit from someone else’s hunger was widespread and robust: in times of scarcity, profiting from hoarding or speculating or colluding is beyond the pale.

If they listened better, global policy elites would know that the limits of tolerance to unfairness had been reached. 

But the channels for these political ideas were tuned to the wrong frequencies.

Political parties, consumer associations, civil society organisations all failed to take governments to task. Food riots opened the airwaves to a new sound. (This was literally true when hip hop artist Azagaia’s Povo no Poder, a tribute to Maputo food rioters, became a hit ringtone).

Protesters saw apparently endless price rises going unchecked by governments, whose main response was to bleat on about ‘global markets’. Food riots cut through worries about market discipline and fiscal space to restate the terms of the compact between states and citizens. They reminded the political classes of their responsibility to protect the right to food above the right to profit from hunger. 

As the world’s food policy elite gathered in Rome this week, they should not want to rest on their laurels or think too fondly of voluntary guidelines, or of civil society partners. Food prices are low now, but as urban precariousness grows so do the profit margins from hunger. The right to food will not be replacing the food riot any time soon. 

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. She coordinated the research into food riots and food rights movements funded by the UK Department For international Development-Economic and Social Research Council joint scheme. 

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