The politics of the gut and a recipe for riot

Naomi Hossain, Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies

The Bangladeshi elite took to the streets this weekend to protest food adulteration. It’s an admirable campaign, and unusual in that for once the people with power are aligned with those without (probably why a law has already been passed about it). Beyond the novelty of the well-heeled protestors, there is something incredibly vital about the politics of food that drives even they to the streets: if you can’t eat well – worse still if you can’t feed your children well, other things don’t matter.

The politics of the gut

A visceral force of anger rooted in a deep sense of right that can move all kinds of people to collective action. This is why images of food riots around the world in 2008 and 2011 had such power: we all instinctively get why the hot fury of hunger might trigger protest.

But as the historian of food riots, John Bohstedt, writes in an IDS working paper, anger and a sense of right do not automatically trigger protest. Sweeping across the food protests of early modern England and France, colonial India and Ireland, ancient and revolutionary China, and contemporary Egypt, West Africa and Haiti, he writes a recipe for a politics of provisions – a state that responds to food crises and a people willing and able to claim that response:

‘Combine (for instance) three cups of massive mobilisation, one cup of elite wisdom (if unavailable, military sympathy may be substituted), one cup of ruler-vulnerability, two cups of shared moral economy, a pinch of sweetener such as family or ethnic affinity, a cup of food availability, three tablespoons of established patterns of bargaining between rulers and rioters, the yeast of leadership (established or emergent), and a mystery ingredient added by a sprite (perhaps a small boy or other external intervention). Bake in the intense heat of international media attention and riots in neighbouring countries, but only for three months’ – and you get [food protests].


Bohstedt concludes that ‘food riots have worked in this century as an engine of provision politics to restore food security in some circumstances’ – they don’t happen everywhere, but where they do, they keep rulers on track, forcing them to pay attention to what really matters. The difference between 18th century England and 21st century Burkina Faso on what he calls the Politics of Provisions are not, after all, so great (despite what some sceptics may think). This is true even if food rioters in 21st century Burkina Faso may elicit a response from the World Food Programme rather than from their own government. The politics of provisions require people to feel a sense of right, the means to mobilise, and a reasonable expectation that their protest will make a difference.

But what if this sense of right, mobilising means and expectations of rulers are absent?

Our soon-to-be-published study on what food rights mean to people, part of the Life in a time of food price volatility project, finds that the sense of a right to food is uneven. Across the 10 developing countries we work in people seem to know, deep down, that they have a right to food – it’s the very basis of being human. But how that can be claimed and whether and how in a globalising food system the ruling classes can be made to give a damn are far less clear.

Emeritus Professor John Bohstedt’s paper The Politics of Provisions in World History is published as part of the DFID-ESRC Food Riots and Food Rights: the moral and political economy of accountability for hunger project based at the IDS. For more information or to attend events, email Devangana Kalita (

Help Yourself! Food rights and responsibilities

Year 2 findings from Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility will be launched on 5th June, 2.30-4.00pm, Royal Irish Academy, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin 2. To reserve a place please email

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Governance team at IDS and a researcher on the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project.


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