They call bread “the staff of life” for a reason: this ancient food has played an outsized role in our nutrition, and our culture, for centuries. When the starving French people called for bread and the clueless Marie Antoinette allegedly suggested they eat cake, she was unwittingly highlighting the importance of food security in national security. (Historians examining this quote suggest it may have been entirely fabricated, or that the “great princess” who supposedly uttered it may not necessarily have been Antoinette, but it makes for such a great story that it’s been repeated through the years.)
A hungry people is a restive people, and if people are starving long enough, they may turn to any means possible to find food, including overthrowing their government if they believe the government lies at the heart of their food insecurity problem. Whether they’re revolting against high taxes on food products (like the gabelle in France or the tax disputes that played a role in the American revolution) or taking to the streets to protest high food prices (as in Syria and Egypt), hungry citizens can become a force to be reckoned with.
Take the infamous tortilla riots of 2007, in which the Mexican people took to the streets to protest extravagant pricing for one of the dishes most closely associated with Mexican heritage and culture. The humble tortilla is a staple of Mexican cuisine, but more than that, it’s a key component of dishes for many people in the lower and working classes. When prices started to climb, hunger became an issue, and it was followed by rioting as citizens grew angry about the government’s slow action on the problem.
Food has played a key role in the revolutionary spirit that’s swept across the Middle East and Africa as well as spurring revolutionary actions in Latin America, marches in India, and more. The situation is likely to only get worse, because many impoverished governments are cutting food imports even as food aid fails to reach the people due to distribution problems (including corruption). Furthermore, many nations in the Global South are being pressured to grow food like coffee, cacao and more for the wealthy West, exporting food instead of producing their own. Add a growing global population and trends like desertification, which is eating arable land worldwide, to the mix, and you have a potentially very combustible situation.
As people get hungrier, they’re likely to get angrier, and that’s why food security must be considered a global and national security issue, rather than an issue unique to nations with a food supply problem. Historically, the provision of stable food supplies has been viewed more like charity than a strategic political move, and in many cases nations have been offered the castoffs of the West — the food the West doesn’t want because it’s contaminated, old or not otherwise to the taste of consumers. Some of those nations are starting to fight back; West Africa, for example, exposed the fact that its food aid shipments were contaminated with GM rice not certified as safe for human consumption.
Instability in one nation can spill over into another as people cross borders in search of food and refuge; violent revolutions often catch bystanders up in their chaos, and political refugees may search for a place of safety until things stabilize. This can create a domino effect across an entire region, which is a definite recipe for national security problems. When the root problem of this instability is often high food prices, a limited food supply and hunger, it’s not only fully preventable but shameful; Western nations concerned about global welfare and security need to be considering what role they can play in establishing global food security.
While it is possible to sustain the globe’s population, it’s going to require some work. The West needs to cut down on consumption and change its agricultural practices while it supports nations in the Global South as they develop food autonomy and make sure their citizens are fed. Without that institutional support, the world may become an increasingly violent place as people struggle to survive, and food riots are going to spread into Western nations as well when climbing costs of living pressure members of the lower classes.
Photo: Paul Sullivan.