Italy is not the only country experiencing growing political turbulence over the cost of staple foods. Last January, 70,000 people marched through the streets of Mexico City in a protest that has become known as the "tortilla riot." In response to these demonstrations, president Felipe Calderon signed an agreement to stabilize tortilla prices, which have skyrocketed more than 700% since 1994, the year that the North American Free Trade Agreement became law. After NAFTA took effect, many Mexican peasants were pushed off their land as cheap U.S. corn flooded the now tariff-free domestic market. Now that many American farmers are turning over significant portions of their corn harvest to the production of ethanol, Mexican consumers have no hedge against rising international corn prices.
Where are such apparently isolated protests leading? It might be useful to get some historical perspective by considering one of the world’s most famous bread riots. On the morning of October 5th, 1789, a small girl began banging a drum and chanting a protest in one of Paris’s markets. According to the historian George Rudé, this protest quickly drew a large crowd of sympathetic women, who set out together on a march to make their complaint heard to the royal household in Versailles. Their numbers grew quickly to six or seven thousand; as they marched, the town guards were disarmed and their weapons were handed to men who followed the crowd of enraged women through the streets. We all know where this protest led ultimately.
Yet the march on Versailles, like the storming of the Bastille earlier that year, was motivated not by anger over the conspicuous consumption of royals like Marie Antoinette, but rather by the far more immediate issue of the cost of bread. A laboring family of four in Paris ate 1.2 tons of grain a year in this period, 80 percent of which had to get to the city from the surrounding Paris basin on a poorly maintained road network. In the 1780s a series of floods in this area led to poor harvests, provoking soaring bread prices. By 1789, a worker’s daily bread took nearly 90 percent of her or his income. The demand for bread was central to practically all the journées, the popular insurrections and demonstrations that broke out repeatedly in Paris between 1789 and 1795. Women, on whose shoulders the crushing burden of domestic economy rested, were pivotal catalysts and participants in these demonstrations.
Of course, nothing like this could happen today, right? The past decade and a half has seen a global wave of democratization, a vital hedge against famine according to the economist Amartya Sen. In addition, we’re blessed with a highly flexible food production and distribution system, the product not simply of a few decades of globalization but also of the thoroughgoing transformation of agriculture wrought by the Green Revolution following the 1950s. There are signs, however, that the energy-intensive practices of industrial agriculture spread around the world by the Green Revolution are not sustainable. As Michael Pollan recently argued in the New York Times, the mysterious disappearance of bees over the last year and the growth of drug-resistant Staphylococcus bacteria (which is now killing more Americans each year than AIDS) are both signs of the precariousness of the vast monocultures on which our current food system is based. According to Pollan, "whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience."
As important as these symptoms of a brewing crisis are, however, one doesn’t have to go as far as a hospital ward or an almond grove to get a sense of the unsustainability of the global agricultural system. A trip to the local supermarket to buy pasta will suffice. The rising cereal prices that drew protests in Italy and Mexico this year are the concrete harbingers of a calamity in the making. Over the last year, the food price index of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization rose by more than 40 percent, adding to a significant increase of 9 percent in 2006. According to the head of the FAO, Jacques Diouf, prices of wheat and oilseeds are at record highs; wheat prices have risen by $130 a ton, or 52 percent, since a year ago. In tandem with this inflation in the cost of staple cereals, reserves have become severely depleted. World wheat stores declined 11 percent this year, to the lowest level since 1980. That corresponds with 12 weeks of the world’s total consumption. There are only 8 weeks of corn left.
Joachim von Braun, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute, recently pointed out that crises have not materialized despite these dwindling supplies because states have literally eaten into their national grain stocks. According to von Braun, this situation may change soon because China, in particular, has nearly exhausted its supplies. In a speech in Beijing, von Braun stated that "over the next 12 to 24 months we are in a fairly risky situation. Large consuming nations, particularly China, will feel pressed to enter international markets to bid up prices to unusual levels." Chinese consumers are already facing galloping food inflation. According to a local paper quoted by the Manchester Guardian, three shoppers died recently in a stampede at a supermarket that was offering discounted rapeseed oil. With its massive foreign exchange reserves, China could potentially buy the global food crop many times over, driving international commodity prices through the roof.
Just as was true in late-eighteenth century Paris, rising food prices are also related to climatic conditions. The early and still relatively mild effects of global warming have seriously damaged crop yields in breadbasket regions such as Australia and Ukraine in recent years. As S. Mark Howden of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research organization pointed out recently, "If there’s a significant change in climate in one of our high production areas, if there is a disease that affects a major crop, we are in a very risky situation."
And, just as in the days of the French Revolution, it is the poor who will suffer the most from the spiraling cost of food. International aid agencies are having trouble keeping up with their shipments of food not just as a result of the inflated price of basic foodstuffs, but also because it has become far more expensive to transport food around the world given the surging value of petroleum. High oil prices also directly affect agriculture and, with it, food stocks, because petroleum is a vital ingredient of both fertilizers and pesticides, as well, of course, as being necessary to run the tractors and diesel pumps that are essential to industrial agriculture the world over. In addition, the threat of climate change is affecting poor countries in another way: as bio-fuels have been embraced as an important alternative to petroleum, food and fuel have entered into direct competition. According to a recent article in the Guardian, for example, Bangladeshi officials report that the price of cooking oil – of which it imports 1.2 million tons a year – has almost tripled in the past two years because it is now valued as an alternative to diesel oil.
Of course it’s hard to say exactly how these disturbing trends will work out, but it’s unlikely that there is going to be an easy resolution. The rising cost of oil, one of the central catalysts of the crisis, is not a product of a political showdown as in the 1970s, but rather of speculation prompted by increasingly tight supplies. Moreover, short-term thinking is not likely to resolve our problems. The specter of famine may, for example, lead farmers the world over to expand crop production to ecologically sensitive or otherwise marginal areas. Yet although this may solve a potential crisis in the short term, it obviously does not represent a viable solution to the gathering crisis of the global industrial agricultural system. A more sustainable approach is suggested by FAO head Jacques Diof. With oil and food prices at near record highs, Diof recently argued that rich countries should stop sending food aid to poor nations and should instead concentrate on helping farmers grow food locally. Mr. Diof’s plan echoes the call of the international organization Via Campesina, which has made food sovereignty a cornerstone of its battle for peasant rights.
Until now, however, such an approach has fallen on deaf ears in the halls of powerful international institutions such as the World Trade Organization, which have been dominated by the notion of food security advanced by the US, which argues, as always, for free trade since its industrially produced food products have until now been able to undercut the prices of all competitors on international markets. The result has been policies of food dumping, slashing of price supports that keep small farmers solvent, privatization of credit, and the patenting of crop genetic resources that have combined to push millions of farmers off their land and into the metastasizing mega-cities of the global South. Agriculture is now one of the most monopolistic of industries, with a handful of giant transnational corporations like Monsanto controlling both ends of the production process. Mr. Diof’s call for food sovereignty thus implies a wide-ranging transformation of the central institutions of globalization and, indeed, of the entire system of globalized industrial agriculture.
With the contradictions of the industrial food system piling up to potentially deadly effect, it is high time we rejected this unsustainable model of globalized food and turned instead to the more sustainable model of local production and food sovereignty championed by organizations like Via Campesina. Organizing a local pasta strike might be a good if humble way to make this point. One can only hope that it will not take bloody bread riots and large-scale famines to push the world down a more sustainable path.
Ashley Dawson is the author of Mongrel Nation: Diasporic Culture and the Making of Post-Colonial Britain and co-author with Malini Johar Schueller of "Exceptional State: Contemporary US Culture and the New Imperialism".