Last year’s Arab Spring, which toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, had a seemingly mundane, yet consistent motivating factor: the price of food. At the beginning of it all, the protests against Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were demonstrations against high bread prices. This is not to say that outrage over the rising prices was the only cause, but it was certainly an important one.
It’s difficult to delineate the myriad causes that go into uprisings or wars, but food — access to it, the price of it, and its distribution — has often been a significant factor. Some of those conflicts verge on the comical: Iceland and the United Kingdom were engaged in a series of naval skirmishes from the 1950s to the 1970s over fishing rights in the North Atlantic in what was known as the Cod War. There was also a Salt War in the 15th century, between papal allies and the duke of Ferrara in Italy, over control of the then-valuable commodity of salt.
But most such engagements are deadly serious, and they span history. Back during the Roman Empire, Cicero documented that the increase in bread was leading to social unrest at home. So the Romans did what they do best: they brandished their imperial muscle and took other people’s grains, in this case Egypt’s, to placate their citizens.
On the war front, famine is often used as a tool to destroy one’s enemies. Such was the case during the siege of Leningrad, an appalling 872-day stretch when the Germans cut off supply lines to the Russian city during World War 2: an estimated 1.5 million people died of famine.
More recently, in Sudan, two million people have died, mostly of hunger, during the civil war there. In Somalia, the militant Islamist group, Al-Shabab, prohibited food aid to reach the people it wants to suppress. And when young men are starving, they are more prone to join the group that controls the food, which happened to be Al-Shabab. While tens of thousands of people have starved to death, the World Food Program had to suspend its operations after many of its aid workers were killed.
For now and the future, food looks to be an even more important force in the conflicts our planet will have to endure. With an ever-expanding population, now topping seven billion people, and with increasingly large swaths of that population enjoying greater resource-burning lifestyles, there’s even more pressure on the world’s food.
In 2007-2008, a spike in food prices led to riots across the planet, from Haiti to Yemen to Bangladesh. When a heat wave in Russia means people in Libya are going to have to pay double for their bread, our planet looks quite fragile. We might not appreciate how a spike in food prices can cause such unrest, but take a look at these numbers, as noted by Lester Brown in last year’s enlightening “Food Issue” of Foreign Policy: Americans generally spend less than 10% of their income on food, but there are 2 billion people who live in poverty around the globe who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food. A slight increase for them means a whole lot.
It’s ironic to note that, in response to the food crisis of 2008, powerful countries such as Saudi Arabia, South Korea and China ventured beyond their borders to grow grain in cheaper regions, such as Ethiopia and Sudan, where, of course, people are often starving. It’s reminiscent of what Rome once did with the Egyptians (and we know how that ended.)
Managing the planet’s resources has never been more vital. And, for all of the talk about oil, it might just be bread that matters most.
How to help: Donate to Oxfam to aid victims of the East Africa food crisis.