Trade policy, food crises and riots: The missing link

Andrew Rimas
Published: Wednesday, 10/20/2010 12:00 am EDT

This past summer, a bad drought decimated Russia’s wheat crop and prompted the Kremlin to ban exports. In response, wheat prices shot upwards by an alarming 60-80 per cent.
Two years earlier, the world was shocked when grain prices toppled Haiti’s government, sent rioters spilling into the streets in dozens of countries, and left 20 dead in Cameroon.
After the Russian drought, the UN called an emergency summit in which the question on everyone’s minds was whether the wheat price increase was just a hiccup in commodity trades, or whether it marked a more sinister crisis.
When the emergency meetings ended in September, the members of the Inter-Governmental Group on Grains and Rice said that, although food price volatility is a danger, there are no indications that we’re facing a genuine catastrophe, or even much of crisis. They concluded with a reminder of the pledge taken during the World Food Summit in 2009: Countries would “refrain from taking measures that are inconsistent with the WTO rules.” In other words, they swore that free trade is the best way to achieve food security.
The Inter-Governmental Group on Grains and Rice missed a salient point. They forgot to note that people riot for a reason.
Food riots are, of course, nothing new. They’ve occurred throughout history, but the motivations behind them aren’t always terribly obvious. For instance, food riots do not correlate with hunger. For the most part, the planet’s 700-900 million hungry people suffer in silence. Nor does price volatility on its own lead to social unrest. If it did, then we would be seeing riots this year, too.
To understand why food riots happen, we need to step back from current events and explore the psychology of the rioter.
In the early 20th century, a spate of such riots erupted in the US, Canada, France and Spain. Women often instigated the violence, and the unrest usually happened after normal business hours, implying that those responsible were people with jobs. Almost all of the rage was directed towards food merchants like bakers and butchers.
In 1917, for instance, violence organized by the “Mothers Anti-High Price League” shut down the markets in New York City. The perpetrators were mostly Jewish women who stormed the Waldorf-Astoria shouting socialist slogans before enforcing a citywide boycott of food. One of the leaders was Marie Ganz, who wrote, “We allowed people to buy only certain foods on which there seemed to be the least profiteering…. Any person who was caught buying anything else was mobbed.”
Ganz’s comments show that the rioters weren’t fighting to survive, necessarily, but were protesting the injustice that some people could profit while others went without.
In the 18th century, similar riots had erupted across Western Europe. Up to that time, an ancient law called the Assize of Bread regulated the flow of food. It fixed the price of wheat, established quality controls for flour, set the baker’s fee and obliged farmers to sell grain in markets instead of out of the fields where merchants would have a buyer’s advantage over the urban poor.
Until the 1700s, the Assize of Bread kept grain prices stable, but squashed middlemen or any bakers with entrepreneurial inclinations. This made it expensive to maintain.
By the end of the century, laissez-faire economics was beginning to settle into the brains of policymakers. At the same time, the tail-end of the Little Ice Age stunted harvests. A volatile food supply and the rise of free market principles at the expense of welfare policy proved explosive. People got mad. Again, not on account of hunger so much as on account of anger at perceived profiteers.
Modern debates about how to prevent price volatility from escalating into violence overlook this crucial element of moral outrage. As policymakers argue over the correct blend of free trade and protectionism to establish food security for all, they would do well to look to their history books.
Andrew Rimas is the editor of the Improper Bostonian magazine. Along with Evan Fraser, he is the author of Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations and Beef: The Untold Story of how Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World.

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