21st century food riots

April 20, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Naomi Hossain & Patta Scott-Villiers

In March FAO’s global food price index jumped by 17% to a level unprecedented in its 30-year history. The food riots predicted by the head of the World Trade Organization have already kicked off in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Deadly fuel riots in Peru, rising discontent in Kenya and the rising price of bread in Egypt signal that 2022 could witness a global food crisis on the scale of the 2008-11 shock. What do we know about food riots in the 21st century?

“Food riot” is a handy – but inaccurate – label.

The history of capitalism is one of people coming together to protest sharp rises in the costs of essentials. We use the handy label of ‘food riots’, because we recognize in these moments a basic similarity of aim and form across time and place.

But protests usually only turn violent and unruly when the state responds heavy-handedly, triggering rounds of protest that can then spread across a country or region. That is, they often start as peaceful protests, with the ‘riot’ element introduced by the state.

Painting of The Women's March on Versailles
The Women’s March on Versailles, 5 October, 1789. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81743244

Nor are ‘food riots’ merely the angry response of hungry men to deprivation. They are political complaints about how the economy is run, and for whose benefit. This is why states often respond harshly, as though the cry for fairness were an insurrection. Such fears are not unfounded: historically revolutions rally supporters when masses of poor people, exasperated, have felt unheard.   

‘Food’ riots are often also about costs of energy, transport, and water. They are always fueled by righteous anger about economic mismanagement and political corruption, and what that means for everyday life.

The label persists because the media plays an important part in how such events are labelled and framed – and whether or not they have political impact.

Food riots are rare; people mostly cope (and complain).

If people rioted whenever they were hungry or saw the cost of provisioning rise sharply, as many millions more have since COVID-19, food riots would be daily and worldwide.

Precarious lives

Economists are sometimes puzzled by how much most people hate inflation. They respond that ‘wages adjust’ as if that solves the problem, without recognizing the dangerous and uncertain struggles people face to bid their wages up when they can no longer afford to eat.

People do find ways of adjusting to higher costs of living: they have no choice. But they do so in ways that lessen their wellbeing, cause physical and mental stress, damage the social fabric and breed popular discontent.

Major protests are triggered by sudden, sharp price rises from policies – often subsidy cuts or tax rises. People protest not their deprivation, but specific political actions that deprive them of basic provisioning at precisely those moments when they expect public authorities to protect them.

We call these expectations the ‘moral economy’: they reflect how people believe markets should be run, and for whose benefit. They argue that governments should protect people against shocks to their basic standard of living, and that there are moral limits to profit-making in periods of dearth. Moral economy thinking arms protestors with a political theory that has broad popular support.

Food riots are organized. But they still reflect genuine anger.

Food riots are seldom purely spontaneous: it is rare that thousands of people suddenly descend to the plaza or square in a viral wave of anger. Ordinary folk often join en masse, but these are typically organized events, with community groups, leftist parties, social movements, trade unions, the political opposition and civil society groups in the mix.

But ruling elites’ customary claims that food riots are instigated by outsiders or partisan opponents usually fail the evidence test. Journalists and researchers who investigate protests tend to find that it is in fact righteous anger that gives such protests their power.

Protestors take great risks, and fear of state violence often stops or curtails protests. In Mozambique, the tanks that the state deployed to repress the food and fuel riots of 2008 were still in place when prices rose again in 2010 and 2012. Remembering that people were killed or arrested in 2008, many stayed home even though prices shot sharply out of reach.

Them Belly Full report

Food riots diagnose corruption and collusion.

Food riots are not merely demands for fairer prices: they encode a political economic theory about why prices are out of control and why their political leaders fail to act to protect manage them. These include accusations about hording and price-gouging in grain trade, and that political elites are in cahoots with business elites. A French Gilets Jaunes protestor explained it:

People are exasperated, there is so much anger – taxes are going up, our salaries aren’t. When you work hard, it feels unfair … The government isn’t listening. To me, Macron is the president of the rich, slashing taxes for the wealthy, ignoring the rest of us. Politicians are cut off from our lives. Those in charge are one big oligarchy.

No food riots, no problem?

If countries escape ‘food riots’ in any sense of that term, does that mean all is well? Not necessarily. It may mean that mass protests did not ignite for any of the reasons collective action ordinarily fails. What remains is a deep-seated resentment at the unfair distribution of protection.

Off the chart

When people’s everyday lives are squeezed, and political corruption and elite collusion for profit is evident, an absence of food riots may not mean resolution, but a festering discontent. It just means the political opportunity has yet to present itself.

War in Ukraine and associated sanctions, coming at a time of rapid post-Covid inflation has driven up food and fuel prices. Unrest in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Peru highlights the risks. Sri Lankan protests over blackouts and shortages of food, fuel and medicine express mounting public anger over government economic mismanagement. Peru’s embattled President has declared a state of emergency after protests against fuel, food and fertilizer prices. Pakistan’s Prime Minister has lost political support and been forced to resign in the face of double-digit inflation. Political incumbents worldwide are rightly nervous.

For more, see this Open Access book on the subject: Food Riots, Food Rights and the Politics of Provisions