The 2011 Food Crisis

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Egyptians gather to buy bread in Central Cairo in January 31, 2011, during anti-government protests. (Getty)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Raj Patel, visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Center for African Studies, a fellow at Food First, and author of The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, discussed the global food crisis and how rising prices are playing a role in the unrest in the Middle East.

Food price protests in India, crop shortage warnings in Puerto Rico, wheat hoarding in China, devastating droughts, floods, and now revolutions—is the world in the midst of a new food crisis?

Raj Patel thinks so. Once upon a time, extreme weather and regional unrest would have put a squeeze on food prices and availability only in the immediate vicinity. But now, "the era of large-scale international events in food markets rippling globally is very much upon us," Patel said. 

The rippling serves to highlight a problem that's definitely getting worse, but it's one that has always been there. Now, Patel said, we're at the threshold where populations — and especially politicians — are realizing that something must be done.

Globally, the number of people in extreme poverty has gone up by 44 million to just shy of a billion. One in seven human beings now live in extreme poverty and over 925 million are undernourished. In part, of course, it's been this bad for a very long time. Before the food crisis in 2008, for example, when everyone started worrying about prices, the number of people not getting enough to eat was about 800 million. That seemed to be okay, we seemed to be alright with that for some reason. But now that number is creeping higher and the effects politically are much more seismic.

Seismic enough to foment revolution? Food prices were a major instigator in the unrest that gripped Tunisia and Algeria, and they continue to show up on the list of grievances from anti-government protestors in other Middle East nations. However, Patel said that such revolts aren't just about a rise in food prices. Rather, it's more accurate to say that a price hike exacerbates the bigger problems in a society. When people can't eat, they feed on anger.

High food prices are not by themselves a guarantee that governments will fall, because if it were, we'd see overhauls in the governments of India or China. It's certainly the case that higher food prices combined with other things are like revolution kindling. A food price spike can spark something that can turn into this kind of democratic overhaul.

That's because such increases tend to affect the larger, poorer population of a country.

Inequality matters, and governments are now walking back from the entitlements that poor people have, which also matter in a time when food prices are higher because poor families spend proportionally much more of their income on food. When you hear about food price inflation, even in the U.S., it may not matter for the average middle class family, but it certainly does if you're on the poverty line here, or anywhere else in the world.

The other elephant in the room is climate change. After all, seven of the last ten years have broken the record for global surface temperatures; a drought of the magnitude we've seen in China hasn't happened in over 200 years. Patel said that the spate of extreme weather events were absolutely to blame for the food crisis — at least, in part. What's really troubling to Patel isn't the weather; it's the way humans (and markets) have stopped preparing for it.

We are seeing so many extreme weather events that it's hard not to suspect that the hand of climate change is behind this. Extreme weather events are not new in history, but the reason we have names for El Nino or La Nina is because they happen so regularly. What's different now is that in the past we used to prepare for weather events, we used to understand that there may be seven fat years and then seven lean years. We'd have grain stores and mechanisms in place so people could weather out shortages. Unfortunately, because we've liberalized markets and gotten rid of grain stores, because we've managed to snip away at all the safety nets human civilization put in place to manage the weather, that's why weather matters so much. The important question to ask is not why are they happening, but why do they hurt us so much more now than they did in the past.

To close the interview, Brian Lehrer asked Raj Patel what one question he would ask President Obama's new press secretary, Jay Carney, who started his job this week. Patel didn't hesitate to reiterate his last point.

I'd ask him why, when we know the real causes behind the food crisis, why the U.S. continues to support market liberalization and a vision for feeding the world that involves markets in the private sector rather than sustainable agriculture that farmers in the world have been demanding?


Raj Patel


More in:

Comments [19]

Bill from Manhattan

If you're ready to get to the root of extreme poverty and food shortages, please see:

Feb. 17 2011 03:48 PM
Adam Koranyi from Tenafly NJ

Unfortunately the most important problems were again swept under the rug. - Climate change is the principal culprit, as shown by the rapidly increasing frequency of extreme weather events. Keeping reserves would not solve the problem of continually decreasing production. - Second, in the matter of US responsibility the most important point was not mentioned, namely the scuttling of the Kyoto agreement and the consistent obstruction of efficient climate action ever since.

Feb. 16 2011 05:00 PM
amalgam from Manhattan by day, NJ by night

As _oil monkey_ rightly states, there is no one problem that has been causing food shortages, but many working at once.

Besides the ravages of climate change and severe weather events, raw commodity speculation, population growth, etc., etc., Mr. Patel's implication of Neoliberal economics is spot on. The mere fact that Neoliberalism, or market fundamentalism, still remains unquestioned as the dominant economic ideology for the U.S. and the globalized economy is a serious problem that must be addressed.

Feb. 16 2011 02:40 PM

Re: Food Crisis:

It’s time to re-frame all the global crises into real terms rather than use these hypothetical game-theory statistics out of Wall Street and the Graduate Schools of Business who preach this nonsense of free markets. Nothing in this life is free. The globe is finite, the amount of arable land is limited by a hundred variable factors and there is no element that I know of that turns dross to gold. The real problem is one of over population of the human species and limited resources to provide a simple existence.

Very quickly, (I have to get back to feeding animals on my farm) looking at statistics for world populations, published by the World Bank, I see that those countries that have contributed the most to the world’s population problem between 1960 and 2009 are the ones now suffering starvation and revolt. There are too many people chasing too few jobs across the world and too many people unable to feed their young.

Between 1960 and 2009 Egypt added 54, 470, 911 mouths to feed and find jobs for its population. Could this have been a contributing factor to the recent revolt? During the same period Indonesia added a whopping 136, 906, 654 people to its landscape without adding a square mile to its territory. On the other hand, Denmark, Cuba, Finland and France are living within their means to provide and have not increased their populations over the past 50 years. I notice that these countries (Denmark etc.) have national health programs.

We must take into account the role of religion and reproductive habits around the world – the Roman Catholic church and Islam are two religions where a woman’s value is as a tool for impregnation, providing more souls for a god who does not proportionately increase the bounty of the landscape to support infinite growth of populations. Just-in-time science cannot feed “surplus populations” of the world, Change of religious perspective and attitudes towards sex, schooling for all women, and free distribution of condoms could ensure a better future for the world’s populations than free markets, overly stimulated testosterone in the male, and ignorance in the female.

You can link to the World Bank population statistics using the Google search phrase “World population statistics”

Ten-Acre Farm

Feb. 16 2011 12:13 PM

Why does no one discuss over-population and lack of access to birth control as a factor in the increase in food prices? In India there is no Social Security, so people have as many children as possible to take care of them when they get old, (of course, especially sons are valued). I saw women climbing trees to cut off the top branches of trees to cook food, killing the tree. To breathe in India is to inhale mud and diesel fumes. Deforestation and environmental degradation make food supplies scarcer. in the Amazon, the lands where rain forests are cut down only produce a few years of crops, but too many people are desperate to find a place to survive, even for a short time. On TV, in Pakistan, a woman on a tiny piece of land, flood waters swirling all around her, has eight children and no food. Why eight children? Even if there were no flood would she be able to feed and educate them? Same in Haiti, environmental degradation. Trees chopped down = less food. Egyptian youth are truly inspiring, but there are so many young of them, will they all get jobs, have smaller families and educate them? Theoretically we can produce food enough for everyone, and we should try. But that doesn't deal with the important point that : we need to decrease the human population on this planet. Over population is causing mass extinctions of other species. We only save species like chimps, we study to show how smart we are, or which might give us medicines so more of us can survive. We are the selfish species, looking for a new planet to spoil. Do Catholics, Muslims, and Hassidic Jews allow birth control? The pope claims to care about the environment. But he can't see, or doesn't want to see, what he's doing to the planet. Neither do most writers on food deficits, address this issue, nor in such discussions as this. Why not?

Feb. 16 2011 11:05 AM
Mia from Brooklyn

Really interesting segment. I take Raj Patel's point that it's not productive to 'blame' people in India and China for (at least some) having money for more food and different kinds of foods. But he also mentioned the role of global food and agribusiness corporations. They are keen to spread the Western diet (high meat and fat, lots of processed foods and sugars) in the global south, along with U.S. style intensive production methods like factory farms for pigs, chickens, cows, etc. This is a huge global challenge because of the climate change impacts and the rising demand for grain to feed farmed animals in intensive systems. In-depth exploration of this in China, India, Brazil and Ethiopia here:

Feb. 16 2011 10:55 AM
SOLOMON from food crisis


Feb. 16 2011 10:41 AM
freestuffffff from downtown manahattan

A lot of people think of Christine Quinn as Bloomberg's mini-me, who lost all her credibility when she helped the mayor buy an illegal third term. How does she address the meme that she is nothing but a billionaire's puppet?

Feb. 16 2011 10:33 AM
Vix from BKNYC

I can't afford food right here in Brooklyn. I've stolen, I've borrowed, I've applied for assistance. Finally, I had to get creative with it.

Feb. 16 2011 10:32 AM

Just as the show began, I was admiring Raj Patel for his comments in the NY Times, Room-for-Debate section, because unlike the other commentators, who took pure economic perspectives, he emphasized the social factors involved with the economic.

Feb. 16 2011 10:19 AM
David from Jerusalem Israel

From Israel online listener. Milk, subsidized bread prices, vegetables, grains - all up here 20-30% in the past year. Even in industrialized countries like Israel the impact is great - and something like a hamburger at a fast food restaurant can be 12-15 dollars (40-50 shekels)! Some chicken breast can run 8 dollars a pound at a supermarket.

Feb. 16 2011 10:17 AM
Cory from Planet Earth

With people around the world going hungry, it is simply insane to burn food in our cars. Granted it is not quite the same variety of corn as is eaten, but it is taking the place of edible corn. Moreover, our corn based ethanol process is comically inefficient (less comes out than goes in), especially compared to the Brazilian cane based process which is energy positive.

Feb. 16 2011 10:16 AM

Actually, I have been receiving weird tweets from people in various other countries asking for help regarding the manipulation of the food markets.

I am not sure what I can do to help. If somebody can offer suggestions, I would be happy to do attempt to offer some help to these people.

Feb. 16 2011 10:16 AM
oil monkey

Kudos to Patel for tirelessly bringing attention to these issues. I think it is important to keep an eye on a holistic analysis of what is going on- it isn't simply corruption, north-south exploitation, climate instability or energy issues- it is ALL of these things, one feeding back into the other. We can't pick and choose single issues to focus, lobby, etc. on- we have to address them all at once.

Feb. 16 2011 10:15 AM
oil monkey

Kudos to Patel for tirelessly bringing attention to these issues. I think it is important to keep an eye on a holistic analysis of what is going on- it isn't simply corruption, north-south exploitation, climate instability or energy issues- it is ALL of these things, one feeding back into the other. We can't pick and choose single issues to focus, lobby, etc. on- we have to address them all at once.

Feb. 16 2011 10:15 AM
m from Brooklyn, NY

speculation and the commodification of food is the real culprit!

Feb. 16 2011 10:15 AM
Libby from Harlem

I've realize right away that growing feed prices were partially behind, along with unemployment, in creating unrest in Tunisia and Egypt. Can you please discuss on air the role of speculation in driving up food prices?

Feb. 16 2011 10:14 AM

Keep dirving your hummer. The strong will survive.

Feb. 16 2011 10:10 AM

THIS growing season, a first:
Genetically engineered "Fuel-Only Corn" is now ready to mix into the food supply.

Even pro-biotech group North American Millers Association are freaking out!

"...The USDA disappointed GE critics again last week when it fully deregulated Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta's Event 3272 GE corn. The corn is genetically engineered to produce an enzyme that converts starch to sugar, making it easier to process the corn and turn it into the biofuel ethanol.

The North American Millers Association (NAMA), a normally pro-biotech organization that represents 170 agricultural mills in 38 states, is concerned that Event 3271 kernels could accidentally mix with corn meant for food processing and damage the quality of food products like snacks and breakfast cereals.

"USDA has failed to provide the public with sufficient scientific data on the economic impacts of contamination on food production, or information on how USDA will ensure Syngenta's compliance with a stewardship plan," said NAMA President Mary Waters."

Feb. 16 2011 10:08 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About It's A Free Country ®

Archive of It's A Free Country articles and posts. Visit the It's A Free Country Home Page for lots more.

Supported by

WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public.  Learn more at


Supported by