The 2011 Food Crisis

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

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?