Why food riots work in the 21st century


Countries might provide legal guarantees for the right to food, but research shows food riots remain a key means for forcing government action to ensure food markets work for all.  العربية

Naomi Hossain
9 July 2015

The green revolution and globalized food markets were supposed to relegate food scarcity to the annals of history. Yet thousands of people across dozens of countries took to the streets when world food prices spiked in 2008 and 2011. Why, in the 21st century, do people feel compelled to risk life and limb to protest when food prices rise? What do they achieve, and is it more than can be won through constitutional or other legal guarantees of a right to food?

To answer these questions, researchers studied the historical rupture in the global food system between 2007 and 2012. Most studies of food riots in this period took a wide approach, studying correlations with price changes and regime types. We felt this risked treating these events as the spasmodic outbursts of hungry people. Studies of European food riots had established that historically these were ideological and strategic forms of political protest. We decided to go deep, to compare protests, movements and policy responses in selected cases—Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique. We talked to activists and protestors, studied newspaper coverage, and interviewed key policy elites.

We found that food riots still happen in the 21st century because they still perform important functions in influencing the policies and practices of governments towards subsistence—what we call the ‘politics of provisions’. A popular protest over price alerts governments to impending subsistence crises or the limits of popular tolerance to sudden food price rise. Such protests remind governments that they are responsible for protecting citizens against such crises; for most rulers, the shame of food riots hitting the headlines is incentive enough to elicit some kind of response. They also highlight the plight of groups who fall out of whatever social safety net is there to protect people (one reason Bangladeshi garments workers protested when food prices spiked in 2008 and 2011). Finally, food riots signal popular outrage about food market and food policy failures; for example, speculative hoarding, withdrawn subsidies (which triggered riots in Maputo), or corruption in public food schemes (which did the same in West Bengal).


Demotix/zakir hossain chowdhury (All rights reserved)

Bangladeshi garment workers protest rising lunch prices in Dhaka.

Food riots work because—or to the extent that—a shared moral economy underpins the politics of provisions. By this is meant that elites share or at least acknowledge popular beliefs about how food markets ought to work—that there are limits to the rights to profit from food trade in times of scarcity, and that public authorities are responsible for policing food markets. But it is not obvious when this shared understanding exists. Further, the extent to which rights to food have been formally agreed may not be a reliable guide.

In Kenya, for example, even a constitutional guarantee of the right to food does not mean the policy elite shares such views with hungry Kenyans. By contrast, Bangladeshi elites resist talk of rights to food, and yet the moral economy functions to keep the government alert and responsive to food crises. The hard political lessons of history bind the elite to a commitment to protect against hunger in Bangladesh, and turn their attention to more politically important groups such as big farmers in Kenya. A committed active social movement organized around the right to food can make all the difference, as the Indian experience shows. But even that may not be immune to ideological shifts with political change.

Not all hungry people protest and many food rioters are not hungry. Not all hungry people protest and many food rioters are not hungry. From our work with activists and protestors across these contexts, we concluded that six shared beliefs create the conditions for a 21st century food riot (or subsistence protest, a term we prefer):  hunger arises while—or because—others profit (it is about fairness, not just empty bellies); food is special—it is necessary for life but it also nourishes people’s cultural and social being, and is the single most important item of consumption; there are limits to injustice, exploitation and corruption, and food rights are one of them; the situation is deteriorating and there is no sign of authoritative action; the public authorities have power and can act if so motivated; and people believe they can organize to express their collective discontent. 

Twenty-first century conditions offer two reasons to believe food riots will remain an important mass political strategy in a globalizing era. First, the mass media has become a key player in the politics of provisions. Whether and how protests get reported shape how they are received and responded to by policy elites. But media bias and failings in reporting protest are so significant as to render the findings of many large studies of food riots suspect (as these deploy media coverage as data). Nevertheless, a sympathetic media, one that shares the basic principles of the moral economy, provides a vital platform for protestors.

Second, compared to the weak incentives of noblesse oblige operating under the best circumstances in historical Europe, even the poorest developing countries have at least the semblance of electoral democracy on which to pin their hopes. It seems clear enough that an elected government that fails to at least demonstrate an effort to respond to a 21st century food price crisis, will need to pull some impressive alternatives out of its hat to get re-elected. Whether or not it succeeds, it will have sacrificed some of the invisible power of any government: its legitimacy.

The Food Riots and Food Rights research shows that protection against subsistence crises is the rock-bottom price of regime legitimacy. A government may do other things—build new roads and bridges, blame minorities for the problems of the majority, tackle corruption, preside over robust economic growth even, but if it does not at least try to intervene when food crisis strikes, all bets are off. This may be getting harder to do in globalizing times. But as of the global food crises of 2007-12, the food riot was still doing its job.


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