In June 2009, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that, worldwide, the number of hungry people had reached one billion. Today, more people are hungry than at any point in human history. They are concentrated in the developing world, and their hunger has been exacerbated by the global financial crisis.
In 2008, world wheat prices reached a nineteen-year high, and over thirty countries experienced food riots. "Hunger seasons" have become the norm in many parts of the global south, and women bear the brunt of this food shortage.
According to ActionAid International, women produce up to seventy percent of food in developing countries. However, women also make up seventy percent of the world's hungry, and they own only one percent of the world's land. They might prepare most of the world's food, but they do not eat their fair share of it.
In the west, however, what strikes us is not hunger, but its opposite: obesity. According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) study, more than 1.6 billion people globally are overweight or obese—that is 60% more than go hungry. As early as 1987, the American media began murmuring about an "obesity epidemic," and in 2001 the WHO began to speak of "globesity."
This epidemic is not limited to America and Western Europe: it is visible in East Asia, Central and South America, and even in Africa. In South Africa, 30.5% of black women are obese. In China, the prevalence of childhood obesity rose from 1.5% in 1989 to 12.6% in 1997.
Escalating global hunger and obesity levels might seem like a gigantic paradox. It is not. It is part of a single global food crisis, with economic, geopolitical, and environmental dimensions. It is perhaps the starkest, most basic way in which global inequality is manifest.
It has many tangled causes, one being simple competition for basic cereals. The growth of nonwestern economies like China almost invariably generates a shift to a more "western" style diet, which involves rising meat consumption, which in turn necessitates diverting vast quantities of cereals from humans to cattle. This is a high-status but inefficient way to consume protein and calories.
This competition has recently been magnified by the expansion of the biofuel industry, which diverts cereals from humans to cars. Southern Africa, for example, has been promoted as the new "Middle East of biofuels," to grow crops not to feed Africans, but to power automobiles.
Spiraling grain prices, increasing meat consumption, and the question of biofuels are merely three facets of a multidimensional global phenomenon that is affecting how we produce, distribute, and consume food.
Other aspects include climate change, which is making tropical seasons hotter and drier; speculation and collusion on commodity markets; dwindling grain reserves; and export restrictions imposed by panicking nations keen to protect domestic consumers.
More "medium-term" causes of the contemporary global food crisis include market distortions produced by large-scale government subsidies to European and American farming and World Bank programs of structural adjustment, which have systematically dismantled national systems of subsidized farming elsewhere in the world.
In other words, the world food crisis is a particularly instructive, if unsettling, event that can illustrate certain aspects of "globalization." It demonstrates how the basic act of eating a piece of bread or meat binds consumers seamlessly with distant farmers, large corporations, energy systems, economic forces, and international politics.
A History of Food Systems
The historical origins of today's global linkages between food, capital, energy, environment, and technology lie well before the mid-twentieth century.
For most of history, humans hunted or grew food for their own consumption, and food travelled only short distances from source to stomach. Yet, orchestrated, long-distance exchanges of food go back millennia: the spice trade dates back to ancient times, for example. Islamic farmers brought sugar to the Mediterranean around 600AD, and the Spanish, along with other European powers, brought it to the new world, and established the huge plantation complexes that formed a recognizably long-distance food system.
From the early modern period, European historians can identify a series of relatively distinctive "food systems" or food regimes, which can help us locate the origins of today's global food crisis in deeper historical time.
The period 1500-1750 saw a "mercantile" food system. Most basic foodstuffs (grains, milk, and meat) were produced within Europe, but "exotics" were drawn from the colonies, with protective tariffs ensuring that such colonies could only trade with their mother nations.
During the nineteenth century, this nakedly extractive system was largely dismantled and replaced with a "settler-colonial regime" (c.1850-1930). White settler colonies (America, Canada, Argentina, Australasia) increasingly supplied Europe with luxury and basic foodstuffs (particularly meat and wheat), the profits from which were used to purchase European manufactured goods.
After 1945, following the compound shocks of two World Wars and the 1930s financial crisis, a new "productivist" food regime emerged. This new food system was typified by the re-emergence of European and American agricultural protectionism, and the growing power of the food industries (such as Kellogg's and Del Monte).
There were important institutional dimensions to this post-World War II shift. With the foundation of the UN and the FAO (1945), the idea that the entire world could collectively suffer a "food crisis" (of maldistribution, hunger, and famine) can be said to have been born, as can the idea that a world free from hunger was both feasible and politically expedient.
In 1951, the Rockefeller Center's Mexican Agricultural Program produced a paper on the "World Food Problem," which explicitly conceived the issue of global food scarcity in terms of geopolitical security: hunger, caused by overpopulation, was viewed as a primary cause of political instability. The result was the "Green Revolution": with the aid of high-yielding crop varieties, fertilizers, and pesticides, agricultural underproduction in the developing world might be overcome.
This "productivist" regime, however, did not survive the early 1970s, when a convergence of economic and climatic events produced perhaps the first recognizable "world food crisis". This crisis, again, was caused by a confluence of interrelated factors: the El Niño weather pattern, the oil crisis, the collapse of Bretton Woods, and tensions surrounding globalization.
Rising meat consumption also played its role. A Soviet Union determined to outpace American levels of meat-eating had to import enormous quantities of grain to support that measure, which drove up world prices, leading to shortages. Famine spread across the southern hemisphere, from West Africa to Bangladesh.
Following these years of turbulence, another food regime developed after 1980. We might term this a "neoliberal" food regime, typified by growing multinational corporate and institutional power. This new system promotes a "global diet" (high in sugars and fats) increasingly at odds with older national or cultural culinary traditions. Countries as diverse as Japan, Iran and the Democratic Republic of Congo consume vastly more wheat products than they did in 1945, for example.
This food regime has also witnessed controversies over biotechnology and an "organic backlash" in the wealthier parts of the western world. At present, we might be witnessing the unraveling, reconfiguration, or intensification of this regime.
Agro-Food Systems 1850-1900
From a historical perspective, the second half of the nineteenth century is particularly interesting: this is when a novel form of world food system came into being, which was centered on Europe, and Britain in particular.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Britain pursued an aggressive policy of trade liberalization, dismantling protective tariffs on most foodstuffs, most famously grain in 1846. The rest of Europe followed, but quite rapidly reverted to protection when the economic climate changed after 1870.
This made Britain the most important single global market for food in the second half of the nineteenth century: in 1860, 49% of the total food exports of all of Africa, Asia and Latin America went to Britain. This food system allowed speculation: the Liverpool corn exchange authorized futures trading in 1883.
This food system also displaced onto much of the rest of the world the burden of feeding the exploding populations of industrializing Europe, who generally ate better than ever before. The later nineteenth century saw up to fifty million famine deaths in India, China, Korea, Brazil, Russia, Ethiopia and Sudan. The global causes of these famines—which connect the economic, the political and the climatic—disturbingly prefigure today's food crisis.
To illustrate the development of this food system, let's look at two key foodstuffs: wheat and meat. European wheat consumption rose dramatically in the nineteenth century, but much of this rise was composed of imports. Britain produced 80% of her wheat in 1841; by 1900, this figure was 25%. With the advent of the railway and steamship, it became cheaper to grow wheat in Montana or the Canadian prairies and ship it to Liverpool than to grow it in, say, Lincolnshire.
With functional telegraphy conveying price signals, this produced the world's first truly integrated market. The international grain trade became increasingly controlled by a small group of companies (Cargill, Bunge, Dreyfus, Continental, André). By the early twentieth century, a one-cent price fluctuation might produce a 50,000 acre annual difference in land planted in Argentina.
Such reliance on imports raised grave questions of food security, as W.J. Gordon noted in How London Lives (1897): "if this country were to lose the command of the seas the people would starve." Britain relied on her navy rather than her farmers for food.
When Fritz Haber synthesized nitrate fertilizer in 1908, he thought this would allow Germany to achieve "food independence": domestic production would rise sufficiently for dependence on imports to cease. Such geopolitical concerns were borne out by World War One, which was, in historian Avner Offer's words, a "war of bread and potatoes" as well as one of steel and gold.
The interwar period saw European nations struggle to resurrect some form of nutritional self-sufficiency: Italy, for example, launched its Battle for Grain in 1925. Even the British began the retreat from a century of laissez-faire policies with the 1932 Wheat Act, which reintroduced protectionism.