The French revolution of 1789 to 1799 is an illustration of the connection between hunger and
revolution. Economic causes of that revolution included hunger and malnutrition among the poor due to
the 50% rise in bread prices that resulted from poor grain harvests. The government was seen as being
isolated from the problems of the poor. Another cause was the state's effective bankruptcy due to
expensive wars. Ideas about the equality of all men may have shaped the revolution, but economic
hardships triggered it.
Like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was also triggered by lack of food,
particularly in the cities. In order to finance World War I, the government printed millions of roubles, and
by 1917 inflation had made prices four times what they were in 1914. In response to the economic crisis,
farmers hoarded their grain and reverted to subsistence farming. Thus the cities were constantly short
I listen with amusement to commentators talking about the revolutions in the Arab world in terms of
ideologies, because the cause of revolution still comes down to the price of bread. It takes a lot of rage
to overcome man's innate fear of organized governmental authority. Ideologies may generate
discussion, they don't generate rage. But as the Arab world is discovering, if you take the food out of
the mouth of a man's family, he will rectify the situation or die trying.
Revolution is a forcible overthrow of a government or social order for a new system. There are always
economic reasons, even in well-fed America. For example: although the Declaration of Independence
gives many instances of legal and governmental abuses of power, it also includes economic complaints
about the King of Great Britain, for example:
"He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and
eat out their substance... He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our
constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:
...For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world: For imposing taxes on us without our consent... He
has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death,
desolation and tyranny..." (US Declaration of Independence).
As is clear from this excerpt from the South Carolina declaration of secession, the Civil War began over
slavery, which was the bulwark of the southern agricultural economy at that time:
"We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the
Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States.
Those States have assume (sic) the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions;
and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the
Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open
establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign
(carry away) the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands
of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and
pictures to servile insurrection.
"For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the
power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found
within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution
itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have
united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and
purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common
Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave,
half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate
extinction." ("Confederate States of America - Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and
Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union," Adopted December 24, 1860).
So let's talk about the international cost of food. All prices below are from the International Monetary
Fund (IMF) Commodity Food Price Index. The index assigns a value of 100 to the prices in 2005 and
includes Cereal, Vegetable Oils, Meat, Seafood, Sugar, Bananas, and Oranges prices.
In 1980, high interest rates and stagflation produced food prices about 25% higher than the prices in
2005. Overall, however, the period from 1980 to 2007 was a period of reasonable (and often cheap) food
125.06 (1980) 118.70 (1981) 108.56 (1982) 108.00 (1983) 105.03 (1984) 95.84 (1985)
94.25 (1986) 102.14 (1987) 110.40 (1988) 101.12 (1989) 103.70 (1990) 98.32 (1991)
97.11 (1992) 96.46 (1993) 99.41 (1994) 104.61 (1995) 112.27 (1996) 102.63 (1997)
92.05 (1998) 80.16 (1999) 82.12 (2000) 80.49 (2001) 83.33 (2002) 88.56 (2003)
100.95 (2004) 100.00 (2005) 110.49 (2006) 127.31 (2007) 157.04 (2008)
The international financial crisis of 2007- 2008, also known as the Great Recession, is said to be over,
but the price of food is going up again, here is more data from the IMF Commodity Food Price Index, this
time by month.
Jan 2008 153.02 Feb 2008 165.52 Mar 2008 172.53 Apr 2008 171.57
May 2008 173.17 Jun 2008 179.71 Jul 2008 178.29 Aug 2008 164.85
Sep 2008 153.98 Oct 2008 129.83 Nov 2008 122.41 Dec 2008 119.60 Avg. 157.04
Jan 2009 127.89 Feb 2009 124.61 Mar 2009 125.85 Apr 2009 131.88
May 2009 141.87 Jun 2009 143.18 Jul 2009 137.11 Aug 2009 135.40
Sep 2009 131.21 Oct 2009 132.35 Nov 2009 137.12 Dec 2009 139.52 Avg. 134.00
Jan 2010 138.74 Feb 2010 138.12 Mar 2010 139.24 Apr 2010 143.07
May 2010 140.65 Jun 2010 136.49 Jul 2010 143.88 Aug 2010 151.36
Sep 2010 156.14 Oct 2010 163.18 Nov 2010 164.96 Dec 2010 176.43 Avg. 149.35
Jan 2011 183.16 Feb 2011 189.34 Mar 2011 184.34 Apr 2011 190.88
May 2011 187.01 Avg. 186.95
The five month average from 2011 figures, 186.95, is comparable to the average of the first five months
of 2010, 140.08. This is a year to year increase of more than 33%. The Food Price Index of the Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which is based on commodity prices for meat,
dairy, cereal, oil and fats, and sugar shows over a 136% year to year increase for May 2010 to May 2011:
May 2010 170
May 2011 232
This great increase in the international price of food hits the Arab world hardest for several reasons.
Their lands are generally arid and so they import a great deal of food and this adds shipping costs to
food costs. There is a great disparity between rich and poor in the Arab world, so there are a great
number of poor people. Culturally and legally there are a great many restrictions on women that keep
them out of the work force, so many poor families have only one income. Small wonder that the Arab
nations were the first to erupt in rage.
Can revolution happen here? Bloody revolution is unlikely in America. For one thing, the American
people are generally well fed, there is a big welfare safety net. For another, America produces a lot of
food, there are no shortages here. Finally, Americans tend to be complacent and uninformed while the
economy is going well, and when the economy falters, Americans tend to go to the polls and overthrow
governments in a non-violent way.
The rising cost of food, however, has an impact on American foreign policy. This country has over 700
military bases in foreign countries. This vast spread of military might seems to be intended to stabilize
the world in order to protect American interests abroad. But, as the revolutions in the Arab world show,
there can be no peace when men with access to guns see their babies going hungry.
The next questions are, what has happened to the price of food and can it be controlled. In part, the
answer seems to be that prices have been driven up by speculators. Sources like Christian Aid and the
United Nations have called attention to a commodity price bubble which has driven up the price of basic
In the figures above, it is obvious that there was a food price bubble that peaked in 2008. The average
cost of food was 100.00 in 2005, 110.49 in 2006, 127.31 in 2007, 157.04 in 2008 and 134.00 in 2009. Some of
this increase is the inflation caused by the turmoil in the financial markets that created the Great
Recession. But if it were all inflation, the average food price index in 2008 would have been about
130.00 instead of 157.04.
There is also a food price bubble in 2011. The price index rose from 134.00 in 2009 to 149.35 in 2010 and
has hovered between 183.16 and 190.88 for the first five months of 2011. The northern hemisphere
harvests of 2008 deflated the 2008 food price bubble, with the food price index dropping from 178.29 in
July 2008 to 119.60 in Dec 2008. In the same period in 2010, prices rose from 143.88 to 176.43, another
indication that there is a bubble.
Underlying the bubble, there is also food price inflation, at an average rate that seems to be in excess
of 7% per year. This suggests that the price of food should only have increased about 50% from 2005 to
2011 instead of 80% to 90%.
Since the deflation of the housing bubble, investors have been scrambling for other ways to make
money. The average gold price in 2005 was $444.75. These days (June 15, 2011) gold sells for more than
$1500.00. The price of gold has more than tripled in six years. Seeking diversity, investors have poured
money into other commodities, including food staples.
Between inflation and speculation since 2005, there are now a lot more children hungry in the world.
There has been enough rage to fuel numerous revolutions already. There may well be more. The
economic crisis, primarily generated by the greed of American and European bankers, has brought forth
two revolutions, a civil war, and civil uprisings and protests that affect another 14 Arab countries. The
governments overthrown in Egypt and Tunisia were supported by the US government, and presumably
friendly to America.
America will spend over $700 billion on its military in 2011. But all of this expenditure will not make the
world a safer place because of the escalating cost of food. People can accept truly obnoxious
governments if they have plenty to eat, but if they have weapons, they will rebel over hunger. It's simple
really. Starve a child, feed a revolution. Feed a child, starve a revolution.
If America really wants to stabilize the world, it can partially accomplish this by stabilizing the cost of
food. Fortunately America is one of the great food producing nations and can affect the international
price of food staples.
Our farmers have been at the mercy of the bankers and the commodities traders for years. The bankers
and the commodities traders have shown themselves to be merciless. The price of food affects the
survival of people all over the globe, it is too important to be left to bankers and commodities traders.
An obvious first step against world hunger is ending the American subsidies for corn based ethanol.
Ethanol is uneconomical and a waste of resources. Since ethanol subsidies contribute to international
starvation, they are also immoral.
I also propose that the American government offer to buy food grains (like wheat, oats, rice, and corn)
and soy beans at prices that will give the average farmer a 20% profit, that is, the average cost of
production plus 20%. American farmers could sell to anyone, but the government offer would set a
The government should offer to sell grain for cost of purchase and storage, plus 20% for administration
of the program. The government's set prices would act to hold down the price of grains. (Why pay more
when you can buy from America?) The unsold grains (if any) would be stored for domestic or
international disaster and donated for humanitarian relief.
The set price for government purchase of grains and soy beans would insure the prosperity of existing
farmers and encourage the expansion of American farming. The set price for government sale of grains
and soy beans would discourage speculation in food staples that creates food price bubbles. If effect,
the American government would be establishing the price range for the most important items in the diet
of the poor of the earth. Feed a child, starve a revolution.
Amo Paul Bishop Roden