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Food Riots: System Breakdown

John Hinkson on food shortages, population growth, climate change, and why neo-liberalism as an untenable social order

The new realisation in the West that the availability of food is a major concern in many countries around the world came with a jolt. Quite suddenly newspaper reports were agog with accounts of food riots in up to ten countries, the fall of one government over food prices and supply, and claims that many other countries were struggling and their populations restless. Even where food was available, it was now being priced at levels that the poor could not afford. After decades of celebrating how science, usually in the guise of the Green revolution, had solved the food problem — even given population growth that will see the world passing 7 billion people in the near future and 9 billion by 2050 — this is a shock requiring serious thought and action.

But what constitutes a serious response can’t be taken for granted. The issue did not even ‘make the cut’ at the 2020 summit in Canberra. The response of the IMF and World Bank, largely ignored by its member countries, has been to seek aid for the poor. While it seems that urgent aid must indeed be given, this could only be an adequate response if shortages and pricing problems had been caused by short-term events. But there are good reasons to see this situation as the product of a deeper, structural shift.

There have been warnings for decades that food shortages were a real prospect because of population growth and a growing shortage of agricultural land and water. They were either ignored or brushed aside as gloom and doom accounts that ignored the developmental growth prospects of the new global order. But the situation has now become much more complicated. The present crisis, which includes the issues of population growth, land and water, is also related to a complex of other developments, especially the dual forces of climate change and growing shortages of oil and gas. These lend a more serious element to attempts to interpret food shortages. But even these actually give, at best, partial insights. For as is evident in all of the recent newspaper reports on food riots, these matters are at best taken up simply as policy issues.

Policy, of course, cannot be ignored. It is a crucial way to bring an idea or a perspective into practical reality. But policy and ideas can also conceal broader assumptions. For example, at the 2020 summit it was clear that all the ideas to be considered were set within definite parameters: they all assumed the broad continuation of global neo-liberalism. Every idea and policy assumes something, so in itself this is to be expected. But the problem with the 2020 summit was that this was an assumption that could not be questioned. Today, this is much more than a mistake or a flaw in the policy-making process: it goes to the very basis of the validity of any perspective on the future.

Accounts of the food riots elaborated simply in terms of empirical facts with limited connections made to rising oil prices or problems with availability of water, serve a particular broad political purpose: to close off discussion of deeper structural and ethical questions.

It is not possible to consider food production properly today without considering the dominance of the global market in both the production and distribution of food. Food is a global phenomenon. Apart from other things, this means that local food production has been systematically discouraged for decades in favour of the (temporarily) cheaper, ‘factory’ produced or agri-business global product. The key to understanding today’s food riots is to see that water shortages, shortage of land, population growth, climate change and peak oil are all related to the emergent society that continues to call these problems into existence, with ever expanding force. This society — or more to the point, the way of life — has almost entirely displaced the socialist idea, and even moved beyond the constraints of an older capitalist form, to emphasise growth and development at all costs, through its new high-tech capacities to transcend nature. It will take much more than a policy to address the people’s unconscious commitment to this way of life structured around commodity consumption and individual global lifestyles.

Food riots are better understood as a symptom of a broader crisis — the coming apart of this global strategy. This is evident in climate change directly, as drought and higher temperatures affect both land and sea. And this intersects with the growing pressure on oil supply, for the moment reflected in higher pricing. In turn, higher pricing of oil and gas flows on to put upward pressure on fertiliser costs and food prices. In the meantime, the availability of land for food production comes under the dual pressures of deteriorating climate and the switching of land use to the production of bio-fuels to sustain western consumption patterns, including global travel and global trade.

If this is now emerging as a systemic crisis, what will happen when oil and gas production goes into decline in the near future? These are not isolated events, they are structural and can be read as the tip of the iceberg of the melt-down of neo-liberalism’s untenable social order. To merely argue for aid as a response to food riots is simultaneously to defend that social order.

John Hinkson is an Arena Publications editor

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