The Bangladeshi elite took to the streets this weekend to protest food adulteration. It’s an admirable campaign, and unusual in that for once the people with power are aligned with those without (probably why a law has already been passed about it). Beyond the novelty of the well-heeled protestors, there is something incredibly vital about the politics of food that drives even they to the streets: if you can’t eat well - worse still if you can’t feed your children well, other things don’t matter.
A visceral force of anger rooted in a deep sense of right that can move all kinds of people to collective action. This is why images of food riots around the world in 2008 and 2011 had such power: we all instinctively get why the hot fury of hunger might trigger protest.
The politics of the gut
But as the historian of food riots, John Bohstedt, writes in an IDS working paper, anger and a sense of right do not automatically trigger protest. Sweeping across the food protests of early modern England and France, colonial India and Ireland, ancient and revolutionary China, and contemporary Egypt, West Africa and Haiti, he writes a recipe for a politics of provisions – a state that responds to food crises and a people willing and able to claim that response:
‘Combine (for instance) three cups of massive mobilisation, one cup of elite wisdom (if unavailable, military sympathy may be substituted), one cup of ruler-vulnerability, two cups of shared moral economy, a pinch of sweetener such as family or ethnic affinity, a cup of food availability, three tablespoons of established patterns of bargaining between rulers and rioters, the yeast of leadership (established or emergent), and a mystery ingredient added by a sprite (perhaps a small boy or other external intervention). Bake in the intense heat of international media attention and riots in neighbouring countries, but only for three months’ – and you get [food protests].
Our soon-to-be-published study on what food rights mean to people, part of the Life in a time of food price volatility project, finds that the sense of a right to food is uneven. Across the 10 developing countries we work in people seem to know, deep down, that they have a right to food – it’s the very basis of being human. But how that can be claimed and whether and how in a globalising food system the ruling classes can be made to give a damn are far less clear.
But what if this sense of right, mobilising means and expectations of rulers are absent?
Emeritus Professor John Bohstedt’s paper The Politics of Provisions in World History is published as part of the DFID-ESRC Food Riots and Food Rights: the moral and political economy of accountability for hunger project based at the IDS. For more information or to attend events, email Devangana Kalita (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Year 2 findings from Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility will be launched on 5th June, 2.30-4.00pm, Royal Irish Academy, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin 2. To reserve a place please email Therese.Gubbins@oxfamireland.org.
Help Yourself! Food rights and responsibilities
Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Governance team at IDS and a researcher on the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project.