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by intern Julia Landau

“Food riot??” asked an indignant Eric Holt-Giménez at a talk he gave in New York City on March 5, referring to protests in response to the 2008 food crisis. According to Holt-Giménez, the Executive Director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, “food rebellion” would be more accurate.

Between 2007 and 2008, approximately 40 food protests occurred around the world. In Mexico, corn prices made tortillas prohibitively expensive for the nation’s poor. In Haiti, soaring food prices led people to the streets, and eventually to overthrow the Prime Minister.

These protests were not spontaneous outbursts fueled by mob-mentality – hence they were not riots. Instead, they were conscious, political acts: rebellions. The agency and intention implied by the word rebellion are essential: they are not just a reaction to food prices, but a protest against a flawed system. It’s the difference between responding to symptoms and curing the sickness.

The commonly-cited reasons for hikes in food prices are grain speculation, increased use of land for agro-fuel production, increased meat consumption, and a particularly poor harvest season – what Holt-Giménez calls proximate causes. While in 2007-2008 these forces were certainly at work, a deeper look reveals that the food crisis was actually a long time in the making. We have a vulnerable food system – one in which 91% of our crops are maize, cotton, wheat, rice, and soy. With such a lack of diversity in our agricultural repertoire, we leave our crops open to environmental and economic shock. Think Irish potato famine.

There is a danger in conflating the proximate and root causes of the food crisis, Holt-Giménez warns. When we focus only on the symptoms of the problem, we easily reach the conclusion that genetically modified food and industrial agriculture present a “solution,” or an immediate fix to world hunger. But if we look at the root causes, we see that this “quick fix” leaves us vulnerable to loss of crop diversity, market flooding, and farmer bankruptcy. The consolidation of land and power are at the heart of the problem.