From Food Rebellions to Food Sovereignty: Urgent Call to Fix a Broken Food System
by Eric Holt-Giménez and Loren Peabody

Editor's Note: This piece is longer than the typical PNL article, but it was the most comprehensive analysis we've seen on the food crisis. We are running it in two parts. Part II will appear in the Sept.issue. Footnotes available with the online version of the PNL or by calling SPC. Originally published at


As the food crisis worsens, people in Haiti have been making mud cakes out of desperation. Photo:

Part I

Hunger in a World of Plenty
The skyrocketing cost of food has resurrected the specter of the "food riot."

The World Bank reports that global food prices rose 83% over the last three years and the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN] cites a 45% increase in their world food price index during just the past nine months.1 The Economist's comparable index stands at its highest point since it was originally formulated in 1845.2 As of March 2008, average world wheat prices were 130% above their level a year earlier, soy prices were 87% higher, rice had climbed 74%, and maize was up 31%.3

Not surprisingly, people have taken to the streets in Mexico, Italy, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Yemen, Egypt, and Haiti. Over 100 people have been killed and many more injured. In Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with food price increases of 50-100%, driving the poor to eat biscuits made of mud and vegetable oil, angry protestors forced the Prime Minister out of office.

The food crisis will get worse before it gets better. Without massive, immediate injections of food aid, 100 million people in the Global South will join the swelling ranks of the world's hungry.4 But the protests are not simply crazed "riots" by hungry masses. Rather they are angry demonstrations against high food prices in countries that formerly had food surpluses, and where government and industry are unresponsive. They reflect demands for food sovereignty: people's political and economic right to determine the course of their own food systems.

The food crisis appeared to explode overnight, reinforcing fears that there are just too many people in the world. But according to the FAO, with record grain harvests in 2007, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone-at least 1.5 times current demand. In fact, over the last 20 years, food production has risen steadily at over 2% a year, while the rate of population growth has dropped to 1.14% a year.5 Population is not outstripping food supply. "We're seeing more people hungry and at greater numbers than before," says World Hunger Program's executive director Josette Sheeran. "There is food on the shelves but people are priced out of the market."6

The immediate reasons for food price inflation include; droughts in major wheat-producing countries in 2005-06, low grain reserves (we have less than 54 days worth, globally); high oil prices; a doubling of per-capita meat consumption in some developing countries, and the diversion of 5% of the world's cereals to agrofuels. Though an increase in agricultural growth is projected for 2008, most experts agree food prices will continue to rise. Drought, meat diets, low reserves, and agrofuels are only the proximate causes of food price inflation. These factors do not explain why-in an increasingly productive and affluent global food system-next year up to one billion people will likely go hungry. To solve the problem of hunger, we need to address the root cause of the food crisis: the corporate monopolization of the world's food systems.

Rise of the Industrial Agri-foods Complex
The world food crisis reflects the weaknesses of a global food system that is highly vulnerable to economic and environmental shock. Why? Much of the problem springs from the risks and inequities inherent in the industrial agri-foods complex. Built over the past half-century-largely with public funds for grain subsidies, foreign aid, and international research and development-the industrial agri-foods complex is made up of multinational grain traders, giant seed, chemical and fertilizer corporations, processors and supermarket chains. Forty years ago, many of the countries of the Global South had yearly trade surpluses in food of $7 billion. After the UN's first "Decade of Development" this surplus shrunk to $1 billion. Today, after four "Development Decades" and the expansion of global agri-foods, the southern food deficit has ballooned to US $11 billion/year. The FAO predicts it will grow to $50 billion by 2030.7 While not the result of a central "conspiracy," the rise of food deficits in the Global South mirrors the rise of food surpluses in the industrial North. Far from the result of "overpopulation," or the "invisible hand" of the market, hunger is the result of systematic destruction of southern food systems through a series of northern economic development projects.

The Green Revolution
The first major development in the rise of the agri-foods complex was the spread of the industrial model of food production through the "Green Revolution." Starting in the 1960s, the Green Revolution marketed "technological packages" of hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, to developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. A project of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations (thereafter financed with public money), the Green Revolution raised yields per acre by developing rice, wheat and maize hybrids that could be densely planted and responded to irrigation and high applications of fertilizer. In the West, world per-capita food production increased by 11%. But the number of hungry people also increased by 11%.8 This is because the Green Revolution's technologies were more easily adopted by large-scale farmers who took over rich bottomlands, displacing peasants. Many smallholders, pushed out of agriculture, migrated to the city slums now common throughout the Global South. Others, encouraged by government "land reforms," cleared new agricultural land in tropical forests and on fragile hillsides. Development projects soon followed, offering cheap credit so smallholders could buy the Green Revolution technological packages. In fragile forest and hillside conditions, Green Revolution packages degraded soils rapidly, requiring higher and higher fertilizer applications. Yields fell, and the tremendous diversity of local varieties planted by traditional farmers was reduced by as much as 90%, destroying centuries-old agro-biodiversity. To compensate, more and more forest and hillside land was brought into production, causing massive environmental damage. The Green Revolution, ostensibly a project to save the world from hunger, undermined the ability of the poor to feed themselves by displacing them from their land and degrading the agroecosystems they depended on to produce food.

Green Revolution: Winners and Losers
The germplasm collected from peasants in Asia and Latin America by Green Revolution scientists contributed $10.2 billion/yr. to US corn and soy production in the 1970-80s. Fully one third of the seed produced by the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT in Spanish) was appropriated by private northern seed companies including Pioneer Hy-Brid, and Cargill (Ecologist, 1996). Farmers and the environment fared less well from the spread of the Green Revolution. Central America is a case in point: From 1979-97, fertilizer use increased from 80 to 120/kg-hectare and grain production increased by 45 million tons/yr. (CIECA, 2001) (CIMMYT, 1992). However, average yields actually dropped by 50% from 1980-96 (CIECA, 2001). How did grain production increase even as yields dropped? By expanding the "agricultural frontier." During the heyday of the Green Revolution in Central America, the region lost half of its tropical forests and almost doubled its CO2 emissions (Utting, 1996; Kaimowitz, 1996)

The Debt Crisis
The spread of the Green Revolution coincided with a general boom in lending from the Global North to the Global South (which is one reason why so much credit was available to peasants for technological packages…). The Global South borrowed heavily to finance economic development. Agricultural exports were used to obtain foreign exchange to pay back loans. Production boomed, leading to a fall in prices for agricultural goods. Farmers in the North and the South responded by producing more to increase income. The global oil shock of the 1970s led to an increase in production costs and a recession that, in turn, led northern banks to call in their loans. Family farmers in the US went bankrupt and the countries of the Global South defaulted on the loans, leading to the "Debt Crisis."

Take Two: Structural Adjustment
The second major development in the rise of the industrial agri-foods complex was the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) of the 1980-90s. The SAPs were conditional loan programs enforced in tandem by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) so that developing countries, debt-ridden after twenty years of development, would pay back their loans to northern banks. To receive loans from the World Bank, developing countries signed IMF agreements to remove their tariff barriers to foreign imports, privatize state companies and services, and dismantle their food marketing boards. This allowed widespread "dumping" of highly-subsidized US and European grain surpluses. Farmers in the Global South couldn't compete against grain sold at prices below the costs of production and were forced to quit farming. These rural poor were then available to work for starvation wages on plantations growing low-end agricultural exports including, bananas, cotton, tobacco, coffee, sugar and beef, or high-end, non-traditional export crops, like snow-peas and flowers. Support for national food production disappeared. Southern countries lost the ability to feed themselves.

Part II continues next month with Free Trade, Agrofuels and steps to transition to food sovereignty.

1 "Food Price Surge Could Mean '7 Lost Years' in Poverty Fight, Zoellick says." The World Bank News & Broadcast. 11 April, 2008; "Urgent Measures Required to Reduce the Impact of High Food Prices on the Poor UN Agency Chiefs Highlight Role of Agro-Industries." FAO Newsroom. 9 April, 2008.
2 "Cheap No More." The Economist. 8 December, 2007: 81.
3 "The Cost of Food: Facts and Figures." BBC News. 8 April, 2008.
4 "Food Price Crisis Imperils 100 Million in Poor Countries, Zoellick Says." The World Bank News & Broadcast. 14 April, 2008.
5 and
6 Geoffrey Lean. "Rising Prices Threaten Millions with Starvation, Despite Bumper Crops. The Independent. 2 March, 2008.
7 "Food Import Bills: Changing Consumption Patterns in International trade", in The State of Ag Commodity Markets (SOCO), 2004.
8 World Hunger: Twelve Myths, Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins, and Peter Rosset with Luis Esparza, A Grove Press Book, ISBN: 0-8021-3591-9, 1998
9 "Renewable Fuels Standard." Renewable Fuels Association.
10 Lester Brown. "Why Ethanol Production Will Drive World Food Prices Even Higher in 2008." Earth Policy Institute. 24 January 2008.
11 "High Prices and Volatility in Agricultural Commodities." FAO Food Outlook Special Features. November 2007, "High Food Prices-A Harsh New Reality." World Bank Data & Research. 29 February 2008.
12 "Scientists advise halt to biofuels," Seth Borenstein, SF Chronicle/AP, April 30, 2008.
13 Seth Boronstein. "Food Scientists Say Stop Biofuels to Fight World Hunger." The Associated Press. 29 April 2008.
14 "Bush Seeks More Food Aid for Poor Countries," Steven Lee Myers , New York Times, May 2, 2008
15 Henry Saragih. "Concrete Measures Are Needed to Strengthen Peasand and Farmer-Based Food Production." La Via Campesina. 30 April 2008.
16 Missy Ryan. "Biofuels Halt would Ease Food Prices-IFPRI." Reuters News Services. 30 April 2008.
17 Saragih, 2008.
19 C. Badgley, J. K. Moghtader, E. Quintero, E. Zakem, M. J. Chappell, K. R. Avilés Vázquez, A. Samulon, and I. Perfecto (2007), "Organic agriculture and the global food supply," Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, Vol. 22, Issue 2, pp. 86-108.
20 Rosset Peter, "On the Benefits of Small Farms," Food First Backgrounder, February, 1999

Eric Holt-Giménez is the executive director of FoodFirst/Institute for Food and Development Policy and author of the latest Food First Book, Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America's Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture. Loren Peabody is an intern at Food First.