Hunger and its Discontents

Thompsoon - Famine and farm“Civilization is 24 hours and two missed meals deep”
– Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Lucifer’s Hammer

Human beings need to eat every day and we get very nervous when we don’t know where our next meal is coming from. As it is with individuals, so it is with whole societies. Food shortages and fear of hunger have been a potent force in history. While dissatisfaction with a government might be endemic, the trigger for political instability often involves food. Even in the 20th Century, major wars were often decided by food issues.

These points are not generally understood in well-fed Canada, but as the 21st Century wears on we will probably have good cause to know it. Food security will be a major issue in our increasingly crowded world, and our own national security may depend on doing what we can to assure food security for others.

Throughout history there is no more potent force for political stability than cheap plentiful food, and no more likely cause of political unrest than the fear of hunger. The stability of the Roman Empire rested with cheap grain from Egypt – along with circuses to distract the mob.

Shifts in climate, like the end of the Medieval Warming Period in the early 14th Century, can unleash the Four Horsemen. So can sudden geological events like super volcanoes, which can throw so much ash into the atmosphere that hemispheric or global temperatures may drop. The 1815 explosion of Mount Tambora triggered “the Year with No Summer” and the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 triggered the event known as the “Hunger Winter” in the recollections of many North American First Nations.

More routine causes have their influences too. Two years of poor crops triggered the French Revolution and the Paris mob was violently restive until July 1794, when a massive grain convoy of nearly 200 ships from America finally eased hunger fears.

The European revolutions of 1848 followed the potato blight that had caused severe famine in Ireland. While not as crucial as in Ireland, potatoes still formed a substantive portion of the European diet, and consecutive crop failures triggered widespread unrest from England to Hungary.

Economic disruption and warfare can also bring the fear of hunger in their wake, often with epic political consequences. Russian peasants found Lenin’s promise of “Peace, land, bread!” more persuasive than his Marxist rhetoric in 1917. The hunger caused by the Allied Blockade of 1914-18 lingered in German memories for decades. Lizzie Collingham’s superb book The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food, demonstrates how an obsession with food security haunted the Germans, Italians and Japanese in the 1930s and was a strong impetus behind the aggressiveness of their respective regimes. Hunger was a contributing factor to tens of million deaths of the Second World War, particularly in Nazi-occupied Russia and Poland, and in areas of Asia occupied by the Japanese military.

While many commentators hailed the Arab Spring of 2011 as an expression of Muslim desire for prosperity, democracy and clean governments (the appetites for which are real enough), they perhaps missed the real driver of the protests. Food prices had reached an all-time high in early 2011. The Egyptian housewives brandishing loaves of bread in Tahrir Square were at least as concerned about eating as voting.

Thompson - Egypt food crisis

Predicting the future is a hazardous business but it is possible to look at major trends and make some informed guesses. Humanity is becoming increasingly urbanized – more people now live in cities than live outside of them and the number of ten-million plus urban centres is growing; particularly in Asia and Africa. Historically, urban centres are the most vulnerable to instability when food is threatened.

While urbanization does tend to slow down birth rates, and the overall human population is expected to crest in this century, the UN’s latest population estimates see the world population rising from 7 billion today to 9.6 Billion people by 2050 and possibly 11 billion people by 2100. At the very least, there will be many more mouths to feed.

The last fifty years or so have seen dramatic prosperity increases in many parts of the world – including the most populous nations like China and India. As people grow more prosperous, they want more on the dinner plate – especially animal protein. The growth in Chinese meat consumption alone has had a major influence on feed prices.

The Green Revolution of the 1960s met and deterred the grim Malthusian certainties of the likes of the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich – whose 1968 and 1972 books The Population Bomb and Population, Resources, Environments: Issues in Human Ecology predicted imminent mass starvation and anarchy. But even though technology and globalization have vastly increased agricultural productivity in the decades since, new warning alarms are being sounded.

Paul Roberts’ The End of Food argues that the quest for peak efficiency in food production is reaching diminishing returns. Thomas Pawlick’s book, also titled The End of Food, reveals its contents in the sub-title: How the Food Industry is Destroying our Food Supply – And What You Can Do About It. And Andrew Nikiforuk’s Pandemonium: Bird Flu, Mad Cow Disease and Other Biological Plagues of the 21st Century, identifies some acute fragilities in the agricultural sector that result from globalization. These authors have their critics certainly, but it would be a mistake to dismiss their arguments out of hand.

Even without a Super-volcanic eruption, the onset of the next ice age (both of which are looming on geological schedules) or some other super-sized spanner in the machinery of food production, humanity is going to face considerable challenges in meeting food requirements through this century. Beyond the dire tocsins of Roberts, Nikiforuk and Pawlick are other problems – urban sprawl, climate change (whether human induced or not), and the constant flux in pricing caused by market speculations.

Political systems can induce famine – as Ukrainian Canadians who recall the Holodomor can attest. Similar dynamics worked to worsen the Ethiopian Famine of 1983-5 and the Somali famines of the early 1990s were heightened by a complete breakdown of civil society attending the fall of the Siad Barre regime. We may also see similar situations in the 21st Century, and Egypt seems especially ripe for a perfect storm of inadequate food production, over-population, and failing political and economic infrastructure.

Set against these dismal scenarios there is – as ever – the human capacity for adaptability, improvisation and invention. The 19th Century’s progress was dominated by the steam-driven Industrial Revolution and the 20th Century’s technology was generated by the revolution in electricity which filled our cities with light, let us talk across continents, and replaced all kinds of labour with new machines. At the start of the 21st Century we are in the throes of three technological revolutions – genetics, robotics and nanotechnology. Every human advance carries both threats and opportunities and the laws of unexpected consequences will have their say; but a host of glittering possibilities awaits.

Somehow, we will probably manage to feed everyone, but it may be a rough ride.

Canada is one of the few countries that can face the 21st Century with confidence about our supplies of fresh water, energy and food. But many other nations will envy us for this situation as shortages and crises threaten.

Thus, in the coming decades, it will be in our national interest to do what we can to enhance food security elsewhere in the world. This is definitely not an argument for beating our swords into plowshares. For a start, elements of the Canadian Forces have been active somewhere almost continually since 2001 and the late 2014 engagement against ISIS marks our third shooting war so far this century. There will be more. But food issues will become more closely linked to security issues than at any time since the Second World War.

The real challenge will be something far beyond support for NGOs engaged in famine relief. The volatility of world food prices since the onset of the ‘Great Recession’ in 2008 is less a matter of commodity speculation as it is of a fundamental inability of production to keep pace with global demand. Therein lies the real problem. Price spikes will trigger instability with unforeseen consequences – as they did in 1789, 1848 and again in 2011 – and conventional attempts to regulate a twitchy world commodities market will likely go nowhere.

What we really need is a food reserve to help flatten price spikes. In the last 20 years, humanity has steadily eaten up our food reserves. According to the US

Department of Agriculture, the global stock of wheat and mixed grains fell from 440 million megatons in 1998 to 260MM in 2006. In most years of the last 20, growth in consumption has outstripped increased production. Hence the food price spikes of 2008 and 2011, which is alarming enough for western consumers (especially those on limited and fixed incomes), but provokes genuine anger in the developing world where rising prices can cause serious economic hardship and health-threatening hunger.

Canada is one of the few countries that can reliably generate food surpluses in the coming decades. We are the world’s fourth largest wheat exporter, the largest exporter of hogs, and the third largest exporter of cattle; plus first in oats, sixth in barley and twelfth in corn. As big a player as we already are, we should be planning to ramp up agricultural production, not just for the sake of our export income, but also to amass a floating reserve.

Prime agricultural land is not so abundant that we can continue to allow subdivisions and strip malls to continue to sprawl across it. Farming in Canada today is highly corporatized and technologized, but primary production is still dominated by family businesses, and we need more farmers.

Canadians have always been inventive and innovative. We need to be playing to those strengths as well. For example, investing in R&D for cheap and efficient desalination and water-purification systems would go far in satisfying the growing thirst for fresh water in much of the rest of the world. More investment in genetic, robotic and nanotech applications for agriculture will also be useful.

France’s Prime Minister at the end of the Great War, Georges Clemenceau, is said to have remarked that “War is too important a matter to be left to the military”. In the balance of the 21st Century food security is going to be too important to be left to farmers, agribusiness corporations or commodities investors: We need to prepare accordingly. It should have a wing of Fort Pearson all to itself.


John C. Thompson is a prolific writer and commentator on security issues who spent five years with the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies and 24 with the Mackenzie Institute.

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