In 2008 the Head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn warned of the grave consequences – of governments being overthrown and wars – that could arise from the sudden increase in food prices on world markets. His grim predictions were proved correct three years later. According to Alina Savelyeva it was the rise in food prices that triggered the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere. The political upheaval in African countries was provoked by the Russian embargo on grain exports. We should remember that Egypt is the major importer of Russian Wheat.
The situation deteriorated in 2010 when floods and drought damaged wheat harvests in other grain exporting countries – Canada, Australia and Argentina.
The poorest Egyptians households spend about 50% of their income on food, which meant they were hit extremely hard by price increases. Arab governments were unable to keep food prices down and soon there were mass street protests, demonstrations followed by serious political unrest. An article in The Daily Telegraphsuggested that the upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia signalled the beginning of an era of «food revolutions».
Russia had not intended to destabilise the situation in the Middle East but was simply trying to protect its own market from the consequences of a bad harvest (drought reduced crop yields by a third) and to contain price increases on food inside the country. But, Savelyeva argues that this example shows the possibilities of using the food factor as a weapon.
Today almost all the countries on the World Bank’s ‘most fragile’list are net-importers of grain which means they are entirely dependent, both economically and politically on fluctuations in the global economy.
The idea of food as a weapon was formulated by Earl Butz – US Minister of Agriculture in Richard Nixon’s government back in 1974. These days, approaching agriculture as an industrial supplier of an ‘alternative weapon’ is common both in developed and developing countries. The term ‘food power’ has been coined in English. But any power or force (even military) is not only an instrument of attack or destruction, but also for containing one’s enemies, in the ‘carrot and stick’ model. Alina Savlieva summarises the concept of the American historian, Peter Wallensteen who identified four factors that turn an economic advantage (like food) into a weapon:
Some experts suggest that the USA as the biggest supplier of food on the world market at the moment has ‘food power’ which gives it added leverage to apply international pressure.
Access to food, says Savelyeva, has also been used as weapon in some internal conflicts which became known as food wars. This happened when governments in some African countries in the 1980s and 90s made access to food artificially difficult for rebellious parts of the population.
The World Bank report on International Development in 2011 named three types of threat to food security that could lead to military conflict: natural (drought and flooding), economic (major price changes for basic food products) and political, ie., a ban on access to land resources or social support programmes.
Alina Savelyeva argues that this confirms the thesis that food is not only an economic benefit but a serious political weapon for those who control it to directly or indirectly influence world events. And she concludes that producer countries should realise that the influence they have also means they have to take responsibility for events happening on the world arena.
Right now, food power is underrated, but if the problem of shortages around the world increases the force of this economic weapon will become more apparent.