Experts split on food’s role in fueling revolution

MONTREAL — A remarkable photograph from Polish anti-Communist demonstrations three decades ago showed a striking dockworker with a sign: “Hungry workers eat their leaders.”

Some analysts have attributed Middle East uprisings last year to wide-spread anger over high food prices.

And famously during the Russian Revolution in 1917, the triumphant Bolsheviks made bread for hungry peasants one of their key promises.

Last week during a McGill University conference on global food security, a debate on the issue of whether food is a fuel for revolution was a regular theme: do hunger and food shortages lead to political unrest and upheaval?

Food experts’ opinions were split.

“There is a causal relationship between hunger and social unrest,” argued Marc Bellemare from Duke University. High food prices cause food riots and trouble for governments.

He presented a series of graphs that made a direct connection between historical political unrest and food price spikes in various countries.

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“The Arab Spring would not have happened without stiff food price increases,” said Eckart Woertz, Middle East specialist at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.

But there were skeptics.

Trying to connect food riots and revolution with high food prices is “simplistic,” argued Evan Fraser from Ontario’s University of Guelph.

Robert Paarlberg, a political science professor at Wellesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the most dismissive of the argument.

He told the conference that most of the world’s chronically hungry are rural, isolated and politically weak.

“Hungry people in the developing world seldom present a serious political threat because most of them are isolated and unorganized,” he said.

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