In a recent article, the eminent environmentalist Lester Brown argued that the emerging politics of food (http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/07/the-emerging-politics-of-food-sc...) raises many important and provocative issues. He rightly notes that the food crisis of 2007 and 2008 led countries like Yemen, the Philippines, and Egypt to negotiate international food trade deals, thereby trusting in the market to secure future food security. Similarly, he observes that a host of prosperous countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea have precipitated a land boom in Africa by buying up huge parcels of farmland, thereby threatening to increase hunger and destabilize politics. But his article could go further. Rather than guessing at how these events may play out, we can turn to historic precedent as a signpost of things to come.
In our new book Empires of Food, we examined how, following the catastrophe of the Black Death in the mid-1300s, Europe's population and economy rebounded. By the 16th-century, the continent bloomed again with urban life, giving the world Shakespeare, Montaigne and Renaissance humanism. The mid-1500s were a time of confidence, of hope that minds like Leonard da Vinci's would deliver brilliant technologies to create a society independent of divine whim or environmental caprice. But then, at the birth of the modern world, something went wrong with the food system.
Through a disastrous confluence of population growth, urbanization, free market forces and climate change, Europe's demand for food soared far above the yields of her fields. The farmers overworked their lands, draining the soil of nutrients. Harvests thinned and prices rose. Then temperatures plunged with the onset of the Little Ice Age. Between 1570 and 1730, Europe experienced the coldest conditions she had known in nearly six centuries.
Food riots erupted in the new urban centers, and simmering cultural and religious tensions floated to the surface. More or less simultaneously in England, Russia, France, Spain, Turkey, the Holy Roman Empire and China (and other places), angry people took up arms against a society that, they believed, no longer served their needs. By the time the crisis wore itself out, probably 20% of Europe's population had perished in a series of wars, famines and plagues. The map of Europe was utterly re-drawn. While the crisis had many dimensions (ecological, religious, economic) such was the period's strife and violence that historians today refer to it as the "General Crisis."
Aside from obvious parallels of population growth, urbanization, soil exhaustion and climate change, the real lesson we can learn from the early modern period is in how governments responded to the crisis. Then, as now, their response was twofold: They tried to solve their problems through the market; and they expanded outwards, looking for new lands to exploit.
Both strategies proved disastrous. Europe's first colonies were the "Fortunate Islands," the Atlantic archipelagos that include the Canaries, the Azores, and Madeira. In a series of bloody advances, the colonists exterminated the islands' natives and converted their lands into ecologically fragile monocultures, farming them intensively for a few years before the soil blew away into the Atlantic. With the ecosystems destroyed, the settlers turned their eyes west, where they carried their habits into the New World.
More relevant to us today, and more dangerous in many ways, was a proclivity to depend on the free market for food security in a time of climate change. Before the crisis, the English food trade operated in a controlled marketplace where a law called the Assize of Bread fixed the price of the daily staple, regulated the quality of flour, the weight and shapes of loaves, and the baker's fee. No one could exploit the poor for profit. The law governed farmers, obliging them to sell grain at markets instead from their fields, where speculating merchants would have an advantage over the urban poor. Middlemen couldn't buy crops on contract or for resale. The poor, however, could purchase their household grain at the first bell of the market day, giving them an advantage over grain merchants, who had to wait for the second bell. Until the 1700s, the Assize of Bread kept grain prices low for individual eating and squashed middlemen or bakers with entrepreneurial inclinations. It was, of course, an expensive and economically inefficient system.
Then came along Adam Smith (1723-1790), twirling his logic like a rapier. He deftly skewered the Assize of Bread, arguing that, instead of feeding the poor, the ancient protections actually harmed food security. For Smith, the solution was a free market to guarantee a year-long supply. After all, as soon as bread stocks dwindle, prices rise, flooding the grain bins with imports.
It didn't work quite like Adam Smith expected. The hungry peasants raised their pitchforks in anger at the sight of food being exported from the impoverished countryside to feed wealthy customers in the cities.
The reason Adam Smith's economic rationalization was wrong was due to climate change. When harvests are good, because the weather is cooperative and it's easy to grow a surplus, the market is an efficient vehicle for shunting food to the most profitable buyer. So long as workers rights and environmental protection are secure (although this rarely happens it's not theoretically impossible), the food trade generates wealth. This happened during the 15th-century, and, to an extent, in the latter half of the 20th-century.
But when harvests thin, as they did in the Little Ice Age, market solutions threaten to exacerbate problems as poor regions lose out to richer ones. Hungry workers are understandably enraged at the idea of their local bread being exported to wealthier tables. That's when they look to their revolutionary pamphlets. But the real disasters occur when an unthinking and dogmatic adherence to free market principles collides with an extended spell of bad weather. Such as in the early modern period, when 20% of Europeans died.
Our most recent crisis, in 2008, passed harmlessly on account of the weather. After about two years of wrenching price hikes and shockingly low yields, the 2008 harvest set a world record, and 2009 was similarly bountiful. The planet's food supplies rebounded, and people stopped panicking. But what about 2010? Early indications from the USDA suggest that prospects aren't rosy. Arid skies forced China to double its purchases of Canadian wheat; Russia is baking in its worst drought for century. Closer to home, parts of US agriculture are starting to suffer from a heat wave, and forecasters call for serious declines. Are we going to fall into another food crisis, more jarring than the bump of 2008?
Probably, but not yet. This year may not be as bad as some predict. The high prices last year created an incentive to plant on more land, so during the past two years the world squirreled away enough grain to act as a buffer. But we've also been lucky with the weather, and we can't really expect this luck to continue. After all, we responded to the 2008 crisis by opening more trade routes and ushering rich nations into the real estate market in Africa. History suggests that this is the precise way to make the next crisis worse.