Food crises and shortages – not a new story

Posted by Claire Percy, Marketing Executive for History

Food shortages in Africa have recently been in the news again. But although Africa, partly due to its climate and agrarian economy, is sadly more exposed to food shortages than many other regions, the current problems in global food production are also affecting more unexpected areas, with Portugal and Spain both applying for food assistance in recent years.

We cite the fall in global food production and subsequent shortages to be the cause of climate change, and as much as this is widely believed to be the  major factor today (assisted by population growth, and arguably the West’s insatiable demand for meat) – historically food shortages have occured for a variety of reasons. During the winter of 1788-89, the urban French, unwilling to adopt cheaper foods from the New World, rioted (and starved) when the price of a loaf went up by 90%.

Catapulting us back to the present, in the UK this week, food prices are reported up 58% on 2007, and there have been various angry protests communicated throughout the media. But again, this is nothing new. From the mid-1500s to mid-1800s, some eight hundred riots broke out in England, with crowds seizing wagons, attacking mills, resulting in lowered prices in marketplaces or farmyards.

For a historical viewpoint of food shortages, see The Politics of Provisions: Food Riots, Moral Economy, and Market Transition in England, c. 1550–1850, part of the The History of Retailing and Consumption series from Ashgate Publishing.

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