When Food is Short, Danger Lies Ahead


Rebellion? Insurrection? Riots?

It’s hard to know exactly what constitutes “major political uprisings,” but the fact that 51 percent of voters think these incidents are at least “somewhat likely” is a sure sign of trouble. The survey, conducted for Fox News and released last week, also found that 27 percent believe convulsions are “very likely.”

The United States was born in revolution and it has suffered through a civil war. Could another cataclysmic event await us in the near future?

Perhaps a familiar phrase is now entering your mind: It can’t happen here.

Right now, we’re watching it happen elsewhere. Political unrest has toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, has lost control of his country and the remnants of his regime could fall any day now. If protestors in Syria survive a brutal crackdown, they may force concessions on the dictators of Damascus.

A new study by the New England Complex Systems Institute suggests that all of this unrest in the Arab world has its origin not in a desire for freedom, as many casual commentators have claimed, but in the desperation that follows food insecurity. The researchers show a strong link between the rising cost of food and the timing of the upheaval.

In other words, when food prices peak, danger lies ahead.

But can it happen here? Are the United States and the rest of the developed world also vulnerable?

Let’s hope not. Yet we’ve recently seen everything from the chaos of flash mobs in Philadelphia to the terror of street violence in London.

These events may have nothing to do with the price of food. Then again, we’re always hearing about the complexity of root causes and how the stress of economic hardship afflicts impoverished communities.

These days, economic hardship is everywhere. The official statistics are bad enough, but I think things are even worse than they indicate. Joblessness is so high in my area that white-collar professionals have come to my farm in search of work.

I’ve lived through a few recessions, but I’ve not witnessed anything like this.

Americans are upset about the country’s direction. What would it take to ignite “major political uprisings”? A widespread power outage? A disruption in the fuel supply?

How about a food shortage?

Just three days of hunger changes your perspective on everything. You can go for a day without food and maybe stretch it into two. But on the third day, you wake up determined to do anything–anything at all–to put food in the mouths of your kids.

This is why trade and technology are so important. We need to make sure that agricultural goods can move across borders, flowing from producers to consumers without burdensome tariffs and quotas. And farmers everywhere must have access to biotechnology so that they can grow as much food as possible, helping to eliminate food shortages before they even start. Regulators in Washington must do their part by helping safe products reach the market, not suffocating them beneath the weight of questionable rules.

If trade and technology in agriculture were to vanish, we’d certainly face political trouble. Would it amount to “major political uprisings”?

Do you think it can’t happen here?

That phrase has special resonance for a particular reason. In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published a novel, It Can’t Happen Here. It’s about something supposedly unthinkable: the rise of a dictatorship in the United States. Two years ago, the author Joseph Finder put the book at the top of a list of great novels about political conspiracy.

I’m hopeful that the United States will resist the “major political uprisings” that appear to worry so many of my countrymen.

Yet we’d be foolish to assume that “it can’t happen here”–and wise to take steps to ensure that it doesn’t by improving our food security.

John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology – www.truthabouttrade.org

John Rigolizzo, Jr.

John Rigolizzo, Jr.

John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, previously raising 1,400 acres of fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm now raises 70 acres of field corn and John advises local farmers on growing and marketing retail vegetables. John volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and has provided leadership to the Farmland Preservation Board, the Vegetable Growers Association of New Jersey and New Jersey Tomato Council. As a former New Jersey Farm Bureau President, his interest and long-time support of free trade was supported by his involvement in 11 international trade missions and engagement in World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle and Geneva.

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