A World of Hunger

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation, 1982. Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on the Battery Park landfill, Manhattan, Summer 1982. Commissioned by Public Art Fund. Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects. Find out more


A World of Hunger

Raj Patel on Food Rebellions

Where do we stand in terms of world hunger?

We stand in a dire place. It could be that 2019 was as close as humanity ever got to ending hunger under capitalism. In 2019, 650 million people were undernourished, which means 2100 calories per person per day for a year – about 8.4% of the global population. This number has gone up and made worse by Covid and the connected recessions. Because of the situation in Ukraine, things are set to be getting worse. In 2022, we will be up to 830 million people who are undernourished.

What is the short-term influence of the war in Ukraine on that situation?

There are several aspects to this. Whenever there is a massive refugee population, you are having people in the immediate vicinity running out of food. Then, there are reports of Russians mining the fields, so that new planting of food can't happen. And there are reports of the Black Sea also being mined, so that food shipments can't come out – Mariupol for example is a major port for the export of grain.

What is the global ripple-effect?

It’s pretty bad. Forty percent of the grain that the world food program buys comes from Ukraine. The very organization that in ordinary times might be called upon to provide for the Ukraine populations itself, now is hostage to world food prices in a way where it cannot access its usual suppliers for this kind of grain. The consequences are manifold: North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and bits of Asia will have massive problems because their supply lines are being disrupted.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation, 1982

Food scarcity very often leads to food rebellions. Do you see this as a potential consequence?

The Arab Spring initially began as a protest around a food vendor being denied the rights to sell his goods. It spread through Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and accompanied a wave of change in food prices. One explanation for this was: if prices go up and down, people can wait that out. But if prices are steadily going up and up and up, there is a problem. There was a very strong correlation between prices going up and people taking to the streets in protest.

What is the nature of these protests?

First: It is not accurate to call these protests riots because this description takes agency away from people on the streets and presents them as a faceless mob, burning tires, yelling without saying anything coherent. But if you bring the microphone up close, you will hear that people are generally saying, well, look, we need a plan for affordability, better housing, better jobs, limits on the profits that organizations are taking. A rebellion reinserts agency and political knowledge back into the crowd.

It is important to remember that the way we produce food today is hostage to fossil fuel

What is the historic continuity of these food rebellions?

Two years before the Arab Spring, there was a wave of food rebellions caused by price spikes that accompanied the great recession. Perhaps the most significant rebellion was in Haiti where there was a change of regime that was sort of US installed, following decades of neoliberal rule. Some people called it the IMF riots – through the 1980s and 1990s, the International Monetary Fund brought in structural adjustment policies and the free market was allowed to rule domestic food price arrangements.

And you think this will happen now in parts of the world as well?

It would be very, very weird if we didn't see more of that happening this year. We have already seen it in Sri Lanka – protests that are both about the corruption of the government, its failure in economic policy and the high food prices that are also part of this failed economic plan. Sri Lanka pinned the hopes of the economy on two things: tea and tourism – the number two buyer of tea is Russia, and the number one and number three sources of tourism are Russia and Ukraine.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation, 1982

These are mostly internal conflicts – do you see a future of food wars between nations?

There is a very good book called "The First World War. An Agrarian Interpretation" by Avner Offer – considering the machinations particularly of the United Kingdom before 1914. In a geopolitical sense, the First World War was in some ways a conflict around the resources that are required to maintain a food supply. It is important to remember that the way we produce food today is hostage to fossil fuel. Industrial agriculture is very energy intensive and fossil fuel is an indispensable part of the food system.

The conflicts about resources are stacked, like so many conflicts these days.

Right. We are having these price spikes not just because the grain itself coming out of Ukraine is being blocked – but because Russia is a major exporter of nitrogen fertilizer. It has rich mines for potash and phosphorus. The price of all these fertilizers has gone up, which is one of the reasons why there hasn't been a huge rush to start planting crops. There is a survey of Canadian wheat producers, and less than 40% are planning on planting more.

Where do you see this heading?

There are structural reasons why you can imagine conflicts happening around food and food systems. Water is another source of conflict. We see skirmishes in the Middle East around water resources, and water is vital for irrigation and crop production. While people are not necessarily going across borders and stealing bags of grain and bushels and nuts, you are seeing fights over the resources that make industrial agriculture possible. There is reason to suspect that this is going to get worse.

Raj Patel is Research Professor at the University of Texas and the author of the book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.


A piece to make you close your eyes and think of the warm breeze of summer and the sound of flattering leaves: Wheatfield – A Confrontation, by Agnes Denes, is now more relevant than ever, in the wake of climate change and the dramatic depravation of the Ukranian soil. The landfill Denes planted in front of the Twin Towers – fascinating and glooming to remember – simultaneously comment on the world’s economy and the state of the earth itself. Surreal and universal, this emblematic piece of concept-based art makes as well a statement about power, and how it produces not only goods, but also starvation and suffering, both of humans and nature. Wheatfield – A Confrontation, which the scholar and curator Jeffrey Weiss has called “perpetually astonishing . . . one of Land Art's great transgressive masterpieces” (Artforum, September 2008), is perhaps Denes’s best-known work. It was created during a four-month period in the spring and summer of 1982, in the late period of the Cold War. Born in Hungary and educated in the United States, Denes uncategorizable artwork and act of reclamation gives back, perpetually, space to nature.

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