A close friend recently introduced me to a new word: ‘bougie’. It means different things depending on the cultural and societal context – but the underlying similarities all point to an upper-crust kind of attitude. The word stems from bourgeoisie, a word that has a long history (and multiple spellings) dating back to French revolutionary.
This revolution was a period of radical political and societal change in France that spanned between 1789 and 1799. Many of the value and institutions created during this time remains central to French political discourse and many of the ideas spawned are considered fundamental principles of many liberal democracies. Several factors caused the revolution, but one of the main reasons was food shortages and high prices. Several years of poor harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among the peasants and the urban poor. Many expressed their desperation and resentment by rioting, looting and striking.
There is perhaps no political variable more important throughout history than the price of food. No government will survive if people cannot afford to feed their families. Just as the price of energy is coming down from its extreme peaks in 2022, food price inflation in much of the world remains stubbornly high. The ONS recently announced that UK inflation (as measured by CPI) had fallen to 8.7 per cent for the twelve months to April 2023. The cost of food, however, continues to increase: prices are 19 per cent higher than a year ago and show little sign of slowing. Families across Wales are struggling to feed themselves; over 185,000 emergency food parcels were given to Welsh food banks in the Trussell Trust network between 2022 and 2023.
When growing number of people are forced to skip meals, it is tempting to blame Brexit. Food trade was always going to be particularly hit by a hard by the barriers that went up when the UK left the EU, given tight regulatory controls and the greater cost added time entails for perishable shipments. However, the most recent food inflation is mostly a global story. Food commodity prices soared during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, just like energy prices and in part because of them, but also because of the Russian theft and blockade of Ukrainian food exports. In a European perspective, Britain is not an outlier: while eurozone food price inflation dropped to 16 per cent in April, it has largely matched the UK’s over the past year.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index shows that global food commodity prices peaked a year ago and have fallen by around one-fifth since then. However, this positive development has not helped European consumers with their weekly food shop. Even in the best-case scenario where food prices soon drop, it is unlikely that this to be a one-off event. As climate change brings more extreme weather, food price swings will only intensify. Governments had better learn the lessons of the French revolutionary and be ready to support those most in need of help to feed their families.