As authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett mused in Good Omens, "civilization is 24 hours and two meals away from barbarism.” Human history is indeed filled with moments of violence that broke out because groups of people found themselves running on empty. Some scholars even argue that human warfare itself may have evolved alongside our move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle into an agricultural one, given that any growing population (even a prehistoric one) will likely strain its available resources sooner or later.
Whether the cause of conflict was threats to a nation’s entire grain supply or simply the loss of a lone pig, these foods all ended up in the same place throughout history: smack in the middle of war.
Prior to the Pastry War, a.k.a. the First Franco-Mexican War, tensions were high in the new Mexican republic as competing leadership factions, European nationals, and just about everybody else struggled for a better place in the new order. Clashes in the street reportedly destroyed the bakery of one French chef, and one thing led to another until the French government demanded 600,000 pesos as reparations for his losses and other French businesses that had been destroyed. King Louis-Phillippe was already miffed at Mexico over the matter of un-repaid loans, so he allowed these pastries to be the ones that broke the camel’s back. He dispatched his fleet to Veracruz, and kicked off what would be a three-month conflict between the countries from 1838 to 1839.
World War II took an enormous toll on the stability, economics, and resources of French Indochina, and was one of several major factors (including colonial occupation and unseasonable weather) leading to the Vietnamese Famine of 1945. As war was waging in Southeast Asia, some regions of Vietnam had rice surpluses, but the effects of the war made transportation between regions much more difficult. Meanwhile, both the French and the Japanese were more concerned about fighting then averting famine, with the French being accused of storing harvests past the point of edibility.
The scarcity of the regional staple crop caused physical and financial “rice war” struggles throughout the region, drove many (understandably) angry Vietnamese peasants to foment rebellion and seek independence, and led into the almost eight-year First Indochina War. Current estimates of the number of north Vietnamese lives lost during the 1945 famine are typically between one and two million.
3. A SINGLE PIG
Often enough, reasons given for the eruption of a war will involve some minute detail or other that leaders have chosen for their "breaking point." In the case of the Pig War, an 1859 conflict between British and American forces on the West Coast of what's now Washington state, the "shot heard round the world" was fired at one very special porker.
Also called the Pig Episode and the San Juan Boundary Dispute, the confrontation occurred at the tail end of the period in which the U.K. and U.S. were expanding into the lumber- (and possibly gold-) rich Pacific Northwest of present-day Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. As the finer points of the border lines were being drawn, the San Juan Islands, located between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland, were disputed territory.
With tensions running high, representatives of the British Hudson Bay Company on the small island chain suddenly found themselves living next door to U.S. settlers. When a British pig (worth either $10 or $100, depending which party you asked) started rooting around in a nearby American's garden and was shot for its trespass, both competing powers were ready to throw down. Fortunately, no shots were fired, and there were no casualties—except for the pig.
4. BREAD, GRAIN, AND FLOUR
As age-old staple crops for many millions of people, wheat and other grains have often been the focus of serious conflict when their supplies are threatened or running low. Food Republic points out, for example, that when the broad Roman Empire’s increasing demanding for bread “was leading to social unrest at home,” Roman forces responded by doing “what they do best: they brandished their imperial muscle and took other people’s grains, in this case Egypt’s, to placate their citizens.”
The struggle for access to grain-based food didn’t end there, though, and has followed Western culture throughout history. To name just a few examples: In the spring of 1775 (shortly before the French Revolution would finally erupt), the Kingdom of France was host to an ongoing series of riots referred to as the Flour War, when the price of flour skyrocketed thanks to a combination of poor harvests and new government trade policies.
In 1917, when Russia’s “average working woman was spending 40 hours per week” in bread lines, groups of such sick-and-tired women kicked off riots that quickly grew to over 100,000 people, and which led to the country’s first of two revolutions that year.
Conflict over bread and grain continues today, and was a perhaps lesser-known factor in the recent Arab Spring. Noting that Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco are the world’s absolute largest wheat importers, Salon explains that the movement “started in Tunisia when rising food prices, high unemployment, and a widening gap between rich and poor triggered deadly riots and finally the flight of the country’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali,” whose last act as ruler (“too little too late,” Salon says) was “a vow to reduce the price of sugar, milk, and bread.” And with wheat and corn prices almost doubling through 2010 and 2011, “it was not just the standard of living of the [region’s] poor that was threatened, but their very lives as climate-change driven food prices triggered political violence.”
5. BLUE CRABS
After the partitioning of Korea, questions remained about the maritime boundary between the two countries—a matter of significant concern in a region that has, in recent years, fostered increasing competition and conflict for the seafood on which it relies. In particular, extremely valuable blue crabs can be found along this disputed line, and have sparked a number of clashes [PDF] between North and South Korea.
6. SUGAR AND SPICE (NOT ALWAYS SO NICE)
When many of us Yanks think of our split from Britain in the Revolutionary War and the foods that spurred it, tea (and a certain party with it) often comes to mind. When it comes to clashing over edible resources, though, England, France, and the soon-to-be U.S.A. were much more concerned about the fate of two other commodities: spice and sugar. As one financial advising firm explained to Business Insider:
From a European perspective the U.S. revolt was a sideshow to a larger British/French conflict fought mainly over the agriculturally rich East and West Indies trade routes. While the British lost to the colonists at Yorktown, the Royal Navy's victory over a French [and] Spanish fleet at the Battle of the Saintes was bigger news at home as it secured [sugar-rich] Jamaica as a British possession.
Salt Riot on Red Square, Ernest Lissner via Wikimedia Commons//Public Domain
Frankly, salt has been a source of conflict among humans for about as long as we’ve been utilizing it. Trouble tends to arise whenever one group (usually a ruling and/or powerful one) puts strain on another group’s access to this vital resource—something we’ve relied on through the millennia for preserving our food, treating our ailments, and balancing our bodily fluids.
There was the Salt War of 1482-84, for example, involving the duke of Ferrara, salt mining, and the Papal forces of Sixtus IV, and also the Salt War of 1540, involving the rightly fed-up denizens of Perugia, a new salt tax, and the Papal forces of Paul III. In 1648, too, the people of Moscow responded to Tsar Alexei I’s new universal salt tax with days of violent uprising.
Of course, as Mohandas Gandhi and co.’s famous Salt March across India proved, the struggle for fair access to salt—or anything else, for that matter—doesn’t always have to get rough.