Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy recently partnered with Raj Patel and Annie Shattuck to bring us Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice. Recently, Holt-Giménez spent a weekend in New York to introduce his new book and open a conversation about these rebellions.

Perhaps you’ve heard the stats: between 2007 and 2008 approximately 40 food riots occurred around the world. In Mexico, corn prices made tortilla, a staple of the country’s diet, prohibitively expensive for the nation’s poor. In Haiti, soaring food prices led people to the streets, and eventually to overthrow the Prime Minister.

Yet were these riots or rebellions? For some, the distinction may seem small. These were not spontaneous anger outbursts fueled by mob mentality. They were not riots. Rather, they were conscious, political acts. They were rebellions. The objectives of a rebellion-agency and intention-are the essential implications of the word itself.  They are not just a reaction to food prices-they are a protest.

But a protest against what, exactly? The simple answer: against the causes of the food crisis. But Holt-Giménez draws an important distinction between what he calls the “proximate” and “root” causes of the global food crisis. It is the difference between symptoms and sickness.

Proximate causes are the commonly-cited reasons for hikes in food prices. These include grain speculation, increased use of land for agro-fuel production (as opposed to edible crops), increased meat consumption and a particularly poor harvest season in the US, Australia and Turkey. While in 2007-2008 these forces were certainly at work, a deeper look reveals that the food crisis was actually a long time in the making.

A more discerning analysis of the upheaval of 2007-2008 points to what Holt-Giménez calls the root causes of our food crisis. We have a vulnerable food system, one in which 91% of our crops are maize, cotton, wheat, rice and soy. A lack of diversity in our agricultural repertoire leaves our crops open to environmental (not to mention economic) shock.