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Panem et circenses: The phychology of the Bread price

Thursday, November 18, 2010 · Category Everyday life · comments 0


Russian bushfires destroyed a large portion of the wheat harvest. All alround the world the price of bread is on the rise. Riots in African countries, governments having headaches over the rise of the bread price, while in reality, we - in our Western society - really don't spent more that 0.5% of our salary on bread. So why all this hassle about the price of bread?

"Panem et Circenses"

The quote "Panem et circenses" is often attributed to Julius Caesar. The mass games in arenas where pretty much invented by Caesar, the expression "bread and circuses" is not. The leader died in 44 AD, roughly 15
years before the Roman satirist Juvenal was born. And it is this satirist in his Satire X, where he wrote the line "Panem et circenses", literally "bread and chariot races".

The history of Bread

Having said that, let's take a look at the importance of bread throughout the history of mankind. Bread is probably the most widely used staple food in the world. The product needs a few ingredients - flour, salt, oil, water - to make. In the past 12.000 years almost nothing has changed in the baking of bread. The presence of bread usually means: "No hunger".

Revolutions and uproars over bread

  • 1789: The French revolution was sparked during the hunger year and crop failures of 1788
  • 1847: Western Europe crop failure sparked the "bread riots"
  • 1917: Amsterdam. On the wake of the first World War there were no more potatoes available. A fierce fighting broke out know as the "Potato riot".
  • 1989: The collapse of communism was triggered by the high price for potatoes (also the base for vodka) that lead to the formation of the Polish trade union Solidarity seen.
  • 2009: Mexico. The tortilla crisis, the price of corn rose considerably as it has also become the basis for fuel for cars which drives the demand up.
  • 2010: Belgium. Striking workers from the Ford factory in Genk claiming compensation for the sharp rise of  food prices
  • 2010: Russia and Ukraine: Forest fires destroy a large portion of the harvest driving the price up considerably.
  • 2010: Gevornment interference in African countries like Mozambique after the bread price went up 30%

The price as a percentage of our income

The price is on the rise for sure. OVer the past 3 years we have seen a rise of 15% while average price increase was only 8%. Oil prices rise, making production and transportation more expensive. Fifty years ago  an average family spent 5% of its budget on bread. Between 1800 and 1950 the cost of bread could be as high as 50% of ones income.

Tables: Comparison of wheat and bread prices

The phychology of Bread

The past 15 years, food prices have only fallen. A whole generation grew up with the idea that food is just cheap. We - in Western Europe - spent about 10 percent of our budget on the purchase of food. Now that food prices are on the rise, we regard it as injustice. To spend more on food seems unreasonable. That is the weight of the past. Bread is actually of little value, but emotionally it still plays a significant role. Bread is a symbol for all food, actually, for all consumption. Bread often refers to money. It plays a major role in our psyche.

Even in the language you'll see daily use in terms of bread, which have an impact on the historic significance like: "Earn your daily bread", "Having bread on the shelf", "Having to eat dry bread".

So if prices of bread, milk, coffee, tea and potatoes go up, it's big news. It seems remarkeble, but the psychology of the price of bread should not be underestimated due to it's historical perspective and importance.


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