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These bread revolts changed history. We should know why.

The history of bread wars have a lot to tell us about conflicts today.

These bread revolts changed history. We should know why.
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Gates Foundation: The Story of Food

You might have heard the saying "We're only three square meals away from anarchy."

It turns out that for many people throughout the centuries, that meal was ... bread.

Bread is actually one of the oldest, cheapest prepared foods in the world, with archeological evidence dating it back at least 30,000 years.


Historical accounts of breadmaking often say the Roman Pliny the Elder first detailed how the skim from beer was used to aerate bread. In ancient Egypt, the workers who built the pyramids are believed to have been given a daily allowance of bread loaves.

Grain farmers in ancient Egypt. Image via iStock.

Even today, a word used in Egypt for bread is "aish," which means "life." It's also considered haram, or taboo, to cut bread with a knife in many Middle Eastern countries.  

If you're like many Americans, you might wonder what your love/hate relationship with all of that gluten-y, carbelicious goodness has to do with centuries of civil conflict or even the recent Syrian crisis.

It turns out that there's an actual historical correlation between an increase in grain prices and civil unrest.

A crowd throws bread in Stockport, Lancashire, in 1842. Image via Getty Images.

That's because bread, a magical alchemy of grain, yeast, and water, has managed to sustain poor people for centuries. Historically, when people could no longer afford bread, they knew they would starve. So they revolted.

Entire nations have even toppled because of a lack of access to bread. We might not realize it, but bread uprisings throughout history have a lot to tell us about the global crises of today.

Here are five of the bread revolts that have changed the course of history:  

1. Flour Wars, France, 1775

Original lithograph of the French Revolution, 1789. Image via Getty Images.

Surprisingly, Marie-Antoinette may never have told French peasants to eat cake. According to historians, it might have actually been France's famous Flour Wars that played a major role in the French Revolution. Catalyzed by a poor grain yield and rising grain prices, scholars found more than 652 French food-based riots from 1760 to 1789 that ultimately led to the French Revolution in 1789.

2. Flour Riots, New York, 1837

Representation of depressed economic situation in America before the panic of 1837. Image via Getty Images.

When a depression caused flour to jump from $7 per barrel to $20 in 1837, two New York companies, Eli Hart & Co. and S.H. Herrick & Co., were accused of hoarding it. The public took action, and soon after, rioters destroyed 500 bushels of flour and 1,000 barrels of wheat in Hart's shop. The mob grew so violent that they had to be restrained by the Seventh Regiment.

3. Richmond Bread Riots, 1863

Southern women feel the effects of the rebellion and create bread riots. Image via Library of Congress.  

In 1863, a mob of Confederate housewives took to the streets with axes in Richmond, Virginia, chanting "bread or blood" while ransacking and looting shops for flour. Prompted by flour prices that had risen 10 times in two years as well as dealing with a tone-deaf leader, the women decided to take things into their own hands. They didn't take just the flour — they took a wagon of beef and 500 pounds of bacon, too.

4. Egyptian Bread Riots, Egypt, 1977

A woman protests with bread in Cairo in 2007. Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images.

In 1977, Egypt decided to stop subsidizing basic food staples such as wheat and bread. As a result, many poor Egyptians took to the streets. Hundreds were killed, and even more were injured. The riots went on for two days until the government reinstated the wheat subsidies that so many poor Egyptians depended upon.

But that wasn't Egypt's last bread revolt...

5. The Arab Spring, 2008-2011

A protester holds bread in Tunisia in 2010. Photo by Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images.

In 2008, sudden global increases in grain prices compounded with inflation that led to riots in Egypt, reminding a lot of people of the tumultuous events of 31 years prior. Government-subsidized flour, which had once sold for $3.14 per 100 kilograms, suddenly shot to $377 on the black market. Because 40% of Egyptians lived in poverty, many of them couldn't afford to live without the bread that the government helped them afford. Riots swept the nation, and several people were killed in front of government bakeries.

In 2010, as global grain prices continued to rise, Tunisians also began to revolt, bread in hand. The toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 became the climactic beginning of a major destabilizing shift of an entire region, known as the Arab Spring.  

Many people said the Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry.

Egyptian protestors hold bread in 2013. Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images.  

The current crisis in Syria is also a prime example of what can happen when people don't have enough to eat.

Though it might be hard to fully understand Syria's current problems, some researchers think that it has to do in part with access to bread. At one point, Syria was the only country in the entire region that was completely self-sufficient in food production, specifically in wheat crops such as barley.

Experts have argued that it was a massive crop failure due to drought and possible climate change from 2006 to 2009 that drove Syrian farmers to finally challenge their ruler. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired back, he also explicitly targeted bread bakeries that fell under rebel control.

For much of the world's poor, bread is a life-sustaining necessity. But numerous factors, such as worldwide droughts, are causing grain to become harder and harder to grow.

Syria and Egypt are part of what was once known as the Fertile Crescent, the area of the world where people first started to grow grain and form civilizations. But now, the grain that once made their lands famous is becoming harder and harder to access. When this delicate balance of access to basic foods is upset, history shows us that whole communities — and entire nations — can topple.

If history is an indication, where bread and grain become scarce, civil unrest follows. Now that's something to chew on.

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."