15 Times in History That Foods Started a War

Ever said to yourself, "I would kill for a sandwich right now"? Well, historically you're not alone. Throughout history, wars have been fought over food. Sometimes these wars are bloodless, often they are brutal. Food wars began with recorded time, and are still happening in the 21st century. While some food wars were comical and harmless, others reshaped the world. 

To be clear, not all wars fought over food began because someone was hangry. Sometimes, food wars were caused by misunderstandings; in other cases, food was used as a convenient excuse in territorial disputes. Regardless of how these wars started, food played a major role in every one. 

If you're hungry, dig into this list of foods that caused wars, and maybe you won't feel quite so murderous when thinking about how much you want that sandwich. 

  • In the '30s, an overabundant emu population decimated crop yields in Western Australia. Farmers in the region were World War One veterans, granted land by the government in exchange for their service. Facing a potential PR disaster, the Australian government declared war on the flightless birds.

    An army was convened near Perth, and marched out to meet the emus on the battlefield. As it turns out, giant, conniving birds don't stand around waiting to be shot. The emus scattered in the face of the guns, creating chaos and vanishing into the brush. In one instance, machine gunners killed only 10 to 12 birds from a flock of 1,000. The Australian press loved the pandemonium. Here's a choice quote:

    "The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be. Each mob has its leader, always an enormous black-plumed bird standing fully six-feet high, who keeps watch while his fellows busy themselves with the wheat. At the first suspicious sign, he gives the signal, and dozens of heads stretch up out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting a headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety."

    In the end, the army packed up and headed home, leaving ammo in the hands of farmers, so they could shoot emu for themselves. 
  • The Ottoman Empire Destroyed Itself with Wine Wars
    Photo: casey.marshall / flickr / CC-BY 2.0
    The Ottoman Empire was at the top of its game when Sultan Selim II came along. Selim didn't care nearly as much about his people as he did about drinking, and his favorite drink was wine from Cyprus. When he started to run out of this wine in 1571, he decided to get more by attacking Cyprus. Though at first successful, the backlash from this act of war was devastating. Selim lost almost his entire navy, and the Ottoman Empire began a decline from which it never recovered. 
  • The Pig War Was Waged Because of a Single Hog
    Photo: ccho / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    In truth, the Pig War was fought over a pig and some potatoes. In the 1850s, an uneasy truce existed between American and British inhabitants of a group of islands caught between the coasts of Canada and Washington. The confused border between Canada and the US made it difficult to determine exactly who belonged where. 

    Tensions boiled over in June, 1859, when British pig wandered onto an American farm and ate some potatoes. In a fit of rage, the farmer shot the pig. The pig owner had the farmer arrested. An American commander who hated Brits got wind of this and sent an infantry company to the island. The British responded by sending war ships. No one died and the military tension was soon diffused, but an arrangement on the division of territory was not reached until 1872.

    The best bit of the whole war is the following exchange, between Cutlar, the American farmer, and Griffin, the British pig owner. 

    Cultar: …but it was eating my potatoes! 
    Griffin: Rubbish. It’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.
  • The Pastry War, Fought Over a Single Pastry Shop
    Photo: EvelynGiggles / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Leave it to the French to take their pastry too seriously. Following Mexico's independence from Spain, the country was in a chaotic state. Widespread looting and rioting damaged many businesses, including that of French pastry chef Remontel, in 1838.

    Remontel asked the Mexican government for compensation, and was basically laughed out the door. So he brought his case to the French government. France used Remontel as a stepping stone to demanding 600,000 pesos Mexico, which included 60,000 for the pastry shop, which was worth about 1,000 pesos. The Mexican government paid not one centavo. France blockaded Mexican ports with war ships and raided the city of Veracruz. Mexico declared war on France and conscripted an army. 

    Eventually the British brokered and truce between the two countries, and Mexico paid France the 600,000 pesos. 
  • Rome Conquered Egypt for Grain
    Photo: elycefeliz / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    When your people are hungry because they don't have food, what's a ruler to do? If you're a Roman ruler, you go take food. In particular, you take it from someone who has a lot of it, namely, Egypt.

    Around 30 BCE, Cleopatra died and Egypt was ripe for the taking. The Romans did exactly that, conquering the kingdom and using it as a means of getting grain and bread for centuries. The area was even called "The Breadbasket" because of its wealth of grain. 
  • If you're going to arm a militia, you should probably give them ammunition they can use. Such was the problem that caused The Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as the Indian Mutiny and the Sepoy Mutiny. There were several causes to the uprising, including the distribution of rifle cartridges that had to be bitten open to Muslim and Hindu soldiers under the employ of the British Empire.

    Not a big deal, right? Except, as it turns out, these cartridges were smeared in grease from cows and pigs, which cannot be eaten by Muslims or Hindus. Or at least, that was the rumor. And the rumor fueled suspicion that the British were out to undermine local culture and customs. Soldiers refused to bite the cartridges, the British punished them, and they rebelled.