Feeding the hungry, tacking the food crisis, is one of the world’s most glaring challenges. It seems everywhere you look food products are veering precariously off the affordability and availability scales, with malnutrition, instability, food riots and other related effects the results. Endless Appetites is an intricate and richly woven exploration into the multi-faceted issue of food security from award winning commodities reporter Alan Bjerga.
His starting point and basic framework – the commodities markets – makes for a unique and powerful vantage point from which to assess the global crisis, taking readers all the way back to the 1800s when crop markets were established to steady the vulnerable commodity prices for agricultural goods.
But it’s his firsthand accounts with farmers worldwide—including Kenya, Thailand, Ethiopia and the US—that captured my attention even more forcefully. These stories bring readers beyond the theoretical, the intangible and, for many of us, to a world a bit more relatable. These acounts bring the crux of his message home in powerful ways, exemplifying the fascinating domino effect of our food systems, and the complex ways in which seemingly disconnected variables are intertwined in a dance of interdependence.
We see how the price we pay for rice is intimately connected with the hunger a family faces thousands of miles away; how escalating food inflation played a part in revolutions in the Middle East; how seemingly good news like soaring exports for quinoa, historically a staple of the Bolivian diet, priced the product so high, Bolivians were forced to eat less nutritious options, even while their farmers benefited; and how rising energy needs fueled a greater reliance on ethanol and other biofuels while limiting the supply of corn and soybeans, enabling some to profit while rendering others hungry.
Add to all this the effects of climate and its deleterious effects on farmers’ output and the interconnectivity is mind-blowing. As Bjerga states, “We now live on a planet where a grain-seller in Ethiopia bases his prices on Chicago wheat markets; where wheat futures in Chicago are shaped by the needs of the pension fund; where a dry spell in Russia sparks riots in Mozambique and revolution in Egypt….” And on and on it goes.
In many ways, Endless Appetites is a story of globalization and its impactful resonance on how we eat – and how or why we don’t. It’s also about the efforts made to effect change. “One paradox of hunger today is that the world can produce enough food to feed everyone,” Bjerga states. “The second is that places where food is most desperately needed are often near where it could be grown, sold and used to fight malnutrition with a properly functioning market.” Bjerga’s an optimist, citing numerous examples of efforts on the ground—some with more potential than others— where he’s hopeful the situation can be upturned.
There’s the World Food Programme’s (WPF’s) Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative, a five-year pilot project that began in 2008, targeting 21 countries and 500,000 smallholder farmers. With money coming in from the Canadian and Belgium governments, as well as the Buffet and Gates foundations, among others, P4P’s mission is to connect farmers to wider markets. Along the way, they’re taught about growing higher-quality food to become more competitive, and better storage techniques (a big issue with many farmers in the developing world is the lack of storage facilities, which undermines their product’s marketability). But the program’s key emphasis is that of self-sufficiency, with WFP simply the catalyst. The approach is a significant departure from earlier programs that may have unwittingly influenced a greater level of farmer dependency on foreign support.
In another chapter Bjerga brings readers to the pit of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), established in 2008 to bring sophisticated commodity trading to Addis Ababa. Focused today on the coffee trade, the ECX is not the first exchange in Africa. And despite a number of challenges, the ECX comes with the high hopes of empowering small farmers and improving food security. Only time will tell.
In Nairobi, the DuPont Company, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation are working to build a better banana and banana market through “tissue-culture” bananas (biotechnology without gene modification, though there is certainly plenty of GM-infused projects ongoing too, with much slower rates of acceptance). The belief is the new banana will improve farmers’ incomes and food security in Kenya and beyond.
Unquestionably, the food crisis will forever be known as one of the biggest to face our world in the 21st century. The good news is it’s finally emerged forcefully on the global agenda, with governments, corporations and organizations like the Gates Foundation and Clinton Foundation pledging money, research and other support. The situation is not hopeless, posits Bjerga. And the key to the solution are the farmers. “To have more food you have to grow more food,” he offers.
Creating markets that fuel competition and sustainable wages will have an invaluable impact. Globalization and our interconnected food systems can work together for the better, putting food on tables instead of hunger. The question is how? Endless Appetites offers a good starting point for understanding, discussion…and hope.