Gloucester: But shall I live in hope?
Lady Anne: All men, I hope, live so.
—Richard III, Shakespeare
Frederick Kaufman, journalist, professor, and author of A Short History of the American Stomach, set out to find out why, in an era when we produce so much food (more than twice what we need to feed everyone), people all over the world go hungry. It would seem to be the most basic of questions, and yet…
His new book, Bet the Farm, starts out in a Domino’s pizza factory. In a bit of comic authorial license, he offers up take-out pizza as his honest-to-goodness first guess at the perfect food to feed the masses, but the quotation on the introduction page is from Harvard economist Amartya Sen and it’s a giveaway of his larger intention with this book: “Understanding the causation of hunger…calls for an analysis of the entire economic mechanism.” This was my first indication that I had some hard work ahead of me, i.e., making heads or tails of world economics; i.e., I wouldn’t get to stay in the Domino’s factory for long.
For some of us seeking to understand and address some of the more broken aspects of our food system, when we talk about markets, we usually mean local food distribution solutions like farmers’ markets. Or Detroit’s Eastern Market. Or innovative supermarkets (like People’s Community Market). And while Kaufman does a fine job of trying to explain commodities exchanges, grain futures, and global financial markets, I found myself struggling to wrap my head around it all. “Behind the food lay the politics, behind the politics lay the money, and behind the money lay the markets,” he explains.
The confusion I felt in trying to understand how a financial market can be invented, how people can trade crops that don’t exist just yet (and with “upward bets” no less), and how speculating on these markets can cause price spikes, hunger, and then food riots, resulted in feelings of dislocation and despair.
Food prices are soaring, but many farmers are going broke. How can this be? Well, apparently there are spot prices (what farmers get) and futures prices (what the banks and bankers get).
The UN’s World Food Programme exists to help feed hungry people around the world, and Bill Gates, one of our richest solutionaries, has contributed millions of dollars to their Purchase for Progress plan (that allows smallholders to participate in commodities markets), but people are hungrier than ever. How can this be? In one of the liveliest sections of the book Kaufman takes on Gates in a UN press conference and describes a red-faced and scowling Gates defending his support of the program. It looks like a victory for Kaufman for a second, but then the reader remembers that millions are still starving. I was despondent and I am guessing you will be too.
If you want to be even more confused, listen to Kaufman and investor Jim Rogers go at each other with heartfelt fury in this interview on BBC news: “This is an outrage and bankers need to get out of the business,” Kaufman rails…the people who are making money are the traders…Getting bankers out of the business is only going to help farmers.”
In this interview, and in his book, he comes out in support of commodities markets, for their ability to stabilize food markets and help farmers, but comes down hard on the newer food derivatives invented by banks like Goldman Sachs, in the past 10-12 years. In addition, he offers forth a few simple-sounding solutions, including banning insider trading on the commodities market and establishing grain reserves. I have no idea if these are actually feasible or if anyone is listening.
The proposed solutions calmed my nerves, if only briefly, since they offer a hopeful way out of the maze of markets, and because I actually understand them. At the end of the book, which I read as 2012 came to a close, I tried to hold onto that hope. That even though something as incomprehensible and removed from my daily work—financial markets—are creating impossible conditions, there is meaning (and hope) in connecting people to where their food comes from, in helping guide the conversation around how our food gets to our plates, who benefits, and who suffers in the process.
Mark Bittman, in his January 1 New York Times blog post called to food systems advocates for patience, saying that “failure is a part of progress.” I myself am also pressing myself to hold onto hope. All men, I hope, live so.