What if all of us who write about or work on hunger and food security issues, thought of ourselves as criminal investigators, rather than advocates?
That’s the interesting question that came to mind for me as I was listening this morning to Roger Thurow, a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, talk about his new book, Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. Mr. Thurow said that he and his co-author, Scott Kilman, another WSJ reporter, found themselves becoming crime reporters as they documented hunger and famine in Africa over the last decade. The more they traveled-from Ethiopia to Kenya and from Mali to Ghana-talking to farmers, grain traders, and political leaders, the more they realized that they had to “crack the case and get to the bottom of the crime” of how the world, 19 years after the 1984 Ethiopian famine, let it happen again in 2003. In the 1984 famine, some 12 million people were on the verge of starvation and 1 million died; in 2003, some 14 million people were suffering from famine. After the Live Aid concerts, the photos of children with bloated bellies, the pleas from celebrities, and the promises to never let it happen again, it did. And with obviously disastrous results.
Thurow and Kilman attempt to answer why that famine and the current food crisis happened, as well as why the Green Revolution in agriculture “stopped short,” as they say, in Africa. One of the most interesting things Thurow explained was how the success of African farmers became their failure-in 2001, the Ethiopian harvest was the best most farmers had ever seen. They had record yields and had more food than ever to feed their families, as well as to bring to market. But that surplus caused prices to collapse more than 80 percent. Farmers couldn’t pay their debts and they cut back their expenses the next season-they planted less, they used less inputs like fertilizers and hybrid seeds, and planted just enough to (hopefully) feed their families. When the famine hit hard in 2002-2003, the same farmers, write Thurow and Kilman, who had carried their surplus grain to market the season before, were now carrying their malnourished and starving children to food aid centers. And at the same time, Ethiopian grain traders had warehouses packed to the ceiling with surplus food because foreign aid agencies were buying foreign-mostly U.S. grain-instead of from local suppliers. As a result, while millions of people in Ethiopia went hungry, more than 300,000 tonnes of grain rotted either in fields or in storage. In other words, producing enough food is important, but food markets can sometimes work in irrational ways to undermine production.
As I continue to digest-so to speak-Thurow and Kilman’s book, I’ll let you know what I think and I hope you’ll give me your thoughts on whether hunger is a crime or something that humanity has to naturally endure.