When in 2003 famine pushed 14 million Ethiopians to the brink of starvation, it did so despite the fact that Ethiopian farmers had recently reaped a series of unprecedented bumper harvests. It did so while hundreds of thousands of tons of grain lay rotting in the countryside and acres of fertile farmland sat fallow. And it did so as politicians in the United States advocated alleviating poverty in the developing world as a way to subdue breeding grounds for terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. In March 2002 President Bush told a gathering of world leaders at the Summit on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico: “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.” Yet two months later, Bush signed into law a new farm bill that increased the huge subsidies paid to American farmers, thereby ensuring that their unsubsidized counterparts in Ethiopia and the rest of the developing world would continue to have no hope of competing in the global food market.
Drought was the proximate cause of the 2003 famine, but the true culprit, as Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman make clear in Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, were the policies known as “structural adjustment” that Western governments–under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank–have forced on Africa since the 1980s. These policies pressure African governments to stop investing in local agriculture–a sector in which it was deemed that Africa lacks a “comparative advantage”–and instead to import food from the developed world. Structural adjustment is couched in the language of free trade, but it is really just the handmaiden of subsidy schemes that prop up farmers in the United States and Western Europe. Subsidies encourage the production of massive surpluses of corn, wheat and other commodity crops, and structural adjustment guarantees foreign markets for them. Structural adjustment, Thurow and Kilman explain, assumed that the private sector in Africa would expand to fill the void created when governments pulled out of agriculture. For a variety of reasons–political corruption, war, the anemic nature of private enterprise in many countries–that never happened. The result was a complete lack of the kind of market infrastructure–transportation, storage facilities, price controls–that is necessary to minimize risk and encourage farmers to invest in their land.
As the Ethiopian famine was providing devastating proof that Western governments have failed to help African nations develop their own sustainable food supplies, a handful of writers in the United States were addressing the question of food and sustainability from a different, if related, perspective. Prominent among them was Michael Pollan, who in a series of articles published in The New York Times Magazine and elsewhere from 2001 to 2004 was laying the foundation for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006. A groundbreaking examination of how food is produced and consumed in America, The Omnivore’s Dilemma quickly became the manifesto for good-food revolutionaries seeking to replace our wasteful, impracticable and cruel industrial food chain with a patchwork of smaller organic farms and regional food sheds–with, in other words, a sustainable system of food production.