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Cornucopia Blues | The Nation

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Cornucopia Blues

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Earlier this year, Jane Black, a food writer at the Washington Post, suggested that the good-food movement has a message problem--that in asking to fix everything at once, it hurts its chances of fixing anything at all. Black's article appeared on the heels of a series of pricey charity dinners organized in Washington by the pioneering chef Alice Waters, Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl and others as part of the festivities surrounding Obama's inauguration. The idea was to place the food revolution alongside the new administration's other top priorities. Black was skeptical of the strategy, even as she supported the goal. "Whether you're Detroit, which just won $25 billion in bailout money, or the International Sleep Products Association, which is currently asking Congress to add a $5,000 tax credit for consumers to buy furniture to the new stimulus bill, the key to success is focus," she wrote. "By contrast, the sustainable food movement is asking for a fundamental overhaul of the entire U.S. food system--and everybody has their own ideas of how to begin."

About the Author

Brent Cunningham
Brent Cunningham is the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Black's constructive criticism provoked a defensiveness--at least publicly--among some good-food advocates that was disheartening. Rather than address Black's argument, Reichl dug in and shouted past it. "We want to change it all," she declared on WNYC's The Leonard Lopate Show. "Who doesn't think that obesity is a problem, and by the way pesticides are a problem, and social justice for farmworkers is a problem?" Who indeed? In February, Waters responded with an op-ed in the New York Times in which she called for a tripling of the funding for the National School Lunch Program, from $9 billion a year to $27 billion. Specific? Very. Realistic? Hardly.

I'm sympathetic to the goals of the good-food revolution. I cook. I shop at farmers' markets. I buy organic food when I can afford to. I support the revolution's vision of a safer, healthier, more equitable approach to food production. But Thurow and Kilman's study of famine, as well as another new book on the subject--Famine: A Short History, by Cormac Ó Gráda--have left me wondering whether the good-food movement as a whole grasps that "changing it all" involves much more than moral suasion, that large-scale solutions to the problem of creating a sustainable system of food production will require compromise, patience, a clear focus on achievable goals and a realization that these problems are global, not national. Can the revolutionaries stomach solutions that move beyond their lovingly cultivated ideals and engage the realities--political, economic and cultural--those ideals are pitted against? One thing that Thurow, Kilman and Ó Gráda make clear is that no matter how just your cause, victory is not guaranteed. "Since the time of the Green Revolution," Thurow and Kilman write, referring to the massive transformation of agriculture that did much to eradicate famine in Latin America and Asia in the decades following World War II, "the world has known how to end famine and tame chronic hunger.... But we haven't done it."

For better or worse, American agriculture is at the center of an ever more global, interconnected web of food production, trade and aid. The United States could no more remake its food system without regard to agricultural policies and food supplies in the rest of the world than it could withdraw from the international finance system, say, or bring home all its military troops. How, for instance, do we persuade the growing number of people in countries like China and India that they should resist the allure of the meat-heavy diet that many in the West take for granted now that rising living standards have put it within their reach for the first time in their lives?

And what of American food aid, which constitutes half of all international food aid? It is a big business, one that has been conjoined for sixty years with the surplus commodity crops that our industrial agriculture system is designed to produce, and one that cloaks itself in moral imperative. In the wake of World War II, food aid was central to the Marshall Plan, and as Ó Gráda explains, "the explicit aim of Public Law 480, passed in 1954, was 'to lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands.'" To accomplish this, the law stipulated that American food aid be actual food, not cash, and that the food be purchased exclusively in the United States. This requirement created a powerful alliance among the constituencies that stood to profit from this arrangement, the so-called Iron Triangle of farmers and other agriculture players, shippers and humanitarian groups that distribute the food.

In Enough, Thurow and Kilman relay an anecdote about Ethiopia during the 2003 famine that shows the grim consequences of the Iron Triangle's stranglehold on food aid. As trucks laden with 1 million tons of US corn, wheat, peas, beans and lentils rolled into Nazareth, a city of around 230,000 people in central Ethiopia, they passed warehouses stuffed with 100,000 metric tons of Ethiopian grains, beans and peas--the surplus from a bumper crop two years earlier that had failed to sell when prices collapsed. (Here again was the legacy of structural adjustment: the dearth of storage facilities meant that farmers had no choice but to dump their grain on the market at the same time; and the stunted internal markets and an ancient transportation network that still relied heavily on donkeys meant that there was no way to move the glut of grain to the parts of the country that needed it.) The market was undermined further by the arrival of international food aid. "American farmers have a market in Ethiopia, but we don't have a market in Ethiopia," huffed Kadir Geleto, who managed a grain-trading operation in Nazareth.

Geleto understood that Ethiopian-grown grain alone couldn't feed the hungry when the rains failed, but he also knew that the deluge of American food aid had created a cycle of dependency that sapped the incentive of many of his countrymen to work to feed their families. Why, Geleto wondered, didn't America provide cash aid to buy up the local surplus and then send food aid to cover the rest of the shortage?

During the 2003 famine, Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, asked the same question. He knew that if he had the flexibility to buy surplus grain in Ethiopia, food aid would be cheaper and made available to the hungry faster than food shipped from the United States. As Thurow and Kilman write in Enough, Natsios also knew that the Iron Triangle had consistently quashed efforts to allow for such flexibility in American food policy. But by 2005, with the reverberations from the 2003 famine keeping world leaders nominally focused on ending hunger in Africa, Natsios convinced President Bush that "reforming the...food-aid program would complement his initiative to end famine in the Horn of Africa." Bush's budget that year included a proposal that one-quarter of the $1.2 billion in food-aid money be used to buy African crops. But when Natsios presented the idea in April of that year to the annual food-aid industry conference in Kansas City, he was nearly run out of town. Robert Zachritz of World Vision, a Christian aid group, described the reception Natsios received as "hostile." The law governing food aid didn't change. As Ó Gráda notes in Famine, "Public Law 480 has allowed U.S. food producers to match philanthropy with self-interest for over half a century."

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