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Cornucopia Blues | The Nation

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Cornucopia Blues

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GEORGE MULALA/REUTERS A guard protects flour rations donated by the United States at a feeding center in Wollo, Ethiopia, in 2001.

About the Author

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

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.

Pollan's book does not discuss famine, and Thurow and Kilman, two Wall Street Journal reporters whose book grew out of a series of articles they wrote on famine and food aid, do not address America's good-food revolution. But the issues at the heart of both books are stubbornly connected: the problem of ensuring that everyone has enough food to eat is inextricable from the problem of ensuring that food is produced in a sustainable manner. A central impediment to solving both problems is Big Agriculture and its entrenched interests--including those subsidy schemes that encourage American farmers to overproduce. Thurow and Kilman manage to distill, in one outrageous paragraph, what an imposing impediment it is. They describe how, in the years following the 2003 famine, an effort by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and others to replace the policies of structural adjustment with ones that would help Africa become agriculturally self-sufficient was derailed when the US Congress once again appeased Big Agriculture:

The legislation behind farm subsidies had been structured to make it unusually hard to undo. Unlike many laws, which automatically expire on a predetermined date, the laws underlying subsidies weren't programmed to end. Instead, if Congress didn't craft and enact a new farm bill every five years or so, the law reverted back to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agriculture Act of 1949, which contained even sweeter payments to some farmers.

The subsidies are either extended or they become even more onerous. Anyone who can get such legislation enacted--and manage to protect it over six decades--will be a shrewd and powerful opponent, one not easily undone by Annan and other high-profile activists, and certainly not by the vote-with-your-fork ethos the good-food revolution has advocated thus far.

Since the publication of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation in 2001 and The Omnivore's Dilemma, both excellent and indispensable books, there has developed a cottage industry of publications, documentaries, panels and lectures about the industrialized food chain, all basically reiterating what Pollan and Schlosser said first and best: the way Americans eat is unsustainable, morally indefensible and slowly killing us. It is unsustainable because it depends on cheap oil, in the form of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and the fuel required for planting, harvesting, processing and transporting food from the field to markets around the globe. It is immoral because it exploits the poor and often undocumented workers who pick produce and process meat (to say nothing of its treatment of the animals we eat). It is slowly killing us because of the various health problems--obesity and diabetes chief among them--that a diet of processed food can cause or exacerbate.

It is always easier, of course, to identify a problem than to solve it, but the good-food revolution feels stuck, unsure how to move beyond its evangelical phase, which has been fairly successful in raising awareness about the ills of the industrial food chain. To be sure, far from the panel-and-documentary circuit, some important work is under way to change how our food is produced and consumed: the efforts by governments and nonprofits to make farmers' markets food-stamp friendly; the growth in states and cities of food-policy councils, which bring together citizens, government officials and other stakeholders in the food system to work on all manner of food-related issues; the increasing number of mayors who are adding good-food initiatives to their agendas (in June the annual US Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution urging President Obama to "seek out partnerships with Mayors on Local Food initiatives to develop strategies that help urban America develop better access to quality food"). Yet these efforts are nascent and uneven, and the tenor of the movement is still dominated by big ideas with a facile and vaguely paternalistic quality that is frustrating. Eat less meat. Plant a garden. Cook. Understand that "cheap" food has hidden costs. Appoint a food czar.

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