If you keep an eye on the news, it's hard to miss that a recent hike in food prices has sparked food riots and increased hunger around the world. From Africa to China to right here in the United States, more people are depending on food donations and government programs to make it through the day. Journalist Alan Bjerga attempts to tackle this enormous issue in his recent book Endless Appetites: How the Commodities Casino Creates Hunger and Unrest.
A few key dates are important to understanding the volatility of food prices today. In 2008 and 2010, two food price spikes caused millions of people worldwide to go hungry. From 2007 to 2009, more than 60 food riots broke out around the world. Many analysts attribute the Arab Spring and similar uprisings in Africa to discontent with food availability (along with other contributing factors). By 2011, the World Bank feared that one more shock to food prices would cause an international disaster. And that tension has not dissipated.
The reasons for rising prices are complicated. Bjerga focuses largely on the development of wheat and corn markets and the rise of commodities trading—which is, admittedly, a rather dry topic. But he livens up the narrative with stories of farmers from around the world, who are negotiating their place in a global, industrial food system dominated by Western seed companies and by the IMF and World Bank. Bjerga has clearly traveled widely for his research, and gives a voice to the peasantry that is rarely heard in international conversation about food security.
The book's content primarily reports on political events and contains statistical analysis of the facts and figures related to food accessibility. At times the numbers become overwhelming, and Bjerga loses the narrative of the people on the ground amidst a sea of crop prices. I was grateful for the many charts that helped me visualize much of the data being discussed; without them, I might have struggled to grasp some of the finer points Bjerga makes.
Bjerga's tone is journalistic, including maybe a dozen too many dramatic cliffhangers. The crux of this book is that since 2008, two major price hikes have sent food prices up, and by 2030 prices will be between 100 and 150% higher than they are today. The consequence of this reality is that more people are starving around the world, and international organizations are pushing for investment in higher-yield crops and better food aid to meet the need. Endless Appetites is ideal for someone interested economics and global markets, packed as it is with numbers. But the information in this book is important for anyone who is concerned about the future of our food supply—which should probably be all of us.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.