Q&A with Author Alan Bjerga
Describe the "commodities casino" as you refer to it in the book.
|Author Alan Bjerga |
The "commodities casino" is the result of a bunch of things that have come together at once to make world food prices swing up and down in ways that have hurt everyone and the world's poorest people most. Tighter food inventories, more volatile weather, big changes in oil prices that are a significant part of food costs, and the ability of commodity buyers and sellers to shift billions of dollars into and out of crop futures in an instant all have the potential to drive markets in directions that make it hard for consumers and farmers to meet their need for nutritious food. To what do you attribute the volatility of food prices over the past five years?
A lot of it has to do with smaller surpluses reacting to unpredictable weather -- when you have less food available, markets get jumpier when there's bad news. The smaller surpluses are here for many reasons -- rising demand in countries that are growing quickly, governments moving away from stockpiling grains, more crops being used as energy sources. It takes away much of the buffer we used to have. Add to that new ways to buy and sell crop futures, and prices can start to move pretty fast. What do you see happening over the next 5-10 years?
I would not be surprised a bit to see world food prices fall again, actually. That may seem to undercut the book, but it doesn't. Farmers have an amazing ability to meet demand, and in fact will overshoot those needs if they get a chance. But that's the problem. People outside agriculture see a good harvest and think that food problems are over when they aren't. Then a bad harvest hits a key region, prices go up, countries become unstable, and people suffer. That's the world we're living in, and the only way to smooth it out is to have more reliable supplies from more places. What are some of the most pressing examples of food security issues we are seeing in the world today?
One of the most troubling trends right now is that parts of the world that are getting more and more urban are being supplied by rural areas that can't keep up with the growth. That means you have huge concentrations of people who are either highly dependent on food imports or on local growers whose harvests are entirely dependent on rain -- and rainfall seems to be getting more erratic. That trend isn't improving. The most frustrating problem beyond that is the persistence of famine. The world can feed itself, but it isn't happening, and for everyone's sake we need to do something about it. Are we really so self-absorbed that a billion people unnecessarily suffering doesn't deserve a response? It's not like we need to make massive changes, it's more about having a sustained focus and a common goal. You say at the very beginning of the book, "To feed everyone, we need everyone." What does that mean?
It means you can fit the entire point of the book on a T-shirt! Was that the wrong answer? OK. What I mean is that two things fundamentally hold back the fight against hunger. One is people who simply don't care. The second is people who do, but then spend time bickering with other people who do, but don't agree on the details. That's counter-productive. As a journalist I've spoken to people from executive suites to food-aid distribution sites, and most people have reasonable perspectives and good intentions. We'd all be better off if we cut out the caricatures and found worked out our differences to further a goal we all should agree upon: making sure no one goes to bed hungry at night. Different solutions work for different situations. Some flexibility, trust and appreciation of one another is required, but given the stakes involved and the rewards we could get, I think humanity can pull it off.
I'm an optimist. I wouldn't have written this book if I weren't.
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.”
— Serious Eats!
"Worth checking out … Based on the author's personal visits to farmers around the world, Bjerga explains how the crisis happened (short answer: greed), it’s tragic effects, and what now has to be done to reverse them."
— The Atlantic
"Some of Bjerga’s best writing is about the inner workings of the Chicago Board of Trade and other markets, and when he brings American agricultural history into the story of what other countries have not had and do not have to encourage stable agricultural development. … Bjerga’s skill is in the way he forces the reader to make connections between aspects of agriculture that do not normally appear together. And the book is chock full of unusual observations."
“My Thanksgiving holiday book discovery will become Christmas season reading. ... Lest you think this is just another rant at financial and trading institutions, be aware that Bjerga is a veteran commodities writer and Washington correspondent."
— Lee Egerstrom in Hindsight: The Minnesota 2020 Blog