Book Review: Enough

This book may now top my list of books everyone I know should read. Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman is a sharply written, well-researched attempt to answer one of the world’s most plaguing questions: if we grow enough food for everyone, why is there famine?

Alternately enraging and hopeful, the book makes the case that famine and malnutrition are man-made problems (that’s the enraging part), but it also covers promising efforts to keep the next food crisis from claiming so many lives.

Thurow and Kilman are reporters with the Wall Street Journal–a publication hardly known for its bleeding-heart liberalism, by the way–and they bring a journalistic sense of immediacy to the stories they tell, from the withered fields of Ethiopia to the American corn belt. But this is not purely objective fact-finding. Thurow and Kilman are angry, and they want you to be angry too.

And you should be angry. American grain subsidies have pumped money into corn production, swamping the global market with cheap grain and undercutting farmers in the developing world. This has put much of Africa in the position of continually importing staple grains, which makes them vulnerable to price shocks. So when the price does rise, as it did dramatically in 2008, they do not have the capacity to fill the demand and people go hungry.

But it doesn’t stop there. When famine strikes, America responds by shipping tons of American grains to the recipient nation. Generous, right? Not when there are already local producers growing the same food. A flood of free food swamps the local market, deepening the problem by putting local farmers out of business and thus jeopardizing next year’s food supply. The World Food Program long ago switched to locally sourcing its food aid. Why doesn’t the US program follow suit?

The farm lobby. Unfortunately the Farm Bill–a massive, entrenched piece of legislation that governs a boggling amount of programs from school lunches to corn subsidies to food aid–mandates that all US emergency food aid be grown on America’s farms, while simultaneously pumping huge subsidies into those farms to artificially deflate prices. These policies are great for large-scale industrialized farmers. They are ruinous to the farmers and consumers of the developing world, especially Africa. It’s time to change them.

Enough is the best book I’ve read that summarizes the major issues in agricultural policy. It’s suggestions are laudable: scale back production subsidies in the US and Europe, buy 50% of emergency food aid from local sources rather than shipping it from the States, increase USAID funding of agriculture programs, support efforts to build functioning futures markets and insurance systems in developing countries, and (controversially) change free trade agreements to allow developing countries to subsidize their own farmers until such a time as they are food self-sufficient.

I think all of these suggestions are both sensible and necessary. If something doesn’t change in ag policy, famine and malnutrition will continue, even in a world where we grow enough food for everyone.

Another great part of Enough is its profiles of people and organizations working to fight hunger. One of them, Howard Buffet (Warren Buffet’s son) is a major supporter of ECHO. Another, Bread for the World, is a wonderful faith-based organization that lobbies for the hungry in Washington D.C. If you want further information about how you can influence our country’s response to hunger worldwide you could do worse than read their annual Hunger Report.

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