Article — From the June 2009 issue

Let Them Eat Cash

Can Bill Gates turn hunger into profit?

The latter-day emperors arrived in Rome. Presidents, prime ministers, plutocrats, puppets, dictators, and thugs left their limousines across the street from the Circus Maximus and paraded into the High-Level Conference on World Food Security and the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy. That was quite a bit to consider in one conference, but as the number of starving people on earth rose toward one billion, famine pushed aside all other concerns.

On the first day, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, echoed the wisdom of Thorstein Veblen as he blamed world hunger on “conspicuous consumptions,” which have “put all nations in the world on the verge of destruction.” Such practices, declared Ahmadinejad, were satanic.

Mahmoud al Habash, the Palestinian minister of agriculture, articulated a different perspective. “The main reason for the world food problem is political,” he said. “The rich countries want to control the world.” The way to end world hunger, explained al Habash, was to end the occupation of the West Bank.

The Pope sent an envoy with blessings from the Almighty, and a few words of advice. “Feed the hungry,” said His Eminence Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

During the three days of the hunger summit, more than a thousand reporters filed stories they culled from more than a hundred hunger speeches and hunger news conferences, a vast testament to the involuntary urge of non-hungry people to say something in the face of hunger, to explicate starvation, to offer a solution. The conference in Rome may have inspired the greatest mass recital of famine narratives in human history, and as I downed my espressos in the mornings before the assembly I’d read the latest installments.

The stories varied in focus and emphasis but employed the same basic plot points: biofuel production, caterpillar plagues, commodity speculation, crop disease, drought, dwindling stockpiles, fear, flood, hoarding, war, and an increasing world appetite for meat and dairy had bubbled into a nasty poison. Every day, another 25,000 people starved to death or died from hunger-related disease: every four seconds, another corpse. Rising prices for corn, cooking oil, rice, soybeans, and wheat had sparked riots in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, and nineteen other countries. Not to mention Milwaukee, where a food voucher line of nearly 3,000 people descended into chaos. (“They just went crazy down there,” said one witness. “Just totally crazy.”)

Oddly enough, almost none of the food riots had emerged from a lack of food. There was plenty of food. The riots had been generated by the lack of money to buy food, and therein lay what may have distinguished today’s hunger from the hunger of years past. Therein lay the substance of the Rome conference.

In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth would ineluctably outpace food production, a prediction yet to be proven correct. For much of the past century, global crop production has actually outpaced global population growth. Even so, people continue to starve to death.

In 1971, when starving children from Bangladesh to Biafra became the topic of dinner-table conversation across America, 961 million people in the developing world went hungry. That year, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations had joined forces with the United Nations, the World Bank, and other organizations to fund research in high-yield varieties of rice and wheat; this research, along with expanded use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and irrigation, and sub-sequent changes in agricultural methodology— collectively dubbed the Green Revolution—more than doubled cereal production in Asia over the next quarter century. Today, there is enough production capacity to feed the planet—enough, in fact, to feed a planet with double the population.

The world population has, of course, already nearly doubled since 1971, and the proportion of people who are hungry has fallen considerably. Despite the undeniable magnitude of this achievement, the Green Revolution is far from complete. In fact, just two decades after they launched it, the agrocrats were blindsided by an astonishing reversal: the real number of hungry people in the developing world began to climb again, from 823 million in the early 1990s to 907 million in 2008. And since 2003, the overall proportion of hungry people is also on the rise. Which leads to the inevitable conclusion: Malthus was correct to predict that as time went on, more people would starve to death. He just got the mechanism wrong.

Lack of money, not lack of food—that was the new answer, and at the Rome hunger summit, money solutions abounded. Rent support, social security, and subsidized electricity had become part of the debate. One group of delegates advocated price-fixing and tariffs; another argued for free markets and the abolition of tariffs. Decrease exports, demanded some; increase exports, pleaded others. Subsidize the rice trade; tax the rice trade. Purchase more grain from abroad; purchase less grain from abroad.

Despite such an abundance of divergent tactics, the general understanding at the summit was that the old model of hunger management no longer worked; that the age of shipping surplus rice and wheat across the oceans was over; that handing out candy bars and sacks of flour was not a long-term solution; that direct food assistance was dead; that now was the time for a new conceptualization of the old problem.

Everyone could agree that when the price of your daily bread topped your daily salary, all the agricultural methodology in the world would not make a difference. Money, on the other hand, could help. But how much money? And what, precisely, should we do with it?

In his opening address, the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations made it simple. Dressed in flowing blue robes, Jacques Diouf assured the assembly that his organization could take care of the problem for $30 billion a year. At which point Diouf requested donations.

Later that afternoon, the president of Senegal put the problem more bluntly. “This concept of assistance is now out of date,” declared Abdoulaye Wade. “Don’t tell us what to do,” he continued. “We know what to do. You will see. We will change everything.” Which was how Wade requested $800 million for his own country’s use, no questions asked.

“Modern agriculture requires capital and technology,” noted Uganda’s minister for water and the environment. “And for these inputs we need both local and foreign investors.”

Perhaps the latter-day emperors were right. Nothing improved the human condition like cash. Which meant that the only way to understand world hunger would be to follow the money.

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is the author of A Short History of the American Stomach. His last article for Harper’s Magazine “Wasteland,” appeared in the February 2008 issue.

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