books food poverty

Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty, by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman

Not to be confused with by John Naish, or Enough by Bill McKibben, this is a searing new book about hunger. It’s the work of two journalists. Roger Thurow is an Africa correspondent, Scott Kilman an agriculture reporter, and their co-authored series on famine for the Wall Street Journal won them a Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting in 2004. builds on that series, fills in the gaps, and is a superb piece of work.

The authors set out to discover why anyone still goes hungry today, when we know that we grow enough food in the world to feed everyone. We know the causes of famine and how to prevent it, but the number of malnourished people is currently rising. “Famine is by and large preventable” they write. There are still disasters and droughts, but much of the problem is “a man-made catastrophe, caused one anonymous decision at a time, one day at a time, by people, institutions, and governments doing what they thought was best for themselves or sometimes even what they thought at the time was best for Africa.”

Africa is the focus here, because it is overwhelmingly the continent that suffers most from hunger. To investigate why that should be so, the authors begin their story with a biography of Norman Borlaug. This energetic plant biologist began his work in Mexico, where he developed a new breed of wheat that was resistant to rust blight, which was ruining the country’s harvest. Famine disappeared from Mexico and Borlaug moved on to India to repeat the experiment. By spreading the word about the new seed, teaching farmers how to use fertilizer efficiently, and persuading the government to offer support to the farmers, India’s regular famines became a thing of the past.

History knows this era as the . The big question is why it never reached Africa, and this is where it starts to get political. The United States has always produced large grain surpluses, encouraged by the generous subsidies to farmers that were introduced during the Great Depression. They used to be able to sell some of this surplus to Mexico and to India, but with every country that became self sufficient, the danger of a glut increased. The US needed places to dump its surpluses, and the government solved the problem by buying up the excess and giving it away as Food Aid, even though this swamps local markets and drives local farmers out of business.

Everyone knows it that buying local food is quicker and saves more lives in a famine – there were storehouses full of grain in Ethiopia during the 2003 famine, but the food still gets shipped from the US. It is written into law that all Food Aid must be grown in America, something that is vigorously defended by the agricultural lobby, and 75% of it must be shipped on American ships. It’s a hugely self-serving system, and to their shame, one that is propped up by the NGOs – agencies such as Catholic Relief or World Vision depend on US Food Aid for much of their funding. When the Bush administration tried to reform aid policy to allow more local food to be bought, the aid agencies campaigned against it. It is an “Iron Triangle” of self interest. As one Ethiopian farmer puts it, “American farmers need Ethiopian famine.”

Alongside this, development policy also changed. Mexico, India, and others were able to support their farmers with subsidized seeds and fertilizer, guaranteed prices at harvest time, and other such structures. Higher yields meant that fewer people had to work the land, and this freed up labour for manufacturing and other industries. The Green Revolution kick-started development in South America and Asia. Africa came too late to the party. With the rise of free market theory in the 80s and 90s, the IMF and the World Bank had basically outlawed subsidies. As a condition of aid and debt relied, por countries had to cut government spending, shrink their involvement and make space for private initiative. The structural ajustment schemes denied Africa the very tools that the rest of the world had used to end hunger and start development.

This is the great hypocrisy: the rich world preaches free trade, but doesn’t practice it. Africa is forbidden to subsidize its poor and struggling farmers, while the US and EU pour billions into agricultural subsidies that are almost entirely unnecessary. This destroys any comparative advantage that African countries might have. Thurow and Kilman compare American cotton and West African cotton, and find that although West Africa produces better cotton more efficiently, the subsidies make US cotton cheaper. Countries such as Mali lose out in billion of dollars in export, and the development aid doesn’t make up for it.

This book made me more angry than anything I’ve read for quite some time. A multinational grain company CEO protests that “it is our right to provide aid in the form of food instead of cash,” and I need to put the book for a moment before I throw it at something. Fortunately, the book divides neatly in half between the problems and the solutions, offering much more than the usual ‘happy chapter’ at the end. The second half deals with the development of boards of trade in Africa, so that farmers can sell futures and guarantee that they’ll cover their costs – Ethiopia’s 2003 famine followed a bumper year, because there was too much grain and farmers actually made a loss. There’s the heartening story of Malawi introducing subsidies in 2005, giving the finger to the IMF in the process. “These are Malawi’s children who are starving, not the World Bank’s” said president Mutharika. Despite the protests of Britain’s DfiD and the IMF, the plan worked and has now got their official support.

One thing that the book seems to suggest is that while the international institutions such as the UN or the WTO have become paralysed by old-fashioned notions of national interest, others have picked up the challenge. The initiative has moved to private finance and even business. There are sections here about the Gates Foundation, or Norman Buffett (son of Warren), philanthropists putting up the funds for agriculture that governments won’t deliver. There are intriguing partnerships between the World Food Programme and the logistics group TNT, and there are businesses that exist solely to solve hunger among the poorest. I loved the story of the French nutrionists behind , the nutrient-rich, peanut butter based super-food that is now used in famine relief around the world. Despite the infuriating lack of political will to solve hunger, progress is being made, and the book is ultimately much more optimistic than I expected.

The journalistic approach means that Enough is well researched and full of facts and stats, but it’s also full of stories and real life situations. Thurow and Kilman introduce famine victims and aid workers, African businessmen and politicians, celebrity activists, wealthy American farmers. It’s a very human book, telling both sides and avoiding undue blame. It’s also full of inspiring individuals and interesting ideas, and is thoroughly engaging. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in development, Africa, or social justice.

  • , global food for thought

9 comments

  1. Dear Jeremy Williams,
    Disappointed not to see any of my books in your top 10 Christian environment books. See my Amazon bibliography, and especially Going Green: a Christian guide (1991), and 2008’s Living with the planet. My other Christian books are social action orientated.
    With all good wishes,
    Catherine von Ruhland

    1. Hi Catherine, I’d only included books I’ve read on the list so far, but I’ve put that right and included Living With the Planet. I nearly bought it at Greenbelt last year, but I had to much to carry, but I’ll get to it one of these days!

  2. Want to flag (feel free to re-post) an opinion-editorial I co-wrote visiting the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania with their director Abdou Tenkouano published today in the Kansas City Star. I am currently in Madagascar, traveling across Africa for the Worldwatch Insitute and blogging everyday on a site called “Nourishing the Planet” [http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/]. I pasted the article below. All the best, Danielle Nierenberg (www.borderjumpers.org)

    Cultivating food security in Africa
    Kansas City Star

    By Danielle Nierenberg and Abdou Tenkouano

    As hunger and drought spread across Africa, a huge effort is underway to increase yields of staple crops, such as maize, wheat, cassava, and rice.

    While these crops are important for food security, providing much-needed calories, they don’t provide much protein, vitamin A, thiamin, niacin, and other important vitamins and micronutrients—or taste. Yet, none of the staple crops would be palatable without vegetables.

    Vegetables are less risk-prone to drought than staple crops that stay in the field for longer periods. Because vegetables typically have a shorter growing time, they can maximize scarce water supplies and soil nutrients better than crops such as maize, which need a lot of water and fertilizer.

    Unfortunately, no country in Africa has a big focus on vegetable production. But that’s where AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center steps in. Since the 1990s, the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (based in Taiwan) has been working in Africa, with offices in Tanzania, Mali, Cameroon, and Madagascar, to breed cultivars that best suit farmers’ needs.

    By listening to farmers and including them in breeding research, AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center is building a sustainable seed system in sub-Saharan Africa. The Center does this by breeding a variety of vegetables with different traits—including resistance to disease and longer shelf life—and by bringing the farmers to the Regional Center in Arusha and to other offices across Africa to find out what exactly those farmers need in the field and at market.

    Babel Isack, a tomato farmer from Tanzania, is just one of many farmers who visits the Center, advising staff about which vegetable varieties would be best suited for his particular needs—including varieties that depend on fewer chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.

    The Center works with farmers to not only grow vegetables, but also to process and cook them. Often, vegetables are cooked for so long that they lose most of their nutrients. To solve that problem, Mel Oluoch, a Liaison Officer with the Center’s Vegetable Breeding and Seed System Program (vBSS), works with women to improve the nutritional value of cooked foods by helping them develop shorter cooking times.

    “Eating is believing,” says Oluoch, who adds that when people find out how much better the food tastes—and how much less fuel and time it takes to cook—they don’t need much convincing about the alternative methods.

    Oluoch also trains both urban and rural farmers on seed production. “The sustainability of seed,” says Oluoch, “is not yet there in Africa.” In other words, farmers don’t have access to a reliable source of seed for indigenous vegetables, such as amaranth, spider plant, cowpea, okra, moringa, and other crops.

    Although many of these vegetables are typically thought of as weeds, not food, they are a vital source of nutrients for millions of people and can help alleviate hunger. Despite their value, these “weeds” are typically neglected on the international agricultural research agenda. As food prices continue to rise in Africa—in some countries food is 50-80 percent higher than in 2007—indigenous vegetables are becoming an integral part of home gardens.

    The hardiness and drought-tolerance of traditional vegetables become increasingly important as climate change becomes more evident.

    Many indigenous vegetables use less water than hybrid varieties and some are resistant to pests and disease, advantages that will command greater attention from farmers and policymakers, and make the work of AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center more urgent and necessary than ever before.

    Abdou Tenkouano is director of the Regional Center for Africa of AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. Danielle Nierenberg is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute blogging daily from Africa at

    1. Thanks for getting in touch, that’s an interesting perspective that I’ve not heard elsewhere, and I’ll re-post it tomorrow. Always nice to hear from Madagascar too!

  3. I really enjoy reading your posts, i just used this website Swap my Seeds, as a way of giving away my unused seeds. Anyone know what I can sell them for? I have maybe 60 geranium seeds left.

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