how-food-explains-the-world by xiaoyounan


									How Food Explains the World
From China's strategic pork reserve to a future where insects are the new white meat, 10
reasons we really are what we eat.

They say you are what you eat. And that applies to countries and cultures as much as individuals.

The food in our mouths defines us in far more fundamental and visceral terms than the gas in our

tanks or the lines on a map. So it's not surprising that the most important questions of global

politics often boil down to: What should we eat?

The Strategic Pork Reserve
        China is a porcine superpower as well as a human one. The Middle Kingdom boasts more
than 446 million pigs -- one for every three Chinese people and more than the next 43 countries
combined. So when there's a major disruption in the pork supply it hits the economy hard; the
"blue-ear pig" disease that forced Chinese farmers to slaughter millions of pigs in 2008, for
example, drove the country's inflation rate to its highest level in a decade.
        To prevent further disruptions, the Chinese government established a strategic pork
reserve shortly afterward, keeping icy warehouses around the country stocked with frozen pork
that can be released during times of shortage. The government was forced to add to the reserve -
- taking pigs off the market -- in the spring of 2010 when a glut led to prices collapsing.

Cornering the Chocolate Market
        Labeled "Chocfinger" and "Willy Wonka" in the media, British investor Anthony Ward has
emerged over the last decade as the undisputed king of the global chocolate market. In 2002,
Ward purchased more than 150,000 tons of cocoa, or around 5 percent of global production. He
did it again in the summer of 2010, buying upwards of 240,000 tons -- enough to make about 5
billion chocolate bars -- to give him control of about 7 percent of global production. It was the
largest delivery of cocoa on the London exchange in at least a decade, and Ward became the go-
to source for chocolate manufacturers looking for beans. Other investors cried foul, claiming that
Ward was driving up prices on a commodity that had already increased in value by more than 150
percent over the previous two and a half years.
        Ward isn't just a mad chocolate fiend; he has also made a long-term bet that supply
problems in West Africa will continue to push prices up. The demand for cocoa has risen about 3
percent annually over the last century and has spiked sharply during this year's political turmoil in
Ivory Coast, which grows about 40 percent of the world's crop. It also turns out that demand for
chocolate is countercyclical: Hershey's profits jumped 40 percent in 2009 during the global
financial crisis.

Hummus Wars
        A lesser-known and thankfully less destructive front of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the
ongoing fight for bragging rights over who can produce the world's largest batch of hummus.
Israel for years had held the world record with a 900-pound bowl of the popular chickpea-based
dip. But Lebanon, which claims that Israel has appropriated a traditionally Lebanese dish, struck
back with a 4,532-pound hummus plate in 2009. Israel retaliated just two months later when a
crack group of Israeli chefs whipped up an 8,993-pound dish. Then, in 2010, Lebanon retook the
crown with a 23,042-pound batch. (Apparently no one stopped to consider the Dead Sea-sized
slice of pita bread it would take to eat all that dip.)
        The fight doesn't appear likely to end anytime soon. Lebanese hummus producers have
threatened to charge Israel with copyright violation, relying on the precedent of a European Court
of Justice ruling that gave Greece exclusive rights to make feta cheese. The two sides have also
fought bitterly over the world record for the largest vat of tabbouleh.

Bug Bites
        The developed world's ever-increasing appetite for meat is turning into a genuine
environmental catastrophe, as the raising of livestock to feed that appetite now generates up to
20 percent of the greenhouse gases driving global warming, according to the United Nations.
Many environmentalists advocate vegetarianism -- or at least eating less meat -- as a solution.
But the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is asking consumers to consider another
option: eating insects.
        An insect-based diet could provide just as much protein as meat (plus key vitamins and
minerals) with far fewer emissions, the FAO says. And breeding insects such as locusts, crickets,
and mealworms emits one-tenth the amount of methane that raising livestock does, scientists
        The idea isn't as far-out as one might think. More than 1,000 insects are already known to
be eaten in about 80 percent of the world's countries, though the idea remains a source of
revulsion in the Western world. The FAO is putting its money where its mouth is, investing in
insect-farming projects in Laos, where locusts and crickets are already popular delicacies. A
world conference on insect eating is planned for 2013.

The Doomsday Pepper Vault
            Where should you go for a good meal after the apocalypse? Try Svalbard, a remote
island archipelago more than 600 miles north of mainland Norway, where a unique facility has
been built inside a mountain to safeguard the world's future food supply in case of catastrophe.
            Officially opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is built 426 feet under the
mountain's surface. The $6.7 million facility will eventually store 4.5 million frozen seed samples
from more than 100 countries. Many countries host their own food banks, but the Global Crop
Diversity Trust, an international coalition dedicated to food security, decided to build the facility as
a backup. The site was chosen for its remote location, low temperatures, and low level of seismic
            And if you were worried that your food would be bland in the post-apocalyptic future, fret
no more. In 2010, a delegation of U.S. senators delivered a collection of North American chili
peppers, including Wenk's Yellow Hots and San Juan Tsiles, to be preserved for all eternity.

Colonel Sanders Imperialism
            In the early days of Egypt's anti-government uprising this winter, some journalists
attempted to label it the "Koshary Revolution" after Egypt's traditional dish of rice, lentils,
macaroni, and fried onions. But Hosni Mubarak's embattled regime was hoping to tie the
protesters to a more sinister foodstuff: Kentucky Fried Chicken.
            Reports on state television described protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square munching on
free buckets of KFC, seeing them as proof of subversive foreign influence, though independent
journalists at the scene couldn't find a particularly high number of KFC eaters. The U.S. chain has
about 100 restaurants in Egypt, compared with fewer than 60 for McDonald's, but the price of a
meal, which can be up to three days' wages, makes it a rare delicacy for most Egyptians. There
were also reports of the government paying its thugs with chicken dinners, and street vendors
jokingly began shouting "Kentucky" to hawk everything from popcorn to falafel.
            Surprisingly, this wasn't the first time that KFC has been cast as the enemy in the Muslim
world. In 2006, Pakistani rioters burned down a KFC in response to the Danish Mohammed
cartoons controversy. This followed another -- and seemingly even more random -- burning of a
KFC one year earlier by a mob angered by a suicide bombing at a mosque in Karachi.
Superfood of the Incas … Stolen by Yuppies
       The trendiest new staple at your local Whole Foods is probably quinoa, an Andean grain
so high in minerals, protein, and amino acids that the FAO says it can be substituted for mother's
milk. Quinoa was introduced to the North American market three decades ago, but since 2000 it
has really taken off, with the price jumping nearly sevenfold. That's great news for the Bolivian
farmers who produce the vast majority of the world's supply, but it may be bad news for the
country's health. With their country now exporting around 90 percent of its quinoa crop, many
Bolivians simply can't afford it anymore. Domestic quinoa consumption has fallen 34 percent in
the last five years, and health officials fear a rise in obesity rates as Bolivians abandon the highly
nutritious grain they've enjoyed since the time of the Incas and switch to imported staples like rice
and white bread. President Evo Morales's government has even designated quinoa a "strategic"
foodstuff and included it in a subsidized food parcel for pregnant women. But more drastic
measures may be needed to keep up with the insatiable demand of Western foodies. Let's hope
for Egypt's sake that the Whole Foods set doesn't develop a taste for koshary anytime soon.

The Gold (Cabbage) Rush
       South Koreans take their national staple, kimchi, very seriously. There's a museum
dedicated to the fermented cabbage dish in Seoul, and servings of it were shot into space along
with the country's first astronaut. So in the fall of 2010, when kimchi prices began soaring
because of poor weather conditions and a bad cabbage harvest, Koreans predictably freaked out.
As prices increased nearly fourfold -- it normally costs $4 to $5 for a meal -- consumers began
referring to the dish as geum-chi, the Korean word for gold, and demanded the government take
action. Pundits lambasted President Lee Myung-bak for suggesting that Koreans try eating
cheaper North American cabbage. To head off potential unrest -- or even a kimchi revolution --
the Seoul city government began a kimchi bailout program, assuming 30 percent of the cost of an
emergency supply of cabbage it purchased from rural farmers. The national government also
grudgingly reduced tariffs on imported Chinese cabbage, betting, successfully, that more
cabbage would bring prices back down. Fear of Chinese dominance over their national food
supply, it turned out, didn't trump Koreans' love of spicy vegetables.

Canada's Hunt Country
       There are few political statements more striking than plunging a carving knife into one of
the world's cuddlier endangered species and eating its raw heart on camera. That's just what
Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean -- then Queen Elizabeth II's representative in the
Canadian government -- did during a 2009 visit to indigenous communities in northern Canada, a
few weeks after the European Union slapped a ban on Canadian seal products.
        Indigenous Canadians are legally permitted to hunt a small number of seals per year, as
they have for centuries. But, more controversially, commercial fishermen are allowed to kill up to
280,000 seals per year. Seal meat is an increasingly popular delicacy in Montreal's chicest
restaurants, and the issue has become a matter of national pride for Canada's Conservative
government, which invited chefs to serve seal meat in the Canadian Parliament cafeteria in 2010
to protest the EU ban.
        Scientists call animals like seals and whales -- which are controversially hunted in Japan
and Iceland -- "charismatic megafauna" because their appearance and appeal to humans have
become a survival advantage. But with the world's human population and food prices
skyrocketing, cuteness may not be enough to save these animals for much longer.

R U Hungry?
        It might seem inconceivable that people with no access to food would own cell phones,
but as prices fall and phone ownership becomes more of a necessity of modern life, it's not as
unheard of as one might think. This may be a sad reflection on the modern world, but it also
provides aid agencies with a rare opportunity to help those in need.
        In 2007, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) began experimenting with cell-phone-
based aid when it sent around 10,000 text messages to Iraqi refugees living in Syria, alerting
them to a new food distribution program. In 2009, the wfp began a pilot program to deliver
vouchers for food aid via cell phone to refugees living in Damascus. The agency initially targeted
about 1,000 refugee families, who received a $22 voucher every two months that could be
exchanged for staples like rice, wheat, and chickpeas at selected shops.
        Surprisingly, though many families had difficulty keeping food on the table, the WFP
reported that nearly all of the 130,000 refugees receiving food aid from the broader program
owned a cell phone. The program was a success, and in late 2010, it was expanded to thousands
more refugees living outside the capital. With more than 379 million cell-phone users as of 2009
in Africa, the world's poorest continent, the potential for growth is nearly limitless.
The New Geopolitics of Food
From the Middle East to Madagascar, high prices are spawning land grabs and ousting
dictators. Welcome to the 21st-century food wars.

         In the United States, when world wheat prices rise by 75 percent, as they have over the
last year, it means the difference between a $2 loaf of bread and a loaf costing maybe $2.10. If,
however, you live in New Delhi, those skyrocketing costs really matter: A doubling in the world
price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into
flour for chapatis costs twice as much. And the same is true with rice. If the world price of rice
doubles, so does the price of rice in your neighborhood market in Jakarta. And so does the cost
of the bowl of boiled rice on an Indonesian family's dinner table.
         Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at
all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the
supermarket, the soaring food prices we've seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a
calamity. But for the planet's poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income
on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are
barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely.
This can contribute -- and it has -- to revolutions and upheaval.
         Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high;
as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year's harvest predicted to fall
short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes,
and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the
hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common.
The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile -- and a whole lot more contentious --
than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.
         Until recently, sudden price surges just didn't matter as much, as they were quickly
followed by a return to the relatively low food prices that helped shape the political stability of the
late 20th century across much of the globe. But now both the causes and consequences are
ominously different.
         In many ways, this is a resumption of the 2007-2008 food crisis, which subsided not
because the world somehow came together to solve its grain crunch once and for all, but
because the Great Recession tempered growth in demand even as favorable weather helped
farmers produce the largest grain harvest on record. Historically, price spikes tended to be almost
exclusively driven by unusual weather -- a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet
Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully
infrequent. Unfortunately, today's price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand
and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population,
crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry. Each night, there are
219,000 additional people to feed at the global dinner table.
            More alarming still, the world is losing its ability to soften the effect of shortages. In
response to previous price surges, the United States, the world's largest grain producer, was
effectively able to steer the world away from potential catastrophe. From the mid-20th century
until 1995, the United States had either grain surpluses or idle cropland that could be planted to
rescue countries in trouble. When the Indian monsoon failed in 1965, for example, President
Lyndon Johnson's administration shipped one-fifth of the U.S. wheat crop to India, successfully
staving off famine. We can't do that anymore; the safety cushion is gone.
            That's why the food crisis of 2011 is for real, and why it may bring with it yet more bread
riots cum political revolutions. What if the upheavals that greeted dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali
in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya (a country that imports 90
percent of its grain) are not the end of the story, but the beginning of it? Get ready, farmers and
foreign ministers alike, for a new era in which world food scarcity increasingly shapes global
            THE DOUBLING OF WORLD grain prices since early 2007 has been driven primarily by
two factors: accelerating growth in demand and the increasing difficulty of rapidly expanding
production. The result is a world that looks strikingly different from the bountiful global grain
economy of the last century. What will the geopolitics of food look like in a new era dominated by
scarcity? Even at this early stage, we can see at least the broad outlines of the emerging food
            On the demand side, farmers now face clear sources of increasing pressure. The first is
population growth. Each year the world's farmers must feed 80 million additional people, nearly
all of them in developing countries. The world's population has nearly doubled since 1970 and is
headed toward 9 billion by midcentury. Some 3 billion people, meanwhile, are also trying to move
up the food chain, consuming more meat, milk, and eggs. As more families in China and
elsewhere enter the middle class, they expect to eat better. But as global consumption of grain-
intensive livestock products climbs, so does the demand for the extra corn and soybeans needed
to feed all that livestock. (Grain consumption per person in the United States, for example, is four
times that in India, where little grain is converted into animal protein. For now.)
        At the same time, the United States, which once was able to act as a global buffer of sorts
against poor harvests elsewhere, is now converting massive quantities of grain into fuel for cars,
even as world grain consumption, which is already up to roughly 2.2 billion metric tons per year,
is growing at an accelerating rate. A decade ago, the growth in consumption was 20 million tons
per year. More recently it has risen by 40 million tons every year. But the rate at which the United
States is converting grain into ethanol has grown even faster. In 2010, the United States
harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel
distilleries (up from 16 million tons in 2000). This massive capacity to convert grain into fuel
means that the price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. So if oil goes to $150 per barrel or
more, the price of grain will follow it upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain
into oil substitutes. And it's not just a U.S. phenomenon: Brazil, which distills ethanol from sugar
cane, ranks second in production after the United States, while the European Union's goal of
getting 10 percent of its transport energy from renewables, mostly biofuels, by 2020 is also
diverting land from food crops.
        This is not merely a story about the booming demand for food. Everything from falling
water tables to eroding soils and the consequences of global warming means that the world's
food supply is unlikely to keep up with our collectively growing appetites. Take climate change:
The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature
above the growing season optimum, farmers can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This
relationship was borne out all too dramatically during the 2010 heat wave in Russia, which
reduced the country's grain harvest by nearly 40 percent.
        While temperatures are rising, water tables are falling as farmers overpump for irrigation.
This artificially inflates food production in the short run, creating a food bubble that bursts when
aquifers are depleted and pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. In arid Saudi
Arabia, irrigation had surprisingly enabled the country to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than
20 years; now, wheat production is collapsing because the non-replenishable aquifer the country
uses for irrigation is largely depleted. The Saudis soon will be importing all their grain.
        Saudi Arabia is only one of some 18 countries with water-based food bubbles. All
together, more than half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling. The
politically troubled Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where grain production has
peaked and begun to decline because of water shortages, even as populations continue to grow.
Grain production is already going down in Syria and Iraq and may soon decline in Yemen. But the
largest food bubbles are in India and China. In India, where farmers have drilled some 20 million
irrigation wells, water tables are falling and the wells are starting to go dry. The World Bank
reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China,
overpumping is concentrated in the North China Plain, which produces half of China's wheat and
a third of its corn. An estimated 130 million Chinese are currently fed by overpumping. How will
these countries make up for the inevitable shortfalls when the aquifers are depleted?
        Even as we are running our wells dry, we are also mismanaging our soils, creating new
deserts. Soil erosion as a result of overplowing and land mismanagement is undermining the
productivity of one-third of the world's cropland. How severe is it? Look at satellite images
showing two huge new dust bowls: one stretching across northern and western China and
western Mongolia; the other across central Africa. Wang Tao, a leading Chinese desert scholar,
reports that each year some 1,400 square miles of land in northern China turn to desert. In
Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests have shrunk by half or more over the last few decades.
North Korea and Haiti are also suffering from heavy soil losses; both countries face famine if they
lose international food aid. Civilization can survive the loss of its oil reserves, but it cannot survive
the loss of its soil reserves.
        Beyond the changes in the environment that make it ever harder to meet human demand,
there's an important intangible factor to consider: Over the last half-century or so, we have come
to take agricultural progress for granted. Decade after decade, advancing technology
underpinned steady gains in raising land productivity. Indeed, world grain yield per acre has
tripled since 1950. But now that era is coming to an end in some of the more agriculturally
advanced countries, where farmers are already using all available technologies to raise yields. In
effect, the farmers have caught up with the scientists. After climbing for a century, rice yield per
acre in Japan has not risen at all for 16 years. In China, yields may level off soon. Just those two
countries alone account for one-third of the world's rice harvest. Meanwhile, wheat yields have
plateaued in Britain, France, and Germany -- Western Europe's three largest wheat producers.
IN THIS ERA OF TIGHTENING world food supplies, the ability to grow food is fast becoming a
new form of geopolitical leverage, and countries are scrambling to secure their own parochial
interests at the expense of the common good.
        The first signs of trouble came in 2007, when farmers began having difficulty keeping up
with the growth in global demand for grain. Grain and soybean prices started to climb, tripling by
mid-2008. In response, many exporting countries tried to control the rise of domestic food prices
by restricting exports. Among them were Russia and Argentina, two leading wheat exporters.
Vietnam, the No. 2 rice exporter, banned exports entirely for several months in early 2008. So did
several other smaller exporters of grain.
        With exporting countries restricting exports in 2007 and 2008, importing countries
panicked. No longer able to rely on the market to supply the grain they needed, several countries
took the novel step of trying to negotiate long-term grain-supply agreements with exporting
countries. The Philippines, for instance, negotiated a three-year agreement with Vietnam for 1.5
million tons of rice per year. A delegation of Yemenis traveled to Australia with a similar goal in
mind, but had no luck. In a seller's market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term
        Fearing they might not be able to buy needed grain from the market, some of the more
affluent countries, led by Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China, took the unusual step in 2008 of
buying or leasing land in other countries on which to grow grain for themselves. Most of these
land acquisitions are in Africa, where some governments lease cropland for less than $1 per acre
per year. Among the principal destinations were Ethiopia and Sudan, countries where millions of
people are being sustained with food from the U.N. World Food Program. That the governments
of these two countries are willing to sell land to foreign interests when their own people are
hungry is a sad commentary on their leadership.
        By the end of 2009, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated, some of
them exceeding a million acres. A 2010 World Bank analysis of these "land grabs" reported that a
total of nearly 140 million acres were involved -- an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to
corn and wheat combined in the United States. Such acquisitions also typically involve water
rights, meaning that land grabs potentially affect all downstream countries as well. Any water
extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate crops in Ethiopia or Sudan, for instance, will
now not reach Egypt, upending the delicate water politics of the Nile by adding new countries with
which Egypt must negotiate.
        The potential for conflict -- and not just over water -- is high. Many of the land deals have
been made in secret, and in most cases, the land involved was already in use by villagers when it
was sold or leased. Often those already farming the land were neither consulted about nor even
informed of the new arrangements. And because there typically are no formal land titles in many
developing-country villages, the farmers who lost their land have had little backing to bring their
cases to court. Reporter John Vidal, writing in Britain's Observer, quotes Nyikaw Ochalla from
Ethiopia's Gambella region: "The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving
people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous
population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming
with lots of tractors to invade their lands."
        Local hostility toward such land grabs is the rule, not the exception. In 2007, as food
prices were starting to rise, China signed an agreement with the Philippines to lease 2.5 million
acres of land slated for food crops that would be shipped home. Once word leaked, the public
outcry -- much of it from Filipino farmers -- forced Manila to suspend the agreement. A similar
uproar rocked Madagascar, where a South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, had pursued rights to
more than 3 million acres of land. Word of the deal helped stoke a political furor that toppled the
government and forced cancellation of the agreement. Indeed, few things are more likely to fuel
insurgencies than taking land from people. Agricultural equipment is easily sabotaged. If ripe
fields of grain are torched, they burn quickly.
        Not only are these deals risky, but foreign investors producing food in a country full of
hungry people face another political question of how to get the grain out. Will villagers permit
trucks laden with grain headed for port cities to proceed when they themselves may be on the
verge of starvation? The potential for political instability in countries where villagers have lost their
land and their livelihoods is high. Conflicts could easily develop between investor and host
        These acquisitions represent a potential investment in agriculture in developing countries
of an estimated $50 billion. But it could take many years to realize any substantial production
gains. The public infrastructure for modern market-oriented agriculture does not yet exist in most
of Africa. In some countries it will take years just to build the roads and ports needed to bring in
agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and to export farm products. Beyond that, modern agriculture
requires its own infrastructure: machine sheds, grain-drying equipment, silos, fertilizer storage
sheds, fuel storage facilities, equipment repair and maintenance services, well-drilling equipment,
irrigation pumps, and energy to power the pumps. Overall, development of the land acquired to
date appears to be moving very slowly.
        So how much will all this expand world food output? We don't know, but the World Bank
analysis indicates that only 37 percent of the projects will be devoted to food crops. Most of the
land bought up so far will be used to produce biofuels and other industrial crops.
Even if some of these projects do eventually boost land productivity, who will benefit? If virtually
all the inputs -- the farm equipment, the fertilizer, the pesticides, the seeds -- are brought in from
abroad and if all the output is shipped out of the country, it will contribute little to the host
country's economy. At best, locals may find work as farm laborers, but in highly mechanized
operations, the jobs will be few. At worst, impoverished countries like Mozambique and Sudan will
be left with less land and water with which to feed their already hungry populations. Thus far the
land grabs have contributed more to stirring unrest than to expanding food production.
        And this rich country-poor country divide could grow even more pronounced -- and soon.
This January, a new stage in the scramble among importing countries to secure food began to
unfold when South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, announced that it was creating a
new public-private entity that will be responsible for acquiring part of this grain. With an initial
office in Chicago, the plan is to bypass the large international trading firms by buying grain
directly from U.S. farmers. As the Koreans acquire their own grain elevators, they may well sign
multiyear delivery contracts with farmers, agreeing to buy specified quantities of wheat, corn, or
soybeans at a fixed price.
        Other importers will not stand idly by as South Korea tries to tie up a portion of the U.S.
grain harvest even before it gets to market. The enterprising Koreans may soon be joined by
China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other leading importers. Although South Korea's initial focus is
the United States, far and away the world's largest grain exporter, it may later consider brokering
deals with Canada, Australia, Argentina, and other major exporters. This is happening just as
China may be on the verge of entering the U.S. market as a potentially massive importer of grain.
With China's 1.4 billion increasingly affluent consumers starting to compete with U.S. consumers
for the U.S. grain harvest, cheap food, seen by many as an American birthright, may be coming
to an end.
        No one knows where this intensifying competition for food supplies will go, but the world
seems to be moving away from the international cooperation that evolved over several decades
following World War II to an every-country-for-itself philosophy. Food nationalism may help
secure food supplies for individual affluent countries, but it does little to enhance world food
security. Indeed, the low-income countries that host land grabs or import grain will likely see their
food situation deteriorate.
        AFTER THE CARNAGE of two world wars and the economic missteps that led to the
Great Depression, countries joined together in 1945 to create the United Nations, finally realizing
that in the modern world we cannot live in isolation, tempting though that might be. The
International Monetary Fund was created to help manage the monetary system and promote
economic stability and progress. Within the U.N. system, specialized agencies from the World
Health Organization to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) play major roles in the world
today. All this has fostered international cooperation.
        But while the FAO collects and analyzes global agricultural data and provides technical
assistance, there is no organized effort to ensure the adequacy of world food supplies. Indeed,
most international negotiations on agricultural trade until recently focused on access to markets,
with the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina persistently pressing Europe and Japan
to open their highly protected agricultural markets. But in the first decade of this century, access
to supplies has emerged as the overriding issue as the world transitions from an era of food
surpluses to a new politics of food scarcity. At the same time, the U.S. food aid program that once
worked to fend off famine wherever it threatened has largely been replaced by the U.N. World
Food Program (WFP), where the United States is the leading donor. The WFP now has food-
assistance operations in some 70 countries and an annual budget of $4 billion. There is little
international coordination otherwise. French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- the reigning president
of the G-20 -- is proposing to deal with rising food prices by curbing speculation in commodity
markets. Useful though this may be, it treats the symptoms of growing food insecurity, not the
causes, such as population growth and climate change. The world now needs to focus not only
on agricultural policy, but on a structure that integrates it with energy, population, and water
policies, each of which directly affects food security.
        But that is not happening. Instead, as land and water become scarcer, as the Earth's
temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food
scarcity is emerging. Land grabbing, water grabbing, and buying grain directly from farmers in
exporting countries are now integral parts of a global power struggle for food security.
With grain stocks low and climate volatility increasing, the risks are also increasing. We are now
so close to the edge that a breakdown in the food system could come at any time. Consider, for
example, what would have happened if the 2010 heat wave that was centered in Moscow had
instead been centered in Chicago. In round numbers, the 40 percent drop in Russia's hoped-for
harvest of roughly 100 million tons cost the world 40 million tons of grain, but a 40 percent drop in
the far larger U.S. grain harvest of 400 million tons would have cost 160 million tons. The world's
carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) would have
dropped to just 52 days of consumption. This level would have been not only the lowest on
record, but also well below the 62-day carryover that set the stage for the 2007-2008 tripling of
world grain prices.
        Then what? There would have been chaos in world grain markets. Grain prices would
have climbed off the charts. Some grain-exporting countries, trying to hold down domestic food
prices, would have restricted or even banned exports, as they did in 2007 and 2008. The TV
news would have been dominated not by the hundreds of fires in the Russian countryside, but by
footage of food riots in low-income grain-importing countries and reports of governments falling
as hunger spread out of control. Oil-exporting countries that import grain would have been trying
to barter oil for grain, and low-income grain importers would have lost out. With governments
toppling and confidence in the world grain market shattered, the global economy could have
started to unravel.
       We may not always be so lucky. At issue now is whether the world can go beyond
focusing on the symptoms of the deteriorating food situation and instead attack the underlying
causes. If we cannot produce higher crop yields with less water and conserve fertile soils, many
agricultural areas will cease to be viable. And this goes far beyond farmers. If we cannot move at
wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we
cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather
than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand. The time to act is now
-- before the food crisis of 2011 becomes the new normal.
Eat, Drink, Protest
Buying peace, one feast at a time.

         There are many ways to celebrate a military victory -- you can sack a city, purge your
opponents, or put on a flight suit and strut around an aircraft carrier. In August 2006, I was in
Lebanon, where bridges, highways, and entire neighborhoods had been smashed to rubble in the
war between Israel and the Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah. Just after the cease-fire, I got an
email from a friend in Tehran: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had celebrated the
"divine victory" over Israel by treating his subjects to what he claimed was the world's largest
grilled kebab. The "victory kebab" was 21 long feet of juicy, meaty celebration -- a display of raw
carnal politics that would have made a 19th-century New York Tammany ward boss proud.
         We tend to speak of food in benevolent terms, as the social glue that binds us together.
But in the wrong hands, food can be a weapon. A piece of meat can say: "I own you." Bread
obligates. Generosity creates dependence. The Romans were not the first rulers to rely on bread
and circuses to prolong their rule, and they won't be the last. Modern-day Middle Eastern
dictators have been particularly insistent practitioners of the art of using food to maintain their
power, from Saddam Hussein's self-serving and corrupt use of the United Nations' oil-for-food
program to the food subsidies that for years helped prop up Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- until they
didn't. Food's persuasive hold over loyalty has its limits, but in the long tradition of Middle Eastern
food imperialism, those limits have been reached on very few, and very brief, occasions.
         Ahmadinejad's victory grill was part of a tradition going back centuries to an ancient feast
called asimat. A simat was a massive public banquet served by a king, a sultan, or a caliph: not
just food, but propaganda -- an edible reminder of exactly who buttered your bread. The first such
meal that we know of was the banquet of Ashurnasirpal II, an Assyrian king whose empire
spanned Iraq, the Levant, and parts of Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. Around 869 B.C., he inaugurated
a new palace on the banks of the Tigris, in what is now Nimrud, Iraq, and decided to hold a
massive housewarming party.
         Ashurnasirpal was a master food propagandist. Wherever he conquered, he collected
seeds, like an imperial Johnny Appleseed. He left us a clay tablet enumerating his
accomplishments, both military and agricultural: "I provided the lowlands along the Tigris with
irrigation; I planted orchards at [the city's] outskirts." And he listed each of the trees he brought
back "from the countries through which I marched and the mountains which I crossed."
          The fruits of his conquest included fig, plum, pomegranate, pistachio, pear, and 29 others.
"They vied with each other in fragrance," he boasted of his trees, whose pomegranates "glow in
the pleasure garden like the stars in the sky." Ashurnasirpal's victory garden was a
microcosm of his far-flung empire -- a fertile, edible map of his power.
          For his housewarming banquet, which lasted 10 days, the king summoned 69,574 guests
from all corners of his empire. No guest list survives, but given that one of his successors dined
underneath the severed head of an Elamite king, mounted on a pole above the dinner table,
attendance at an Assyrian banquet was probably less than optional.
          According to the tablet, Ashurnasirpal's guests feasted on 2,200 head of cattle, 27,000
sheep and lambs, 1,000 stags and gazelles, 34,000 birds, 10,000 eggs, 10,000 assorted fish,
10,000 jerboa (like a tiny kangaroo), 1,000 crates of vegetables, 300 jars of oil, 100 pistachio
cones, 11,000 jars of beer, and 10,000 skins of wine -- among other things. After the banquet the
Assyrian king anointed his guests with oil and sent them back to their homelands, "healthy and
          Ashurnasirpal understood something about empire, which is that it spreads by the seed
as much as by the sword. The ancient Athenians knew this too, which is why they required their
citizens to swear loyalty to a country defined as wherever wheat, vines, and olives grew;
spreading these crops, and their cultivation, meant expanding Athenian rule. If you happen to
read the infamous memos released by WikiLeaks in which U.S. diplomats try to convince
European leaders to accept the American corporation Monsanto's genetically modified crops,
remember Ashurnasirpal and his orchard.
          The early caliphs of Islam learned this lesson too. As the new faith marched across Asia
and even into Europe, its armies rode a wave of innovation that historians now call the "Arab
agricultural revolution." The caliphs spread the long-standing Middle Eastern practice of irrigation
to the countries they conquered; from the East, they brought back spinach, eggplant, oranges,
limes, and other booty.
          The Prophet Mohammed died in 632 without leaving a clear successor. After his death, a
civil war broke out over who should become caliph -- a relative of the prophet, or one of his
closest companions. The conflict between these two camps would eventually split Islam into two
major sects: the Shiites, or Partisans, of Ali, the prophet's cousin and son-in-law; and the Sunnis,
who followed the prophet's companions. Out of this struggle came the simat as we know it.
The Sunnis won, but battles, betrayals, and intrigue had left Muslims bitterly divided. The third
caliph, Othman Ibn Affan, founded the tradition of the mawaid al-rahman, or "tables of the
merciful": lavish dinners to feed the devout and the destitute during the holy month of Ramadan.
But it was Muawiya, the governor of Greater Syria who seized the caliphate after Ali's death, who
turned the simat into an art form. A notorious gourmand famous for both gluttony and generosity,
he distributed food throughout his empire; in Damascus, during Ramadan, he would set up 40
tables every day loaded with food. The message was clear: My greed is your gain.
        When the Fatimid dynasty rose to power in North Africa, its caliphs perfected the art of the
propaganda feast. The 11th-century Egyptian caliph al-Zahir celebrated Ramadan with 157
sculptures, including seven palaces the size of dinner tables, made entirely of sugar. A Persian
emissary reported that in 1040, a sultan used 73,000 kilos of sugar for Ramadan sculptures -- a
tree made of sugar, as well as a giant sugar candy mosque that he fed to beggars once the feast
was over. European ambassadors liked what they saw, and by the late Middle Ages, the sugar
sculpture craze had spread to the Christian kingdoms of Italy, Spain, England, and France. At the
coronation of Henry VI in 1429, according to anthropologist Sidney Mintz, the court served
elaborate sugar sculptures, known as "subtleties," of the king accompanied by various saints and
the Virgin Mary.
        This exuberant culinary display had a serious political purpose. It was a form of what we
might today call "perception management." Imported food was a symbol of wealth and power, of
deep pockets and long arms. A British monarchy divided by an incipient civil war, crowning a king
who was only 8 years old, needed all the legitimacy it could get: A giant sugar sculpture of the
king, flanked by saints and emperors, conveyed a not-so-subtle political message. Likewise, the
caliph's lavish banquets sent an unforgettable signal to courtiers who might be plotting against
him, as well as emissaries from rulers who might be considering an invasion. Feeding beggars a
gigantic mosque made of sugar -- in those days, one of the most precious commodities in the
world -- said, unmistakably: "Don't even think about messing with me."
        A FEW MONTHS AFTER Ahmadinejad's victory kebab, I found myself in a part of
downtown Beirut called Martyrs' Square. It was the night before Christmas 2006, and the square
was full of glittering Christmas trees, bonfires, and tents. I was sitting around a fire with a rowdy
group ofshabab (young men) from Hezbollah, the Shiite group whose name means "Party of
God." We were discussing politics in a mixture of Arabic and English.
"We are poor!" shouted a lanky boy with a long face who claimed his name was Abu Batta,
Father of the Duck. "Who will give us money?"
        As if on cue, a Hezbollah security guard brought over a blue plastic garbage bag and laid
it tenderly on the gravel next to the fire. He rolled back the plastic to reveal a large roasted turkey.
The cooks had prepared the bird in the old Arabic style, roasted whole and laid on a heaping
mound of short-grain rice. The rice was studded with pine nuts, pistachios, sweet raisins, and
ground lamb, fragrant with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves. Each of the bonfires got a
turkey or two -- hundreds of birds, enough to make the whole square smell like Christmas.
        Thousands of shabab had been camping out in downtown Beirut for the past month in the
hope of bringing down Lebanon's U.S.-backed government. To that end, Hezbollah had formed
an alliance with Gen. Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian politician; earlier that day, Aoun's
followers had consumed a 30-yard-long Christmas cake. On this Christmas Eve, Hezbollah's
Islamic, anti-Western agenda took the form of Christmas dinner -- sharing a meal, and more
importantly a tradition, with its Christian allies.
        Four months after the cease-fire, Lebanon's economy was still devastated by the war.
Fields were still full of cluster bombs. People had lost their livelihoods. Hezbollah's Christmas Eve
simat sent an unmistakable message: America through its ally Israel sent Lebanon death in the
form of bombs; the Party of God and its allies provide comfort, both spiritual and material, in the
form of roasted turkey. (Never mind that turkey is a quintessentially American bird.)
        Hezbollah wasn't the first to use turkey for political support, of course, and it certainly
won't be the last. Remember U.S. President George W. Bush holding his giant trophy turkey in
Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day of 2003? In the Middle East, the simat survives today in the lavish
Ramadan feasts that politicians put on every year. It lives on in the mass food-offs between Israel
and Lebanon, in which both sides whip up nationalistic fervor by competing to make the world's
largest hummus and tabbouleh. And it survives in countries like Syria and Egypt with modern-
day caliphs who continue the tradition through the symbolic simat of cheap food subsidies.
        During the Cold War, Arab leaders like Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser subsidized bread in
order to ensure obedience -- and dependence on the state. "This was one means of controlling
the society, and one way of managing society," says Ibrahim Saif, an economist and secretary-
general of the Economic and Social Council of Jordan. "They have the money, and in order to
have influence in the society, they have to subsidize."
        Other Middle Eastern autocracies also lavished tons of cheap food on their subjects.
(Many were Western allies, like Saddam Hussein, who received billions of dollars' worth of
surplus American wheat through grants and loan guarantees.) This form of patronage became so
pervasive that Tunisian scholar Larbi Sadiki described it sarcastically as dimuqratiyyat al-khubz --
the "democracy of bread."
        But the democracy of bread has a weak point, which is that sooner or later people will
want a real democracy. When that happens, bread -- and the ruler's failure to provide it -- turns
into a symbol of defiance. "In our Arab culture, bread is the basic: If you do not have it, then you
have nothing," says Saif. "So if you want to accuse someone of being helpless, you say he
cannot even afford to eat the bread. There is an assumption that it should be available, it should
be affordable."
        A decade ago, Sadiki analyzed a wave of bread riots that spread through the Arab world
when dictators tried to reduce subsidies in response to the global trend toward market
liberalization. In 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat tried to lift Nasser's food subsidies,
Cairo erupted into riots that left 160 people dead, hundreds of buildings burned, and Sadat badly
shaken. Cairo's "bread intifada" was followed by protests that rippled across Morocco, Tunisia,
Algeria, and Jordan throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Sadiki considered the riots a
rejection of the tacit agreement of bread for obedience -- a sort of anti-simat.
        Getting the message, most countries in the region kept their food subsidies in one form or
another. But in 2008, when grain prices again started to spiral upward, history began to repeat
itself. A wave of bread riots spread through Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, and
Yemen. Governments responded then as they are responding now: by increasing subsidies,
raising wages, or simply lavishing cash grants on their subjects -- in other words, the simat in
modern-day dress. By 2010, Egypt, the world's largest wheat importer by far, was spending about
$3 billion a year on food subsidies. When prices skyrocketed even higher late last year, Mubarak
and rulers like him responded the way they always had, by announcing a panicked round of
handouts. This time it didn't work: Rioters rejected the arrangement and demanded regime
change, not just a quick meal. The dictators had failed to understand the true meaning of the
simat: that food is not only something to eat, but a symbol of something larger -- freedom, justice,
security, call it what you will. In the end, it's about much more than bread.
More Than 1 Billion People Are
Hungry in the World
But what if the experts are wrong?

        For many in the West, poverty is almost synonymous with hunger. Indeed, the
announcement by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2009 that more than 1
billion people are suffering from hunger grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World
Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did.
        But is it really true? Are there really more than a billion people going to bed hungry each
night? Our research on this question has taken us to rural villages and teeming urban slums
around the world, collecting data and speaking with poor people about what they eat and what
else they buy, from Morocco to Kenya, Indonesia to India. We've also tapped into a wealth of
insights from our academic colleagues. What we've found is that the story of hunger, and of
poverty more broadly, is far more complex than any one statistic or grand theory; it is a world
where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn't
necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead
people to buy less rice.
        But unfortunately, this is not always the world as the experts view it. All too many of them
still promote sweeping, ideological solutions to problems that defy one-size-fits-all answers,
arguing over foreign aid, for example, while the facts on the ground bear little resemblance to the
fierce policy battles they wage.
        Jeffrey Sachs, an advisor to the United Nations and director of Columbia University's
Earth Institute, is one such expert. In books and countless speeches and television appearances,
he has argued that poor countries are poor because they are hot, infertile, malaria-infested, and
often landlocked; these factors, however, make it hard for them to be productive without an initial
large investment to help them deal with such endemic problems. But they cannot pay for the
investments precisely because they are poor -- they are in what economists call a "poverty trap."
Until something is done about these problems, neither free markets nor democracy will do very
much for them.
        But then there are others, equally vocal, who believe that all of Sachs's answers are
wrong. William Easterly, who battles Sachs from New York University at the other end of
Manhattan, has become one of the most influential aid critics in his books, The Elusive Quest
for Growth and The White Man's Burden. Dambisa Moyo, an economist who worked at
Goldman Sachs and the World Bank, has joined her voice to Easterly's with her recent
book, Dead Aid. Both argue that aid does more bad than good. It prevents people from searching
for their own solutions, while corrupting and undermining local institutions and creating a self-
perpetuating lobby of aid agencies. The best bet for poor countries, they argue, is to rely on one
simple idea: When markets are free and the incentives are right, people can find ways to solve
their problems. They do not need handouts from foreigners or their own governments. In this
sense, the aid pessimists are actually quite optimistic about the way the world works. According
to Easterly, there is no such thing as a poverty trap.
       This debate cannot be solved in the abstract. To find out whether there are in fact poverty
traps, and, if so, where they are and how to help the poor get out of them, we need to better
understand the concrete problems they face. Some aid programs help more than others, but
which ones? Finding out required us to step out of the office and look more carefully at the world.
In 2003, we founded what became the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-PAL. A key
part of our mission is to research by using randomized control trials -- similar to experiments used
in medicine to test the effectiveness of a drug -- to understand what works and what doesn't in
the real-world fight against poverty. In practical terms, that meant we'd have to start
understanding how the poor really live their lives.
       Take, for example, Pak Solhin, who lives in a small village in West Java, Indonesia. He
once explained to us exactly how a poverty trap worked. His parents used to have a bit of land,
but they also had 13 children and had to build so many houses for each of them and their families
that there was no land left for cultivation. Pak Solhin had been working as a casual agricultural
worker, which paid up to 10,000 rupiah per day (about $2) for work in the fields. A recent hike in
fertilizer and fuel prices, however, had forced farmers to economize. The local farmers decided
not to cut wages, Pak Solhin told us, but to stop hiring workers instead. As a result, in the two
months before we met him in 2008, he had not found a single day of agricultural labor. He was
too weak for the most physical work, too inexperienced for more skilled labor, and, at 40, too old
to be an apprentice. No one would hire him.
       Pak Solhin, his wife, and their three children took drastic steps to survive. His wife left for
Jakarta, some 80 miles away, where she found a job as a maid. But she did not earn enough to
feed the children. The oldest son, a good student, dropped out of school at 12 and started as an
apprentice on a construction site. The two younger children were sent to live with their
grandparents. Pak Solhin himself survived on the roughly 9 pounds of subsidized rice he got
every week from the government and on fish he caught at a nearby lake. His brother fed him
once in a while. In the week before we last spoke with him, he had eaten two meals a day for four
days, and just one for the other three.
       Pak Solhin appeared to be out of options, and he clearly attributed his problem to a lack
of food. As he saw it, farmers weren't interested in hiring him because they feared they couldn't
pay him enough to avoid starvation; and if he was starving, he would be useless in the field. What
he described was the classic nutrition-based poverty trap, as it is known in the academic world.
The idea is simple: The human body needs a certain number of calories just to survive. So when
someone is very poor, all the food he or she can afford is barely enough to allow for going
through the motions of living and earning the meager income used to buy that food. But as people
get richer, they can buy more food and that extra food goes into building strength, allowing people
to produce much more than they need to eat merely to stay alive. This creates a link between
income today and income tomorrow: The very poor earn less than they need to be able to do
significant work, but those who have enough to eat can work even more. There's the poverty trap:
The poor get poorer, and the rich get richer and eat even better, and get stronger and even
richer, and the gap keeps increasing.
       But though Pak Solhin's explanation of how someone might get trapped in starvation was
perfectly logical, there was something vaguely troubling about his narrative. We met him not in
war-infested Sudan or in a flooded area of Bangladesh, but in a village in prosperous Java,
where, even after the increase in food prices in 2007 and 2008, there was clearly plenty of food
available and a basic meal did not cost much. He was still eating enough to survive; why wouldn't
someone be willing to offer him the extra bit of nutrition that would make him productive in return
for a full day's work? More generally, although a hunger-based poverty trap is certainly a logical
possibility, is it really relevant for most poor people today? What's the best way, if any, for the
world to help?
       THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY has certainly bought into the idea that poverty
traps exist -- and that they are the reason that millions are starving. The first U.N. Millennium
Development Goal, for instance, is to "eradicate extreme poverty and hunger." In many countries,
the definition of poverty itself has been connected to food; the thresholds for determining that
someone was poor were originally calculated as the budget necessary to buy a certain number of
calories, plus some other indispensable purchases, such as housing. A "poor" person has
essentially been classified as someone without enough to eat.
       So it is no surprise that government efforts to help the poor are largely based on the idea
that the poor desperately need food and that quantity is what matters. Food subsidies are
ubiquitous in the Middle East: Egypt spent $3.8 billion on food subsidies in the 2008 fiscal year,
some 2 percent of its GDP. Indonesia distributes subsidized rice. Many states in India have a
similar program. In the state of Orissa, for example, the poor are entitled to 55 pounds of rice a
month at about 1 rupee per pound, less than 20 percent of the market price. Currently, the Indian
Parliament is debating a Right to Food Act, which would allow people to sue the government if
they are starving. Delivering such food aid is a logistical nightmare. In India it is estimated that
more than half of the wheat and one-third of the rice gets "lost" along the way. To support direct
food aid in this circumstance, one would have to be quite convinced that what the poor need
more than anything is more grain.
       But what if the poor are not, in general, eating too little food? What if, instead, they are
eating the wrong kinds of food, depriving them of nutrients needed to be successful, healthy
adults? What if the poor aren't starving, but choosing to spend their money on other priorities?
Development experts and policymakers would have to completely reimagine the way they think
about hunger. And governments and aid agencies would need to stop pouring money into failed
programs and focus instead on finding new ways to truly improve the lives of the world's poorest.
Consider India, one of the great puzzles in this age of food crises. The standard media story
about the country, at least when it comes to food, is about the rapid rise of obesity and diabetes
as the urban upper-middle class gets richer. Yet the real story of nutrition in India over the last
quarter-century, as Princeton professor Angus Deaton and Jean Drèze, a professor at Allahabad
University and a special advisor to the Indian government, have shown, is not that Indians are
becoming fatter: It is that they are in fact eating less and less. Despite the country's rapid
economic growth, per capita calorie consumption in India has declined; moreover, the
consumption of all other nutrients except fat also appears to have gone down among all groups,
even the poorest. Today, more than three-quarters of the population live in households whose per
capita calorie consumption is less than 2,100 calories in urban areas and 2,400 in rural areas --
numbers that are often cited as "minimum requirements" in India for those engaged in manual
labor. Richer people still eat more than poorer people. But at all levels of income, the share of the
budget devoted to food has declined and people consume fewer calories.
       What is going on? The change is not driven by declining incomes; by all accounts, Indians
are making more money than ever before. Nor is it because of rising food prices -- between the
early 1980s and 2005, food prices declined relative to the prices of other things, both in rural and
urban India. Although food prices have increased again since 2005, Indians began eating less
precisely when the price of food was going down.
So the poor, even those whom the FAO would classify as hungry on the basis of what they eat,
do not seem to want to eat much more even when they can. Indeed, they seem to be eating less.
What could explain this? Well, to start, let's assume that the poor know what they are doing. After
all, they are the ones who eat and work. If they could be tremendously more productive and earn
much more by eating more, then they probably would. So could it be that eating more doesn't
actually make us particularly more productive, and as a result, there is no nutrition-based poverty
        One reason the poverty trap might not exist is that most people have enough to eat. We
live in a world today that is theoretically capable of feeding every person on the planet. In 1996,
the FAO estimated that world food production was enough to provide at least 2,700 calories per
person per day. Starvation still exists, but only as a result of the way food gets shared among us.
There is no absolute scarcity. Using price data from the Philippines, we calculated the cost of the
cheapest diet sufficient to give 2,400 calories. It would cost only about 21 cents a day, very
affordable even for the very poor (the worldwide poverty line is set at roughly a dollar per day).
The catch is, it would involve eating only bananas and eggs, something no one would like to do
day in, day out. But so long as people are prepared to eat bananas and eggs when they need to,
we should find very few people stuck in poverty because they do not get enough to eat. Indian
surveys bear this out: The percentage of people who say they do not have enough food has
dropped dramatically over time, from 17 percent in 1983 to 2 percent in 2004. So, perhaps people
eat less because they are less hungry.
        And perhaps they are really less hungry, despite eating fewer calories. It could be that
because of improvements in water and sanitation, they are leaking fewer calories in bouts of
diarrhea and other ailments. Or maybe they are less hungry because of the decline of heavy
physical work. With the availability of drinking water in villages, women do not need to carry
heavy loads for long distances; improvements in transportation have reduced the need to travel
on foot; in even the poorest villages, flour is now milled using a motorized mill, instead of women
grinding it by hand. Using the average calorie requirements calculated by the Indian Council of
Medical Research, Deaton and Drèze note that the decline in calorie consumption over the last
quarter-century could be entirely explained by a modest decrease in the number of people
engaged in heavy physical work.
        Beyond India, one hidden assumption in our description of the poverty trap is that the
poor eat as much as they can. If there is any chance that by eating a bit more the poor could start
doing meaningful work and get out of the poverty trap zone, then they should eat as much as
possible. Yet most people living on less than a dollar a day do not seem to act as if they are
starving. If they were, surely they would put every available penny into buying more calories. But
they do not. In an 18-country data set we assembled on the lives of the poor, food represents 36
to 79 percent of consumption among the rural extremely poor, and 53 to 74 percent among their
urban counterparts.
        It is not because they spend all the rest on other necessities. In Udaipur, India, for
example, we find that the typical poor household could spend up to 30 percent more on food, if it
completely cut expenditures on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. The poor seem to have many
choices, and they don't choose to spend as much as they can on food. Equally remarkable is that
even the money that people do spend on food is not spent to maximize the intake of calories or
micronutrients. Studies have shown that when very poor people get a chance to spend a little bit
more on food, they don't put everything into getting more calories. Instead, they buy better-
tasting, more expensive calories.
        In one study conducted in two regions of China, researchers offered randomly selected
poor households a large subsidy on the price of the basic staple (wheat noodles in one region,
rice in the other). We usually expect that when the price of something goes down, people buy
more of it. The opposite happened. Households that received subsidies for rice or wheat
consumed less of those two foods and ate more shrimp and meat, even though their staples now
cost less. Overall, the caloric intake of those who received the subsidy did not increase (and may
even have decreased), despite the fact that their purchasing power had increased. Nor did the
nutritional content improve in any other sense. The likely reason is that because the rice and
wheat noodles were cheap but not particularly tasty, feeling richer might actually have made them
consume less of those staples. This reasoning suggests that at least among these very poor
urban households, getting more calories was not a priority: Getting better-tasting ones was.
        All told, many poor people might eat fewer calories than we -- or the FAO -- think is
appropriate. But this does not seem to be because they have no other choice; rather, they are not
hungry enough to seize every opportunity to eat more. So perhaps there aren't a billion "hungry"
people in the world after all.
        NONE OF THIS IS TO SAY that the logic of the hunger-based poverty trap is flawed. The
idea that better nutrition would propel someone on the path to prosperity was almost surely very
important at some point in history, and it may still be today. Nobel Prize-winning economic
historian Robert Fogel calculated that in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,
food production did not provide enough calories to sustain a full working population. This could
explain why there were large numbers of beggars -- they were literally incapable of any work. The
pressure of just getting enough food to survive seems to have driven some people to take rather
extreme steps. There was an epidemic of witch killing in Europe during the Little Ice Age (from
the mid-1500s to 1800), when crop failures were common and fish was less abundant. Even
today, Tanzania experiences a rash of such killings whenever there is a drought -- a convenient
way to get rid of an unproductive mouth to feed at times when resources are very tight. Families,
it seems, suddenly discover that an older woman living with them (usually a grandmother) is a
witch, after which she gets chased away or killed by others in the village.
        But the world we live in today is for the most part too rich for the occasional lack of food to
be a big part of the story of the persistence of poverty on a large scale. This is of course different
during natural or man-made disasters, or in famines that kill and weaken millions. As Nobel
laureate Amartya Sen has shown, most recent famines have been caused not because food
wasn't available but because of bad governance -- institutional failures that led to poor distribution
of the available food, or even hoarding and storage in the face of starvation elsewhere. As Sen
put it, "No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with
a relatively free press."
        Should we let it rest there, then? Can we assume that the poor, though they may be
eating little, do eat as much as they need to?
        That also does not seem plausible. While Indians may prefer to buy things other than food
as they get richer, they and their children are certainly not well nourished by any objective
standard. Anemia is rampant; body-mass indices are some of the lowest in the world; almost half
of children under 5 are much too short for their age, and one-fifth are so skinny that they are
considered to be "wasted."
        And this is not without consequences. There is a lot of evidence that children suffering
from malnutrition generally grow into less successful adults. In Kenya, children who were given
deworming pills in school for two years went to school longer and earned, as young adults, 20
percent more than children in comparable schools who received deworming for just one year.
Worms contribute to anemia and general malnutrition, essentially because they compete with the
child for nutrients. And the negative impact of undernutrition starts before birth. In Tanzania, to
cite just one example, children born to mothers who received sufficient amounts of iodine during
pregnancy completed between one-third and one-half of a year more schooling than their siblings
who were in utero when their mothers weren't being treated. It is a substantial increase, given
that most of these children will complete only four or five years of schooling in total. In fact, the
study concludes that if every mother took iodine capsules, there would be a 7.5 percent increase
in the total educational attainment of children in Central and Southern Africa. This, in turn, could
measurably affect lifetime productivity.
        Better nutrition matters for adults, too. In another study, in Indonesia, researchers tested
the effects of boosting people's intake of iron, a key nutrient that prevents anemia. They found
that iron supplements made men able to work harder and significantly boosted income. A year's
supply of iron-fortified fish sauce cost the equivalent of $6, and for a self-employed male, the
yearly gain in earnings was nearly $40 -- an excellent investment.
        If the gains are so obvious, why don't the poor eat better? Eating well doesn't have to be
prohibitively expensive. Most mothers could surely afford iodized salt, which is now standard in
many parts of the world, or one dose of iodine every two years (at 51 cents per dose). Poor
households could easily get a lot more calories and other nutrients by spending less on
expensive grains (like rice and wheat), sugar, and processed foods, and more on leafy
vegetables and coarse grains. But in Kenya, when the NGO that was running the deworming
program asked parents in some schools to pay a few cents for deworming their children, almost
all refused, thus depriving their children of hundreds of dollars of extra earnings over their lifetime.
Why? And why did anemic Indonesian workers not buy iron-fortified fish sauce on their own? One
answer is that they don't believe it will matter -- their employers may not realize that they are
more productive now. (In fact, in Indonesia, earnings improved only for the self-employed
workers.) But this does not explain why all pregnant women in India aren't using only iodine-
fortified salt, which is now available in every village. Another possibility is that people may not
realize the value of feeding themselves and their children better -- not everyone has the right
information, even in the United States. Moreover, people tend to be suspicious of outsiders who
tell them that they should change their diet. When rice prices went up sharply in 1966 and 1967,
the chief minister of West Bengal suggested that eating less rice and more vegetables would be
both good for people's health and easier on their budgets. This set off a flurry of outrage, and the
chief minister was greeted by protesters bearing garlands of vegetables wherever he went.
        It is simply not very easy to learn about the value of many of these nutrients based on
personal experience. Iodine might make your children smarter, but the difference is not huge, and
in most cases you will not find out either way for many years. Iron, even if it makes people
stronger, does not suddenly turn you into a superhero. The $40 extra a year the self-employed
man earned may not even have been apparent to him, given the many ups and downs of his
weekly income.
        So it shouldn't surprise us that the poor choose their foods not mainly for their cheap
prices and nutritional value, but for how good they taste. George Orwell, in his masterful
description of the life of poor British workers in The Road to Wigan Pier, observes:
       The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea
and potatoes -- an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome
things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New
Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary
human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve
than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you
have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy
breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't.… When you are
unemployed … you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit "tasty."
There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you.
       The poor often resist the wonderful plans we think up for them because they do not share
our faith that those plans work, or work as well as we claim. We shouldn't forget, too, that other
things may be more important in their lives than food. Poor people in the developing world spend
large amounts on weddings, dowries, and christenings. Part of the reason is probably that they
don't want to lose face, when the social custom is to spend a lot on those occasions. In South
Africa, poor families often spend so lavishly on funerals that they skimp on food for months
       And don't underestimate the power of factors like boredom. Life can be quite dull in a
village. There is no movie theater, no concert hall. And not a lot of work, either. In rural Morocco,
Oucha Mbarbk and his two neighbors told us they had worked about 70 days in agriculture and
about 30 days in construction that year. Otherwise, they took care of their cattle and waited for
jobs to materialize. All three men lived in small houses without water or sanitation. They struggled
to find enough money to give their children a good education. But they each had a television, a
parabolic antenna, a DVD player, and a cell phone.
       This is something that Orwell captured as well, when he described how poor families
survived the Depression:
       Instead of raging against their destiny they have made things tolerable by reducing their
       But they don't necessarily lower their standards by cutting out luxuries and concentrating
on necessities; more often it is the other way around -- the more natural way, if you come to think
of it. Hence the fact that in a decade of unparalleled depression, the consumption of all cheap
luxuries has increased.
       These "indulgences" are not the impulsive purchases of people who are not thinking hard
about what they are doing. Oucha Mbarbk did not buy his TV on credit -- he saved up over many
months to scrape enough money together, just as the mother in India starts saving for her young
daughter's wedding by buying a small piece of jewelry here and a stainless-steel bucket there.
       We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why
they don't invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more
skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives.
They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth
sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on
living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.
       We asked Oucha Mbarbk what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy
more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would
buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed
the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did
not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, "Oh, but television is more important than food!"

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