Bet the Farm: Spinning Wheat into Gold

In his book “Bet the Farm,” Fred Kaufman explores the relationship between commodities speculation on Wall Street and rising food prices everywhere.


| January/February 2013



Nightmare Pizza

The food best suited to feed the world, Fred Kaufman decided, was pizza, loved the world over by foodies and anthropomorphic teen turtles alike.

Illustration By Kyle Fewell

In 2009, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization made headlines when it announced that a billion people would go hungry that year. By way of explanation, the organization offered a deduction: The economic downturn paired with the rising cost of food staples had set the price of basic sustenance beyond reach for one in seven people around the world. But part of this equation went unexplained. Why was the price of food so high in a world where farmers, amazingly, grew more than enough to feed everyone?

By October 2012, when the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) revised its billion-count to about 870 million, people were catching on. Oxfam’s Luca Chinotti, for one, was not reassured by the FAO’s statistical adjustment. “The fact that almost 870 million people—more than the population of the U.S., Europe, and Canada—are hungry in a world which produces enough for everyone to eat,” he said, “is the biggest scandal of our time.”

The details of that scandal are laid bare in a recent book by Frederick Kaufman, Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food. As it turns out, we are already acquainted with this story’s villain: Wall Street. There, bankers and investors are investing unprecedented amounts in commodities such as wheat. And when wheat speculation on Wall Street drives up the price of real wheat everywhere, people around the world can no longer afford to eat. Kaufman details exactly how this has happened in a story of traders, long-standing commodities markets meant to stabilize the price of food, and corruption.

 

A longtime food journalist, Kaufman didn’t set out to expose the bankers and brokers on Wall Street. “I was having a conversation with my editor at Harper’s, Luke Mitchell,” Kaufman recounts over the phone, “and we were talking about what we would do now that we had written so much about food. The idea then was broached that maybe it was time to write about not enough food and that in fact we might get back to the whole notion of a billion hungry people on earth. Get back to it in the sense that this had been a rather hot topic in journalistic circles and popular conversation in the 1960s and 1970s, and then had gone away. We were trying to figure out why that had happened.”

Kaufman, a clear-minded and fast-paced conversationalist, seems to answer himself in the next breath. “Now, to write about world hunger is generally perceived to be a losing proposition. You know, people have compassion fatigue. People are not particularly interested in starving children in Africa or Asia. They have their own problems. So one of the first rules when I started thinking about this book was how to write a book about global hunger with no hungry people.”

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