The Complicated Relationship Between Food and Money

CEOs of large companies, such as Google and Bank of America, listen to Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam discuss the complex and corrupt relationship between food and money.

| November/December 2012

Ever wonder what the path from “farm” to plate actually looks like? Bet the Farm (John Wiley &Sons, Inc., 2012) by food journalist Frederick Kaufman illustrates this shocking journey starting with a slice of pizza and ending at the commodities exchange where food gets its price. Along the way, Kaufman reveals all the forces at work from the profit motives of big business to the food politics that have broken the world food system. Be a fly on the wall at the World Economic Forum and read how the relationship between food and money skews the relationship between food and people in this excerpt taken from the Introduction, “Closed to the Press.” 

Winter in the Swiss Alps, and the helicopters settle on landing pads patrolled by troops. Out the doors walk presidents, prime ministers, and the CEOs of companies like Google, ExxonMobil, and Bank of America. More than two thousand international leaders and luminaries have come to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where they will weigh the prospects of the planet and everyone on it—and not necessarily tell us their conclusions.

Journalists trail the global chieftains, but Davos is not the easiest spot for them to ply their trade. Most of the lectures and debates are closed to the press, and all are held under the Chatham House Rule of confidentiality: “Participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker, nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

In January 2012, Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came here to speak. The topic of his presentation was not typical for the World Economic Forum—not global capital and risk, not the future of democracy and development. But the seminar room was packed. Yaneer Bar-Yam was going to talk about food. Everyone who lives eats, so the moguls and the magnates scrutinized the models and graphs Bar-Yam projected on the screen. They sat in silence as the professor proved what everyone in the room already knew. Something had gone wrong with food, and the problem went beyond E. coli or high-fat, high-sugar diets. The problem went beyond artificial ingredients, pesticides, and fast-food restaurants.

The trouble with food, explained Bar-Yam, had first become apparent four years earlier, in 2008. That year, farmers produced more grain than ever, enough to feed twice as many people as were on Earth. In the same year, for the first time in history, a billion people went hungry. The paradox bordered on the pathological.

What had gone wrong with food? The Davos participants believed they understood the issues, and in this regard we have a lot in common with them. Modern food consciousness has been rooted in the writings of Wendell Berry, Frances Moore Lappé, Marion Nestle, Raj Patel, Michael Pollan, and Eric Schlosser, to name but a few. The activist agenda has been set: slow versus fast, small versus big, nutritional versus chemical, organic versus conventional, diversity versus monoculture, sustainable versus wasteful, farm-to-fork versus transnational, and local versus food from nowhere.