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Endless Appetites: How the Commodities Casino Creates Hunger and Unrest [Hardcover]

Alan Bjerga

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Book Description

Oct. 11 2011 Bloomberg (Book 151)
How to understand the twenty-first century food crisis

Since 2007, farm-product prices have rocketed and plunged, causing hunger, malnutrition, and social and political upheaval around the world. Endless Appetites explores how "food security," the availability of food and the reasonable ability to buy it, has become one of the most challenging topics of our time. With every jump in grocery-store prices, the issue becomes more and more pressing, proven by this year's record increase in food prices, which has already topped the spike of 2008.

  • Award-winning commodities reporter Alan Bjerga explains the food crisis and why it is happening in an accessible, articulate manner
  • Why is this happening when more food is being grown than ever?
  • Why are crop markets?first established in the 1800's to help stabilize agricultural commodity prices?acting like an investors' casino, with prices absorbed by rich nations taking food from the mouths of the poor?
  • From college campuses to emergency UN meetings, "food security" is one of the hottest topics of the day, with no shortage of interest in how to stabilize food prices worldwide to close the hunger gap

To understand the growing international food crisis, readers need an expert they can rely on. One of the most widely acclaimed journalists on food security, Alan Bjerga is up to the task, taking readers from the trading floor of Chicago to the highlands of East Africa to the rice paddies of Thailand on a global trek to find the causes of the food-price crisis?and the solutions.


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Review

"“Endless Appetites is ideal for someone interested economics and global markets, packed as it is with numbers. But the information in this book is important for anyone who is concerned about the future of our food supply—which should probably be all of us.”
Serious Eats!

"Worth checking out … Based on the author's personal visits to farmers around the world, Bjerga explains how the crisis happened (short answer: greed), it’s tragic effects, and what now has to be done to reverse them."
The Atlantic

"Some of Bjerga’s best writing is about the inner workings of the Chicago Board of Trade and other markets, and when he brings American agricultural history into the story of what other countries have not had and do not have to encourage stable agricultural development. … Bjerga’s skill is in the way he forces the reader to make connections between aspects of agriculture that do not normally appear together. And the book is chock full of unusual observations."
AgWeek

“My Thanksgiving holiday book discovery will become Christmas season reading. ... Lest you think this is just another rant at financial and trading institutions, be aware that Bjerga is a veteran commodities writer and Washington correspondent."
Lee Egerstrom in Hindsight: The Minnesota 2020 Blog

From the Inside Flap

The international food crisis—particularly the availability and affordability of food products—has become one of the most pressing challenges of our time, and is being talked about everywhere from college campuses to emergency UN meetings. While American farms are more prosperous today than ever before, the same cannot be said for those in other parts of the world. Since 2007, farm-product prices have risen at ridiculous rates, leading to increasing hunger, malnutrition, and social and political upheaval around the world.??Endless Appetites: How the Commodities Casino Creates Hunger and Unrest explores how crop markets—first established in the 1800s to help stabilize agricultural commodity prices—are increasingly acting like an investors' casino, with prices absorbed by rich nations taking food from the mouths of poor ones.

Drawing on his experiences visiting farms and talking with farmers around the world—in Ethiopia, Kenya, Thailand, and Nicaragua—as well as in the United States, acclaimed journalist Alan Bjerga examines the growing international food crisis firsthand. Raised on a farm in the Midwest during the last food crisis, Bjerga has the personal and professional experience to understand the plight of individual families and make the kind of intelligent, insightful suggestions for change that only an expert can.

As grocery store prices continue to rise, it is clear that something has to be done to stabilize food prices and close the hunger gap, not just at home, but around the world. Increases in food prices in 2011 set new records, and things are only going to get worse unless we act now. Endless Appetites takes the reader inside the commodities system at the center of the heartbreaking rise in worldwide hunger and considers how to solve the problem of food security for everyone.


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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good farm stories but muddled economics and policy Oct. 28 2011
By Aaron C. Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I see all five prior reviews are five-star, low-content blurbs posted by people who have never reviewed other books on Amazon, only one of whom provides a name. This ballot-stuffing is an unfortunate trend, in this case accompanied by "helpful" votes to keep the shills above the unbiased reviews.

The strength of this book is detailed and readable portraits of farmers in all parts of the world. The author clearly loves farming--despite the fact that he modestly (or perhaps jokingly) relates that his farming family considered his agricultural skills to be a joke. He is a talented writer when describing personal experience. In the chain from farmer to market to consumer, it is the farmer's viewpoint that is least often described, so this book brings important new information to a wide public. Some aspects of farming haven't changed since its invention at the beginning of the Neolithic era, other aspects of modern global farming will surprise nearly everyone. Although my overall opinion of the book is negative, this is a real strength and people interested in this aspect may find this book useful.

The weakness of the book is represented by the inflammatory subtitle. It appears to conflate two near-contradictory claims. One is that long-term investors like pension funds going long futures contracts push up food prices and contribute to global hunger. The other is that speculators with no long-term interest in anything create volatility that inflicts economic damage on farmers. I happen to disagree with both those theses, but my point here is the author fails to articulate either one, or any intelligible theory. He merely quotes others, mostly others who also lack consistent theories. Even more puzzling is the reference to "unrest." Who other than a kleptocratic thug temporarily on the top of the heap thinks the global protest movement inspired in part by high food prices is a bad thing? The author discusses unrest so even-handedly that it's hard to know what side he's on. That may be okay for a journalist, but the subtitle suggests a opinionated book.

The references to commodity exchanges seem stitched on to the book. There is some very superficial description of futures (a far better account can be found in Zero-Sum Game). The degree of the author's interest can be seen by his frank admission that he had written about commodity exchanges for years without actually visiting one. There is no link between his brief accounts of the Chicago Board of Trade and his stories of farmers. In fact, there is considerable indirect evidence in the book, including a dramatic graph, of futures exchanges smoothing commodity price fluctuations and keeping food price inflation down. The documented barriers to farm prosperity and adequate nutrition seen in this book are wars, government repression, subsidies, trade barriers, lack of infrastructure and other non-financial problems. Multinational corporations, including Wal-Mart, play entirely positive roles. Whatever the truth is about the effect of commodity trading and global business on farm incomes and hunger, you won't find much guide to it in this book.

The same objection applies to a lesser degree in the accounts of world hunger. The value of a book is there is enough space to delve into the subtleties of an issue and discuss nuances with experts, unlike day-to-day reporting which is often forced to rely on oversimplified data and quotes provided by people whose jobs are to get certain viewpoints into the press. An excellent example of business reporters taking advantage of the book format is Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. That book does a good job of tuning out the hype and narrow-viewed advocacy to understand how to feed everyone and ensure a decent life for farmers without unacceptable environmental damage. Unfortunately Endless Appetites is based entirely on secondary sources, precisely the same advocates shouting slogans as you can read every day in the news.

For one example, the book claims, "Globally, changes in weather patterns may double food prices by 2030," and cites a Bloomberg News article. That article quotes an Oxfam press release predicting total food price increases by 2030, not the extra contribution from changing weather patterns. That Oxfam press release cites a computer analysis the organization commissioned from Dirk Willenbockel. That analysis showed food prices going up by less than 20% for processed food to a high of 89% for wheat, but only on the assumption there is no market response to increases in demand. Removing that assumption cuts the wheat increase to about 30% and the processed food increase to about 5%. The report also predicts that per capita income of the poorest people in the world will increase faster than even the high projections of food price increases. While no explicit projection is made about inflation, even a doubling of food price is only a 3.5% annual increase, which might well mean inflation-adjusted food prices fall. All of this information is available in a five-minute Internet search, and it completely changes the interpretation in the book. I checked a few of the less credible claims this way. All were based on advocacy group claims, and even so, none corresponded to the presentation in the book. Scanning the sources showed almost all to be brief business reports of press releases from advocacy groups. Those are not necessarily unreliable, but you expect a book to dig deeper.

So read this book for interesting and illuminating accounts of what it means to be a farmer in the modern world, but not for insight into financial markets or global hunger.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How African small farmers might hold the key to the future Nov. 13 2011
By Malvin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
"Endless Appetites" by Alan Bjerga offers an excellent overview on the economics of food and hunger in our time. Mr. Bjerga is an award-winning journalist who has specialized in agriculture reporting since 2001. Sharing the knowledge and insights gained from his studies and travels around the world to investigate the issue first-hand, Mr. Bjerga's intelligent, perceptive and humane analysis should interest everyone concerned about feeding a hungry planet.

Mr. Bjerga provides a brief history on how Chicago made a market that, for over a century and a half, successfully connected growers in the midwest with consumers in the east and beyond. Mr. Bjerga writes that the emergence of unregulated 'swaps' in the 1980s and electronic trading in the 1990s created new opportunities for speculators to enter the market; however, it was not until Goldman Sachs was granted an exemption on trading limits that big money soon began to turn the commodities market into a casino, thereby preventing the exchange from properly performing its intended purpose. Mr. Bjerga describes how a declining stock market, an ideologically-driven decision to cut back on U.S. grain reserves and crop failures in the Ukraine would send markets reeling by the end of the first decade, with the resulting unprecedented price volatility having myriad ripple effects. Some of the effects might be viewed by some as positive, such as the food riots that preceded the Arab Spring, but it has also meant economic hardship and hunger for millions of improverished urban dwellers and small farmers around the world.

Fortunately, Mr. Bjerga is intent on delivering more than a mere diatribe on how the one percent have been inflicting misery on the rest of us. Mr. Bjerga takes us to Africa, Asia and Latin America to meet with a few of the many remarkable people who are keen on solving the food crisis by thinking globally and acting locally. We witness a fledgling commodities exchange in Ethiopia that is designed to help empower small farmers; a laboratory in Kenya that grows tissue culture bananas for farmers who want to plant more profitable fruits; an organic potato farmer in Nicaragua with an eye on urban consumers and export markets; and more. As democracy spreads and small farmers gain access to new technologies such as cell phones, seeds, and access to foreign markets, Mr. Bjerga believes that increased farmer income will go a long way towards solving the hunger issue; with the African continent providing the greatest potential to increase its productivity and improve the lives of its inhabitants than anywhere else on earth.

Mr. Bjerga recognizes the obstacles. Investments in infrastructure is crucial to bringing produce from undeveloped areas to market; climate change threatens to make production more unpredictable and water management more critical than before; global trade breaks down in times of scarcity, driving up food costs for those who can least afford them; the imperative to feed a growing world population will likely offset increases in farm productivity; subsidies in rich nations make it difficult for poor nations to compete on a level playing field; and yes, the U.S. will need to impose limits on commodities speculation to decrease the incidences of price destabilitization and volatility. Yet, Mr. Bjerga sees plenty of upside as farmers learn how to grow and market a wider variety of tasty foods, which he believes will ultimately result in more stable and prosperous local farming communities.

I highly recommend this timely and thoughtful book to everyone.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An academic and emotional journey through modern food markets Jan. 18 2012
By Greendreams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Bjerga's critical examination of the complexities of the global food market and its human impacts is salient and, at times, emotionally wrenching. Connecting the dots between investors to small share farmers has been a literal journety for Bjerga as he has gone on the road to capture the human side of regulatory decision making, market challenges, and a changing global climate. The writing is dense and the documentation is none less than one would expect from the former President of the National Press Club. Yet Endless Appetites is far more than an academic exploration. Bjerga's compassion for people and democracy is pervasive echoing, I believe, his own childhood on a small, midwestern American farm.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If feeding the world is important to you, read this book Dec 9 2011
By J. B Kraft - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
My ancestors were farmers in Louisiana and Texas, and I followed my grandfather as he plowed mules in the field as a small boy in the 1950s. From the author's note, I was struck by, " ...farmers everywhere share similar worries, as well as a similar pride in producing crops from land that nourishes life itself. The weather is always fickle, the harvest is always uncertain, and the balance between investing to be a better farmer and avoiding debt that can wipe out a family is shared the world over."

I admire the perspective in that statement, that ultimately, farming is about coaxing life-sustainnig food from the earth, and while I may deplore many of the globalization and industrialization of farming that has taken place, that truth ultimately remains.

Endless Appetites tells a fascinating story of the trading of agricultural commodities in the rise of America, including the synergy with the railroads and telegraph which allowed the U. S. to feed its troops better than the Confederacy during the Civil War. But it also tells how our food system has evolved into a system of increasing complexity creating unrest in parts of the world due to price and crop fluctuations which threaten the stability of vast regions of the world and of substantial portions of humanity.

If you are a person who likes charts, facts, endnotes and photos, this book will not disappoint as you grapple with the human and economic trends that will drive international and regional politics and peace in the next few years. As recent revolutionary events in the Middle East have shown, hungry people and hopeless people become angry and frustrated people who will rise up and cast down governments which show themselves unconcerned and inept and provided food and a measure of economic opportunity.

Yet, it is the human vignettes, whether they are about a Nicaraguan tomato farmer or a Kenyan coffee farmer, that place a human face upon the risks, inequities, and opportunities the international commodity and trade system creates. The annecdotes also keep this from being a dry economic tome.

RECOMMENDED
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hunger crisis in the world and what we can do about it? Nov. 8 2011
By Wayne Klein - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Wonder why food prices have sky rocketed? The author of this book provides "food" for thought about how treating food as a "commodity" like shares on the stock market impacts our ability to affordably feed our families. This isn't exactly something new but it's become more of a problem with a growing population, economic growth of other nations and demands on the finite resources we have. At one time crop markets were introduced to help provide a steady supply of food and a stable market but now the wealthy nations are able to feed their populations at the cost to poorer ones. We see it in the U.S. as well as food prices jump eating into the shrinking economic power of the average (or even poor) consumer to put food on the table at a reasonable rate.

Author Alan Bjerga gives a clear, concise explanation of how the market changed in relation to the need of the world. We see evidence all around us every day of this growing food crisis and while there are solutions the first step towards those solutions are recognizing that we have a problem with how we are allocating our resources. The author seems to be optimistic that we'll somehow solve these problems. We have bumper crop years and we have down years when it comes to the food supply. How do we use our resources most effectively to feed everyone?

The question isn't pretty and sometimes the solutions proposed aren't easy. My only complaint is that the author although he makes some good observations and brings up issues that need to be addressed doesn't always come back to the table with solid solutions from the experts out there.
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