The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

'Endless Appetites' explores market connection to global food production


NEW YORK — Have you wondered how the free trade agreements, the World Food Prize, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s derivatives regulations, and the famine in the Horn of Africa all add up to one global agricultural system … or don’t add up?

The answers may be found in the new book Endless Appetites: How the Commodities Casino Creates Hunger and Unrest by Alan Bjerga, the Bloomberg News agriculture reporter in Washington.

Bjerga’s book was released at a party at Bloomberg headquarters here last week. He will also give a reading from the book on Thursday in Des Moines, and at the National Press Club in Washington next Monday. Details below.
Alan Bjerga

Alan Bjerga, author of "Endless Appetites"
Bjerga, who grew up on a sheep farm in Minnesota, wrote the book after five years of reporting on agriculture developments in Washington and traveling throughout the United States and developing countries.

His theme is that while weather problems, rising prices and speculation in the last few years have turned the distribution of food around the world into a gambling proposition, there is enough food grown today to feed the world, and there will continue to be if markets work for farmers to encourage production.

“People with one acre in Ethiopia or 10,000 acres in North Dakota can co-exist and contribute and learn from one another and grow our way out of the food shocks we’re seeing,” Bjerga writes. “New connections being forged can make famine a memory,” he adds, “but to make famine a memory, we must stop forgetting about it.”

In Endless Appetites, Bjerga connects farmers’ lives in East Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, and other developing countries with world spot and futures markets, and with people like Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and Howard Buffett (Warren’s son) who are trying to bring modern agricultural research and market ideas to those places to help farmers produce more.

But 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.

Like most books on agriculture and development in poor countries, the description of the problem is stronger than the prescription for improvement. But 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. Here are a few:
  • More than one third of the goats slaughtered in the United States are slaughtered in New Jersey because the Islamic halal market is so big there.
  • “Thai farmers, like farmers around the world, are on the whole less prosperous than city dwellers. Also like farmers in many countries, they are media-savvy, well-organized and politically powerful force.”
  • Coca-Cola is Africa’s biggest employer, with 65,000 workers in 160 plants, even though the consumption of Coke in Kenya is only 39 servings per person per year compared with 665 servings per person per year in Mexico.
  • Through the 1990s, China “was essentially living in its own food world.”
  • “Farmers don’t fully get compensation,” a Thai farmer tells Bjerga. “If the government covers the difference, farmers can live happily.”
Bjerga does not attempt to pull together all the sometimes contradictory agricultural developments into a false whole, but says that for the market system to increase the food supply, the markets have to work for farmers, and that achieving such a goal will take effort.

Bjerga made that point clear at his book party last week when he told a crowd of New York-based commodity reporters — 20-somethings who cover everything from wheat to copper to coal and the companies that produce and distribute them — that they should read his book and keep it in mind as they do their work, because the future of his idea is partly up to them.

“For food security to be reality other than a good idea, it means everyone has to consider it in the implications of their own actions,” Bjerga added in an interview. “You need everyone to feed everyone, and that's true whether you are a producer or a consumer or any way participating in the global system of feeding people.”

Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., $27.95

Upcoming Alan Bjerga appearances

The author of Endless Appetites is scheduled to give readings from his book at the following events. Both are open to the public, and books will be available for purchase.
  • Thursday, Oct. 13 — Des Moines Marriott, Des Moines, 3:30 p.m., Waterloo Room. In connection with the World Food Prize.
  • Monday, Oct. 17 — National Press Club, Washington, 6:30 p..m., Holeman Lounge. Free, but reservations required by emailing Cash bar reception follows at the club's members-only Reliable Source restaurant.

Book available for purchase at and Barnes and Noble.