Food prices are soaring and cupboards are empty the world over. No longer consigned to the features page, food has become the political and economic story of the day. Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food, assesses whether American journalists are ready to cover it.
BOB GARFIELD: The African Union Summit closed on Tuesday. Leaders who met in Egypt talked about Zimbabwe's presidential problem. They also talked about Africa's food problem. The World Bank estimates that rising food costs will create, quote, "a daily struggle for more than 2 billion people and threaten to push some 100 million people into poverty." Analysts agree the problem hits Africans particularly hard.
Meanwhile, aid agencies are moving tons of U.S. food aid into North Korea. The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, announced it will be buying more produce from local growers in order to cut down on shipping costs. Investigators from the Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.N. have touched down in Pakistan to study that country's food crisis.
And World Bank Group President Robert Zoellick called on G8 leaders and oil producers to act now, saying the world is entering a danger zone regarding food and energy prices.
Far from fad diets and Rachael Ray, food has become the political and economic issue. Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food, is here to assess whether American journalists are ready to cover it. First, are reporters even using the right terms? What do we mean when we say “food crisis”? PAUL ROBERTS: The most immediate definition is that prices are a lot higher than they were even a year ago. In places where they're spending, you know, 70 and 80 percent of their household dollars on food, a doubling and tripling of the price of rice and corn and wheat is disastrous.
Then, more broadly, we've got issues of populations that aren't just getting bigger but are wealthy enough to eat more meat, which, because it's so resource-intensive, geometrically increases the demand for grain.
You throw in a draught in Australia, a poor crop in Canada and, on top of that, you throw in, you know, the new demand for biofuels, and you really have this perfect storm that really caught the world by surprise or at least the Western world, where we kind of thought hunger had been taken care of. BOB GARFIELD: Now, before I make the decision for all of the media to allocate more resources at a time of dramatic retrenchment in the news business, tell me how critical is the crisis? Is this a transitory event or is this an issue that is likely to bedevil the world for the foreseeable future? PAUL ROBERTS: I think it is a long-term and a very complex problem. It's not going to be resolved soon. It's not going to resolve itself by some, you know, market magic. And I think that it's going to become, in terms of, you know, a journalistic discipline, it's going to become the beat of the future. So we're going to have a long time to perfect our skills reporting on this. BOB GARFIELD: Periodically, we'll see food safety stories in the U.S. press, and we occasionally see coverage of genetically modified foods. But, at least until recently, you just had never seen anything to do with the food supply. Is there any infrastructure in the media for covering the economy of food? PAUL ROBERTS: There isn't really a level of expertise or a discipline that centers on food. To the extent that food is covered in the media, it's primarily about kind of in the Martha Stewart vein. You know, it's about cooking shows. It's diet. It's nutrition. Food safety, of course, in the past two years has become an issue, and there's been sort of a surge in the development of expertise among journalists and a lot of good writing, finally, about food safety.
But like you're right. What we haven't come to grips with yet, until recently, has been the notion that we might be short of food. And that's, I think, taking a while for the media to really get its head around. BOB GARFIELD: If journalists in the United States are kind of lagging on this subject, is there an example elsewhere in the world where people are covering the crisis exactly right? PAUL ROBERTS: I don't know if anyone's covering it exactly right. I think the Europeans, they're in the middle of a lot of these issues, so they've had more experience. Regardless of whether you're in Europe or the U.S., the media really, its sort of experience in terms of reporting on food crises has been focusing on regional food crises. It's Sub-Saharan Africa. Back in the '70s it was India. Those were local dysfunction. It was bad policy. It was corruption.
And what's new, very new and significant about the current crisis is that it's global. It's affecting everyone, although not to the same degree. And it's being driven, in part, by policies of industrialized governments. So, and I think reporters and policymakers alike need to get up to speed on the science. But we also need to have the confidence to not allow the stakeholders to frame the issue themselves. BOB GARFIELD: I'm glad you raised the issue of what exactly the press should be doing, because there's really kind of two ways to cover a story like this, you know, a five- or six-day series, and you give it a title, "Hungry for Solutions" or some such.
The other way to cover a story is to create beats and to bring the various disciplines of economics and science and politics to bear on an ongoing story. Is there any evidence that that second path is being followed by anybody? PAUL ROBERTS: Yes, there is evidence. In the same way that oil is now a beat, I think food is going to emerge. And it's probably going to be some of the same reporters, because they will have developed some expertise in reporting on resources, on commodities markets, on financial complexities of commodities generally, and it won't be too hard to make the jump. I mean, energy is energy, you know, whether it's calories or kilowatts.
I look at papers, like The New York Times is actually doing a pretty good job. It's got an ongoing series – I believe it's "The Food Chain." They just did this great story on how hedge funds are now investing in farm infrastructure and kind of asking well, is that good or bad.
So the fact that a mainstream news organization is not only alerting us to the fact that this is going on but is starting to examine it critically is a really encouraging sign. BOB GARFIELD: Paul, thank you. PAUL ROBERTS: Oh, it's my pleasure. You're welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Paul Roberts is the author of, most recently, The End of Food.