Book Review: “Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty”


Two veteran Wall Street Journal reporters, Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, have teamed up to write a book addressing one of the most pressing questions of the 21st-century: global hunger.

The authors ask why hunger persists when the technology and tools already exist to feed the world:

Since the time of the Green Revolution, the world has known how to end famine and tame chronic hunger.  We have the information and tools.  But we haven’t done it.  We explored the heavens.  We wired the world for the Internet…. Yet somehow we haven’t eliminated the most primitive scourge of all.

In the opening chapters, Kilman and Thurow introduce the work of Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize-winning plant scientist who died on Saturday at the age of 95.  Back in the 1940s, Borlaug was assigned to a newly launched research centre in Mexico to train Mexican scientists how to boost farm productivity through plant breeding experiments.

Over the next two decades, Borlaug’s research helped boost wheat yields in the research areas almost seven-fold, from 11 bushels per acre in the early 1940s to as much as seventy-five bushels per acre in 1960.  Borlaug then travelled elsewhere in the Americas and across to Asia to demonstrate the potential yields which these new varieties could produce and to convince policymakers and farmers to adopt them to feed their growing populations.  (Apparently, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ripped up her flower garden to plant the new wheat varieties.)

And thus, the Green Revolution was born.  Demographic projections of mass famine and a population implosion were prevented, and the global supply of food exploded.

Yet around the same time, shifts in global agricultural policy began to shift.  Starting in the early 1980s, newly independent former colonies in Africa and Asia started to see a reversal in the foreign assistance being given to agricultural development (inputs, infrastructure, extension training, and research support).  In addition, the money being targeted at the alleviation of hunger came in the food of foreign-grown food aid shipped into areas of need.

A generation later, in the summer of 2008, the world went through a global food crisis where prices doubled and tripled for many staple foods and global reserve stocks of grain were reduced to dangerously low levels.  Kilman and Thurow argue that the time is right for a broad reinvestment into agriculture, similar to how the United States rallied to support the Marshall Plan for Europe in the aftermath of World War II.

The authors argue that public sentiment is in favour of increased support to feed the hungry, and social and political stability are increasingly under threat from those without sufficient resources to subsist.  They present a range of options, from investment in infrastruture and new seed technologies to policy reforms relating to how national budgets are allocated and how trade regulations are drawn up.

Africa is a particular target as it is seen as “the world’s final frontier of agriculture” where yields are still low and modern agricutural practices are often non-existent.  Coupled with a rapidly increasingly population, African farmers will be expected to double their production by 2030 in order to simply meet their own people’s food demands.  This will be no small feat, and it would require a coordinated, collaborative approach to see it through successfully.