Alan Bjerga '98, author of the new Endless Appetites, covers agricultural policy for Bloomberg News. He was interviewed by Giovanna Dell'Orto, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
GD: Tell us about your book, your career, and your Minnesota upbringing.
AB: I grew up on a farm just south of the town of Motley. We had 80 acres of sheep, some clover and alfalfa, and I was from the start a pretty sorry excuse for a farm kid. I got my master's in mass communication from the University of Minnesota. I was the managing editor of the Minnesota Daily, and say proudly that we added back good coverage of extension and agricultural services. It wasn't until I got to Washington that I realized that a rural Minnesota background is not typical in the Washington press. An education at a place like the U, which has an urban campus and yet an agricultural mission, is not a common experience.
GD: In your vast travels, what experiences have really stayed with you?
AB: The genesis for [the book] went back to 2008 in Ethiopia, when I was tracking a U.S. food aid shipment actually including foods grown on a farm in North Dakota and some food from Minnesota as well. They ended up taking six months to get to this village. And seeing just the logistical difficulty of getting nutrition that people need to live when they are suffering, was a really striking experience that was the original idea for what became this book. These things reverberate, and not just in communities, but around the world. You get a sense of the connections that people at different levels of the food chain have, and the collective responsibility they all have in terms of feeding the world.
GD: [Regarding] world hunger, you place quite a lot of faith in the market.
AB: I would argue that not being able to feed everyone on Earth is a market failure. Clearly, everyone on Earth demands food, yet not everyone is receiving food. So how does one deal with that? Markets have a great power that command-and-control-decisions, top-down decisions from governments do not. This is about producers and consumers coming together and meeting the needs of one another. I'm not trying to argue for an unfettered, unregulated free-for-all market where there's no social conscience and no desire to reach any sort of a goal. I think we're looking for a market in which the infrastructure is built properly and the societal goals are clear so the marketplace has an idea of what we are trying to achieve.
GD: Another issue is the environment.
AB: When you look at agriculture from a pure production standpoint—do we have the technology, land, and ability to feed seven billion people?—the answer is yes. It's a distribution failure, a market failure. The question is, what are you doing to this planet to keep it sustainably growing this food to feed these people? That leads to some very difficult questions about the role of technology, how to integrate different farming practices, what consumer habits and nutrition patterns should and shouldn't be encouraged, in terms of what will most effectively feed people in a sustainable manner. There is capacity. The question becomes one of will.
GD: You say the problem is solvable if everyone pulls their own weight—government, farmers, market, and consumers.
AB: Let's start with the markets—commodities traders and such. You see traders very concerned about volatility. It's not very comfortable to see corn prices go up or down $2 a bushel in a month. But you might be surprised at the openness there can be to doing some things differently as [everyone] looks at the social consequences of their own actions.
Farmers are afraid of growing for a surplus and then [because of events elsewhere in the world] having no market. But with more market information, better data, better infrastructure, you have examples like the Nicaraguan farmer who was growing potatoes but now he's growing organic cabbage because he sees potential in that. That's the marketplace at work.
Getting to governments, it's a matter of looking at the agenda and taking a look at the consequences of actions. We had this big wave of financial deregulation and now you're seeing the consequences of that. You also have a huge tendency, from governments and institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, to cut back on their investment in world agriculture. I believe about a quarter of the World Bank's portfolio 30 years ago was for agriculture. By the mid-2000s it was about 4 percent. Now that's starting to rebound.
I think there is a lot of promise when you see consumers paying a lot more attention to where and how their food is grown. But I would urge people not to be rigid. There are times when imported products sent from developing countries that have a comparative advantage agriculturally can be helpful in domestic markets, in places like the United States. There should be that sort of global awareness, of making sure that farmers around the world have the market and the price to stimulate the production and infrastructure development that's needed to create that robust food system worldwide.
GD: What has kept you so upbeat?
AB: I don't see why one wouldn't want to be positive or optimistic. You certainly can't go through life underestimating the problems of the world, but there has been progress on this planet. And optimism and positivity is a choice, and we have so many days on this planet, why not make them count?