Frederick Kaufman knows food. And he knows how to follow a good story. These two facts have led him on journeys around the world, investigating the dysfunctional food system in America and globally. His article, “The Man Who Stole the Nile: An Ethiopian billionaire’s outrageous land grab,” published in the July 2014 edition of Harper’s Magazine, tells readers of a modern-day heist in the land of plenty. In 2013, Food Tank listed his book, Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food, as one of 13 books that could save the environment. Kaufman, an investigative journalist, contributing editor at Harper’s, and professor at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, recently answered some questions for Food Tank.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired your recent article, “The Man Who Stole the Nile: An Ethiopian billionaire’s outrageous land grab?”
Frederick Kaufman (FK): Like many investigative journalists, I spend a great deal of time reading the fine print on reports and white papers. I remember one afternoon I was reading the latest on land grabs from the Oakland Institute, and there, in a sidebar, was a one sentence mention of a water grab for the Nile by someone I had never heard of: Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi. I knew, at that moment, I had to get to Ethiopia and see it for myself.
FT: Why are so many Ethiopians left hungry while millions of pounds of rice are exported out of the country?
FK: That question goes to the heart of the global hunger situation. We might as well ask, why, when there is enough food on earth to feed double the population, do a million people go hungry? Why do children still die of hunger-related illnesses? As Amartya Sen showed long ago, people don’t go hungry because there is not enough food. They go hungry because they cannot afford the food. When food injustice and economic injustice meet, the result is hunger.
FT: What has the response to your article been like? Are you getting death threats or thank you letters, or both?
FK: Well, the Sheikh descended on Harper’s with a team of high-priced lawyers out of London, threatening to sue. I believe there is still a gag rule in effect on discussing the outcome. The response in America has been muted. The editors say that articles about Africa, and particularly hunger in Africa, don’t attract eyeballs, and I’m seeing the sad truth of that statement.
FT: Land grabs like the one in Gambella are becoming more prevalent. Why aren’t more people enraged?
FK: Land grabs in foreign countries lack what those in the journalism business call news value. The impact on readership is low, along with proximity and timeliness. And while there is plenty of related conflict, there is little timeliness, as this stuff goes on yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The story lacks famous people, too. There is not a lot of prominence here, and people are getting weary of the celebrity spokesperson. All this adds up to a story that people in this country can’t relate to. And that is unfortunate. But that is also one of the reasons I have tried to write stories about hunger that don’t feature any hungry people!
FT: What can our Food Tank readers do to get involved in the issue of land grabs and make a difference?
FK: After “The Man Who Stole the Nile” came out, the Sheik abandoned his operation in Gambella. The press and potential for headline risk makes a difference. One of the things we can do is support freedom of the press in foreign countries so homegrown journalists can shine a light on injustice. A free press is a great weapon against hunger. In Ethiopia, for instance, bloggers and editors and journalists are increasingly being convicted for the crime of “misinforming the public,” and are being sent to jail. In this regard, one of my favorite causes to support is IWPR, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
FT: You have been following and writing on the topics of food access, food prices and food justice for years now. What are some of the bright spots you’ve seen? Have you seen pro-poor policies for food prices, security and sovereignty that work and are scalable?
FK: There are many bright spots, and Food Tank is one of them! What I think is the best sign of progress is the full-blown food movement in America, which now comprehends the political and economic ramifications of the choices we make at the supermarket and mealtime. We are getting the big picture, going beyond the strictly health based and foodie obsessions of the 1990s.
FT: What will your next article focus on?
FK: One article is about global water, and in November I debated the Chairman of the Board of Nestle at World Water Week in Berlin. Another short piece in the works is in the more classic cultural/foodie mode. But my next book will not be about food. It’s about the United States dollar.