The Hidden Forces That Shape What We Eat: A Q&A with Frederick Kaufman

by AMNH on


With countless restaurants and food markets, New Yorkers may have a more effortlessly sophisticated palate than ever, but do they really have a nuanced understanding of the global forces that shape the politics and economics of food? Do we understand who has enough, who doesn’t—and why?

Frederick Kaufman Future of Food
Frederick Kaufman

The Museum’s current exhibition Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture provides some context for pondering these issues, but the answers aren’t simple.

“The world of food is rife with paradox,” says Frederick Kaufman. Kaufman, a noted journalist and professor, spent years researching the “financialization” of food for his 2012 book Bet the Farm: How Food STOPPED Being Food

When did you first start writing about food?

In the 1990s, while getting my Ph.D. in English, I was very focused on food, medicine, and physiology in 18th- and 19th-century Federalist American literature. I eventually wrote a book, A Short History of the American Stomach, about why Americans are the way they are about food. My wife jokes that I’m fully qualified to be a doctor—an 18th-century doctor!

A box of ears of unshucked corn on the cob.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

What has changed in your outlook on food since your earlier work?

The greatness of America stems from abundance…in essence, that’s why so many people came here: to eat. But after writing about that for a long time, it was time for me to look at the other side: scarcity. I went from food to no food.

How did that lead to your recent book, Bet the Farm: How Food STOPPED Being Food?

Although traders have speculated in food “futures” since the mid-1800s, it was only in the early part of the current decade that Wall Street banks started speculating in food using certain kinds of complex financial derivatives that made the price of food no longer dependent on supply and demand. What I discovered in my research is people don't go hungry because there's not enough food. They go hungry because of the price of food.

future of food image

While working on the book, you found that one side effect of global food markets is that it’s actually small farmers who often go hungry. For instance, Ghanaian farmers who grow local tomatoes can’t make a living because imported tomato products flood the market.

It’s a shock, it's a shame, and it's an outrage. Small farmers are being pushed off the farms. A lot of the book is about the paradoxes of food, and the case of tomato farmers in Africa is only one example of how a food paradox can have devastating consequences. Virtual food has become an index, a political plaything.

What types of reform do you see helping the problems of food inequality and access?

There are a lot of solutions to this problem. We already know about agro-ecological farming methods; better relationship between urban and rural; not too much monoculture; variegated diets; slow food, local food. But before that there have to be economic reforms, internationally. There are many solutions—one is to regulate large banks out of gambling on food, to reform international derivatives markets.