Reviewing my Bookshelf Part 3: Paul Robert’s “The End of Food”

Review of Paul Roberts, The End of Food: The Coming Crisis in the World Food Industry (2008) Houghton Mifflin/Bloomsbury

Paul Roberts, in his 330 page sequel to 2004’s The End of Oil, describes the vast challenges confronting the modern food system. The subtitle; ‘The Coming Crisis in the World Food Industry’ is, however, a little misleading as the book strikes a careful balance between discussing both everyday problems with the system as it exists today alongside inbuilt insecurities that make it unlikely to be sustainable or adequate in the long run. If there is a theme, it’s that food simply cannot be subsumed into the economic rationality that governs other commodities. This is illustrated nicely in the observation made at the end of chapter 3, in which Roberts oscillates between the effects of bad food on our own bodies and the high environmental costs of current methods:

“…the very logic of the food economy is increasingly at odds with the biological systems, both human and natural, upon which that same food economy ultimately depends. In that sense, obesity may be the perfect metaphor for the modern food crisis: having escaped one set of limits, we now seem destined to grow until we hit the next.” (109

After setting up the importance of his topic in the introduction, the first chapter discusses humanity’s repeated confrontation with their capacity to produce food. What becomes clear isn’t so much a ‘natural’ scarcity, but rather the way in which, throughout history, resources are pushed to breaking point by growing populations and wasteful practices. This section makes it clear that agricultural systems have almost eternally been characterized by chasing the booms that result from new technologies, new land, new markets, and so on, and then crashing head first into the busts – caused, for example, by civilizations hitting environmental limits like soil erosion – with disastrous and predictable results.

The book develops this theme in the context of the modern food system. With the growth in large retailers which almost entirely dominate the supply chain, extensively discussed in chapter three, we see how abundance, guaranteed partly by government subsidy of US corn, has led to our food system being pushed further and further towards un-sustainability. The guarantee of ever-lower prices has meant consolidated farms, intensified land-use, and an acceleration of production, involving lower labour costs and extensive rationalization. As a result, we have considerably increased the risks from food-borne diseases, as outlined in extensively in the chilling seventh chapter, and global distribution and centralization “ensure that its impacts will be devastating.” (178). There are also the extensive environmental impacts taking place already, ranging from extensive manure pollution and increasing transportation, taking place alongside the destruction of entire farming communities. Because the system demands ever-increasing outputs, intense vulnerabilities are created, leading to disasters whenever something from outside disrupts the system. As Roberts writes: “…the successful “export” of this hyper-efficient, low-cost, year-found format has left us with a global food system so interlocking and thinly stretched that the risk of outbreaks and other disruptions rises even as our capacity to respond to such disruptions (to say nothing of climate change or declining energy supplies) is falling.” (115-6)

Such vulnerability means that the impacts of a changing climate may well be harsher than necessary.  This is further compounded by other shortcomings (“Arable land…growing scarcer…Soil degradation and erosion from hyper-intensive farming is costing millions of acres of farmland a year…Water supplies are being rapidly depleted”) that Roberts lays out in full.   Falling back on familiar topics, the authors also makes it clear that petroleum, the once-abundant resources upon which the system ultimately depends, is becoming similarly scarce. (207-8)

Roberts also considers the networks and uneven returns that support our consumption. In his argument, the demand for cheap commodities hurts developing countries: while ‘structural oversupply’ – the boom and bust cycles that cause indeterminable price spikes – is a longstanding problem in farming, recent trends have made this especially devastating in the global south. As Roberts writes:

“What is different now, however, is the way the developed world responds to oversupply…by the late 1980s, as the Communist threat faded and as restructuring moved to the fore, Washington withdrew support for the ICA, [International Coffee Agreement] and the agreement collapsed, as did agreements for sugar, cocoa, and other tropical commodities, prices of which are all now at or near historic lows.” (154-5)

As a result, export losses in countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Burundi, Uganda and Vietnam, which depend on cash-crops, have been huge, with devastating effects.

While they do get some attention, however, the discussion of the least developed countries and international institutions like the IMF is somewhat abrupt and non-systematic with less than a full picture presented.

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As for the ‘Coming Crisis’ referred to earlier, the strongest contender provided by Roberts is the rapidly growing population in a system that already leaves 800 million people malnourished. As he writes:

…as we’ve seen, the challenge for the future economy isn’t simply lowering the external costs of the current operation. But lowering those costs while simultaneously feeding another three to four billion people over the next half a century.” (310).

Roberts is no Malthusian, however, and it’s clear from the information presented here that much of our relative abundance is being squandered via conversion into cheap meat and junk food. This complicates the picture, especially because demand for meat, which is typically fed on cheap grain, is liable to rise in coming years.

Roberts also scrutinizes the apparent ‘cheapness’ of food, which many commentators would argue justifies at least some of the above. While he is not shy about the fact that food prices are at an all time low in the developing world, he questions whether the vulnerability of the system and the ecological destruction don’t simply just store up costs for a later date. Not only this, but the U.S. government subsidizes the corn market there to the tune of about $5 billion a year, which is reflected in taxes. In addition, the erosion of so many labour costs throughout the system has the reverse impact of making consumers poorer:

“…since 1985 it [Wal-Mart] has driven down U.S grocery prices by a stunning 9.1 percent….Less often does one hear the other half of that marvellous statistic: much of that price drop has come from Wal-Mart’s success at cutting labor costs, which, according to the same study, has driven down average U.S. wages by 2.2 percent during the same period.” (63)

Cheap clearly isn’t as cheap as it used to be.

As for solving the problems, there don’t seem to be easy answers and Roberts is well aware of the obstacles to an improved system, in part due to the political power of large agro-business companies and retailers. He generally seems to be coming out in favour of a smaller scale, possibly regional system, but acknowledges that an expanding population complicates the picture considerably.

What’s particularly rewarding about this book is the manner in which all of these points, which can often turn into impassioned yet vague assertions in the hands of food purists, are backed here up by hard empirical data. Going through so many trade journals and marketing reports isn’t anyone’s idea of fun research, so there should be considerable credit there.

The even-handedness of the book is also impressive. This comes across particularly well in his treatment of both genetically modified (or ‘trans-genetic’ as Roberts call them) foods and the undeniable advances in food supply that industrial farming has permitted. Rhetoric subsides to detached analysis, which results in some surprising conclusions. This is not to say that, at times, the author doesn’t come across as somewhat vacillating and general, but in some cases this must have been hard to avoid.

What is striking, however, is the lack of any sentimentality at all when dealing with such emotive issues. This is certainly not a Michael Pollen book, and the grim conditions of animals, the destruction of livelihoods and the blandness of food today are all dealt with without compassion, when they are engaged with at all. The value of such a strict, empirical focus are clear, but what isn’t so obvious is whether this approach loses something important along the way.

There are other problems with the book as well. At times, too much airtime is given to industry spokespeople, particularly with regard to junk food. As important as it is to remain relatively neutral, it’s unclear what symmetry there is between scientific research and paid industry representatives on the other. Isn’t comparing scientific studies a better guide than what is essentially free advertising?

Then there are the things that are mostly ignored. While they are briefly name-dropped at various points, the role of trading houses and food speculators and increased use of ethanol and bio-fuels by the West, could certainly do with more discussion. Workers in the global agriculture industry also get very little attention compared to, say, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.

Overall though, the book is certainly worth reading for environmentalists and food connoisseurs alike, and unless the author’s next book is titled ‘The End of Caring” and advocates stocking up on weapons and investing in a remote log cabin, I’m looking forward to Robert’s future output.

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