This is the second "The End of Food" in a series; the first The End of Food, by Thomas Pawlick, was published in 2006. Paul Roberts, a "resource journalist" has also written The End of Oil, published in 2005.
This time, Roberts explains how we've become used to a food industry that efficiently delivers an abundance of calories with less and less nutrition. What's more, we will never achieve mass production of quality food without an unacceptable loss of calories. The tradeoff is much steeper than is commonly known. We tend to be unaware because as a society we have cared about entertainment as opposed to making informed choices. But that appears to be changing.
Roberts contributes to what I call "Declinist Literature". This genre is currently concerned with the un-sustainability of the world economic order with a focus on America and often drawing on information about the fall of empires past, particularly the Roman Empire.
Roberts is one of the edgier voices of Declinism today - he thinks we're in for a radical population decline. The problem, according to Roberts, is that ever-cheaper food provided supply stability for a very long time and that the period of prolonged stability is now ending, ushering in famine and political instability on a grand scale.
If Roberts is correct, the food industry will be unable to maintain supply even if quality can be further sacrificed. About one-fifth of all U.S. energy use goes into the food system, not even counting the fuel required to get food to market. Also, water tables are in decline in many agricultural areas and long-term drought appears to be setting into other regions in the world. The lifting and transporting of water to productive land will require increasing amounts of energy. The food industry has become too dependent on increasingly scarce inputs such as fossil fuels and water and we should expect widespread famines within the next several years - according to the book.
As we saw in The End of Oil, we very well might be close to "peak oil." That's the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached. Therefore we should not be surprised by rising food prices over time and after extreme volatility.
The 70s inflation was associated with peak oil in the U.S. This time it's the world that is expected to peak, with implications for worldwide food prices over the long run.
One vision is that people will one day have to spend a lot of time in lines to buy cheap foodish-shaped items loaded with corn syrup, trans fat, soy emulsifiers, processed cheese, sugar, added dyes, sodium nitrite (to preserve freshness) and glutaraldehyde (kills insects). I think this is an overly pessimistic vision mainly because citizens are becoming increasingly aware of nutrition.
To further the dark vision, identification cards would be required to authenticate food purchased in stores. Eventually, all the store identification cards will inform a common database and it will be possible to implement food rationing for items experiencing shortages. When this happens, there will be different classes of uniform store identification cards. A food rationing program will not be designed to ensure equality for all. By definition, inequality will exist when there are shortages. Now that's stuff for a scary movie!
A lot of people in the world cannot readily afford even the cheapest food. The End of Food explains how different nations have prepared for the possibility of a crisis. Policy responses are not encouraging as they haven't changed the way food is produced and transported, which is what Roberts wants to see changed.
The packaging, transport and marketing of food has increased in intensity while there is no wholesale move toward quality. For example, livestock continues to be kept confined in overcrowded pens far from large single-crop farms (high-yield corn) that feed them. All these animals generate manure in such quantities as to defy the imagination. Apparently, hogs are particularly prolific, and their waste runs off into large poop lagoons that cannot be properly contained and do not fertilize the cropland. Further, the crowded confinement of animals, living in their own waste, as well as the volume of empty calories fed to them necessitates the use of ever-increasing quantities of antibiotics. This is a downward-quality spiral and a major cause of diabetes and obesity.
Antibiotics are added to cattle and chicken feed to prevent them from getting sick as a result of overcrowded and filthy conditions. Antibiotics also save cows from fatal sickness resulting from their calorie-rich diet of corn. Less well known is the fact that the antibiotics speeds the growth of these animals because it causes them to absorb more energy from their feed. But the reliance on antibiotics to deliver cheap meat and poultry is not without other consequences.
70% of antibiotics administered in America end up in agriculture. This has given rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These bacteria, often called "superbugs," are carried into homes on contaminated meat and poultry, and from there they are carried into hospitals. Hospital staffs are now forced to constantly clean everything with bleach in an effort to stay on top of the situation.
Roberts warns of an empty calorie type of starvation, obesity without hope as nutritious food gets too expensive for most people. He warns of the consequences of waiting too long to be able to implement an acceptable solution. If we wait too long, some solution set will be imposed on us involuntarily, and it probably won't be anything that we would have chosen voluntarily.
It has been two years since the last "The End of Food" was published. Let's hope we get another in the series within the same time increment. Food is one of the central topics within Declinist Literature.
on August 12, 2008
Robert's "End of Food" includes a lot of good information, but there are probably 200 places where a good editor would've challenged the author to reword or tighten up the manuscript. I wonder whether his editor even read the book carefully, or whether he/she knew enough about the subject to properly edit it. A few examples of the issues I'm talking about:
At the beginning of the book Roberts lays out a ridiculously simplified, linear reductionist theory of the role meat consumption played in man's history (except that he rolls it out as fact rather than no small amount of speculation).
There are a number of factual inaccuracies that should've been caught or at least reworded. Example: He states that meat is easier to digest than plant foods, which in many cases is simply wrong. Cooked rice, for example, is half-digested before it's even in the stomach.
Three times Roberts refers to soil as dirt. In 45 years I've never heard a farmer (or any agricultural specialist) refer to soil (in a field)as "dirt". This carelessness on Robert's part is enough to make thoughtful readers question whether he's been shoddy in other areas too. There are at least a dozen places where he refers to animal manure as poop, which is just plain silly, and makes Roberts sound like a goofball. Imagine if physicians referred to a laceration as a "Bo-Bo" in a medical report, not once, but 12 times? Could you take him seriously?
Roberts is very very loose with his date references. Sometimes he's wrong. On p. 118 he states "By the late 1960s the U.S. was in deep economic trouble......having lost it manufacturing lead to low-cost rivals like Japan...." But in fact in the late 60s very little U.S. manufacturing had shifted to Japan. Roberts is only about 15 years off there.
Then, on page 152 he writes, "...by the late 1980s....African output faltered;...The timing couldn't have been worse. Just as Africans were producing fewer bushels [in the late 80s], a new glut of grain , unleashed by Butz's "fence row to fence row" policy, sent prices plummeting". The problem with this is that Butz's fence row policy was implemented in 1971, almost 20 years before the African output faltered, which is many years too much lapsed time to have had a meaningful direct effect.
Finally, what possible reason is there for a 26 page prologue in a general interest book such as this? 26 pages! Where was Robert's editor? If a writer's proposing a 26 page prologue, there's at least a chapter missing in the body of the book.
All in all I enjoyed the book, although it's not nearly as well-written as Pollan's food books.
on June 7, 2008
Roberts essentially shows why the present,agribusiness based ,large farm,industrial factory approach to food production, that relies primarily on oil based fertilizers,herbicides,insecticides,fungicides,and pesticides ,is not sustainable .The world has a major food problem RIGHT NOW.This factory approach to food production is breaking down primarily because the price of a barrel of oil is currently at $139.However,the problem was visible even when oil was priced at $75 a barrel.The current "modern" chemical and oil based approach was designed for a food production system where the price of a barrel of oil was at $15-$20 a barrel.The costs of chemical farming are going through the roof as the price of a barrel of oil continues to skyrocket upward. Other factors are exacerbating the problem.First,it takes about 8 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of red meat from cows.Rising incomes in countries like China and India are leading to a increased preference for more red meat consumption in the diets of people in those countries.This new added demand is starting to raise the price of all of the food chain elements.Second,the biofuels(like ethenol) emphasis is a blunder.Biofuels do not substantially reduce the dependence on imported oil for the USA and merely reduce the supply available for food production for people to eat.Third,the current economic subsidization of agribusiness by the tax payer in America is simply multiplying the problem.Third World farmers are going out of business in large numbers as imported and subsidized American grain undermines their ability to feed their populations locally.Fourth, the current diet based on meat consumption is causing more and more farm land to be converted to ranch ,grazing land,further reducing the supply of grain and increasing the demand for grain to feed the herds.This is also contributing to rising world prices.Fifth,factor in global warming ,droughts in Australia and California,constant civil wars and revolutions in Africa,decreasing amounts of rainfall,overpumping of underground aquifers,desertification,continuing losses in topsoil,and you have a recipe for a potential collapse in the world wide food supply RIGHT NOW.
Some of the solutions are to eat locally(farmer's markets,organic foods),emphasize more fruits and vegetables in the average diet, and substantially cut back on the amount of meat that is consumed .
on July 1, 2008
I am really enjoying this book. The current rice shortage and e-coli outbreaks were topics I wanted to better understand, and that's what got me interested (and it has certainly helped illuminate those topics for me). But I'm finding the whole thing fascinating. Each chapter is a carefully-constructed, highly-readable nugget of history, research and personal accounts. Roberts' descriptions of his visits to China, Africa, pig farms, chicken ranches, etc. make the historical narrative all the more persuasive. He is deft at zeroing in on the ironic and bizarre. One of my favorite chapters is a walk through the evolution of human food consumption. He manages to cover thousands of years of eating history in a few concise, satisfying pages (not a small task). Glad I bought this book.
on July 4, 2009
The Western supermarket today is a testament to the power and efficiency of capitalism and technology. Even the Roman emperors did not have access to the amazing variety of fresh produce available, and thanks to agribusiness, bio-engineering, and globalization this produce is cheap enough even for commoners. And that's exactly the problem, as Paul Roberts explains in his excellent book "The End of Food." Food is so cheap today because of "externalities," an economics term referring to the costs not factored into the retail price. At an individual health level the "externalities" of food are obesity and cancer. At a social level the costs are pollution, soil erosion and desertification, inequality, spiraling unsustainable population growth, and so on. Externalities may be hidden long-term abstract costs, but someone has to pay them sooner or later.
Mr. Roberts' writing is academic and clunky at times, and his anecdotes -- which are meant to burnish his journalism credentials -- are unnecessary. But his explanations and analysis are superb, and paint a horrifying and all too accurate picture of our food past, present, and future.
In Mr. Roberts' story, evolution has designed our bodies to calibrate perfectly the amount and the type of food we need in our bodies. Our bodies mainly subsist on fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds because those were readily available throughout most of our evolutionary history. But meat has made us human: it was the proteins that permitted our brains to grow, and the fat that gave us time to pursue other activities than just hunting and gathering. No wonder then that we humans crave fat, sugar, and salt. Or, in Mr. Roberts' words, we humans were designed to seek the most calories for the least work. That was fine in a world of scarcity but fast forward to the twentieth century, and these cravings become a fundamental weakness and grave threat.
Many factors made meat and food plentiful. There was globalization so that countries who had a protein surplus (America) could export to countries with a protein deficit (Europe). The discovery of growth hormones and antibiotics made animals much bigger. The Green Revolution and the discovery of fertilizer were important breakthroughs. And then there was the consolidation of the farming into agribusiness, which could leverage economies of scale to bring the most meat at the cheapest price to the consumers. Finally, there was the demand from busy consumers in an industrial economy for fast cheap filling food.
Mr. Roberts certainly is not diplomatic about the consequences of these trends. Consumers are fatter and unhealthier than ever, prone to cancer and heart disease. And the world has become unsustainable. Arable land is over-used yet the human population continues to grow. More alarmingly, this food economy is fragile, monolithic, and all inter-connected. That means viruses can easily and quickly spread through this food economy, and investigators would have tremendous difficulty locating the source and thus halting the spread.
Our food future is either a famine or a pandemic that will kill tens of millions, according to Mr. Roberts. And right now nothing can be done because agribusiness has co-opted our political system to the point where transgenic food doesn't have to be labeled as such. But more important consumers are too much addicted to the additives and preservatives that make food so tasty and so cheap yet so poisonous (organic food is for high-end consumers). When it comes to food and eating, our legacy is now our curse.
on April 26, 2011
I don't know why Amazon has decided to put a negative publisher's review prominently on the page as the very first thing people read about this book. I think that's very unfair and misleading. Not all of us read loads of these types of books (such as Michael Pollan)-- I know I never have and probably never will. I picked this up out of curiosity and was completely flabbergasted at the information it held. The book itself is politically neutral from what I could see, which I appreciate. The facts are enough to hold the reader's attention. I had no idea that the developing world was being held back (and in some cases, razed) so severely due to the USA and Europe's hunger for profit at any cost.
Please, if you are uneducated on this subject (as I was) and you consider yourself someone who cares about the fate of people in poorer countries, read this book. If nothing else maybe it will inspire you to make better choices and be more aware about the lines of you-know-what that Big Business is (literally) feeding us.
on September 26, 2015
Excellent work. Very informative and nicely written. Easy to read, fun to pursue and very enlightening.
I learned a tremendous amount about our food system and how it works which makes it easier to understand some of the difficulties we are encountering.
Highly recommended to anyone with an interest. That would be any of us as we all eat, don't we.
on August 25, 2012
Packaged food as value-add - it explains so much. As a complement to books like Fast Food Nation and Omnivore's Dilemma, The End of Food delivers a profound and disturbing look at global food supply chains. As a complement to books like Collapse, it is a troubling warning about what happens when shocks (like the current droughts in the Midwest, Central Asia, and UK) hit the interconnected industrial food ecosystem. And as a standalone, it reminds us of how far we are from the sources of our food and how paradoxically lucky (we spend less than 10% of our income on food) and cursed (we are less healthy) we are because of it.
In essence, the mechanization of agriculture and then the green revolution of the 1970s has had the odd knock-on effect of creating extensive food excess. To make money, food companies have to slice and dice the inputs into hundreds of pieces then reassemble them into instant coffee, granola bars, packaged meals, and everything that violates Michael Pollan's rule of "no more than five ingredients" in pre-wrapped items. This processing is where the money is despite retailer attempts to squeeze suppliers to keep prices low. It has created a world where new items come and go, drawing people in with the next culinary innovation and replacing the local food ecosystems that we romanticize on our labels with the globalized one we rarely see. Certainly cheap oil is part of the picture. So too are genetically modified and selectively bred plants and animals, large-scale processing plants, the science of taste, government food policy, the end of family farming, and environmental damage from erosion, runoff, and waste. While America looms large in the narrative, Europe and Asia (and Africa) are all implicated in the brave new food world.
While the final couple of chapters attempt to offer hope that things may change, it seems unlikely they will. Up to 10% of produce at Walmart may now be local and Tesco may have its own farms in Europe, but what about the other 90%? And what about environments where people are so hungry and poor that calories come first, then nutrition? And of course the food companies themselves have a lot to lose if we all start buying at farmer's markets (assuming we all actually could). Fortunately it is not so bleak that I want to give up and eat nothing but Pop Tarts and TV dinners (comfort food from my youth). Rather it has me seeking local produce, attempting to grow things, and psychologically preparing for the incremental collapse of the system.
This is one of those very alarming books in which an investigator brings together information on many different problems that most knowledgeable observers probably understand to a certain degree, but have no idea of the sheer systemic enormity of the problem. Here Paul Roberts, author of the outstanding (and even more frightening) "The End of Oil," applies a similar resource economics analysis to the international food business. And the news is not good. Food production has become structured around business models that enforce huge quantities and price pressures that can only be met by politically overbearing mega-corporations, while ruining the earth's carrying capacity and forcing everyone else out of business.
Food crises in the past were solved by new technologies and the irrigation of new lands, but the possibility of more such breakthroughs in the future is far from assured given current political, economic, and environmental conditions. Roberts shows convincingly that the world food economy, in all three of those categories, is inherently unstable and unsustainable. The only real problem with this book is that Roberts loses focus in the second half, with his argument becoming vague and repetitive under an interminable avalanche of statistics and horror stories. Here Roberts is apparently trying to convince not just his readers but also potential critics, through the sheer force of data, even though his points were made satisfactorily early on. Also, it's unclear whether Roberts thinks the world has actually reached the peak of food production, and he doesn't quite have all the answers on whether the currently unsustainable system will soon lead to a serious worldwide crisis or if political and economic developments can deliver a temporary reprieve.
But regardless, Roberts shows that in the same way the world is addicted to cheap oil and unable to even think of viable solutions to inevitable shortages, and the associated political, economic, and environmental agony, we're falling into the same potential crisis with food production. This book will certainly make you consider more carefully where your next meal is coming from, and if there will be another meal available after that. [~doomsdayer520~]
This book is an investigation of the modern industrial food economy. Roberts came to the topic with a long-standing interest in economics, which is reflected throughout the book. The book is divided into three sections, covering the history of industrial food production, the problems that such a food system brings about, and possible alternatives or improvements for future food production. Roberts considers a wide range of topics, from rising populations in need of more food to environmental degradation to genetic engineering. Sources are cited with endnotes listed by chapter at the end of the book.
Roberts takes the history of our food economy all the way back to Australopithecus, and he argues for the evolutionary advantages of adding meat to the diet. He traces the development of agriculture and seed selection, and compares improvement in agricultural yield to increases in population, noting that population growth always outstrips growth in agricultural yield, which results in declining nutrition. In the modern food economy, he notes that producers now need to resort to added value in order to increase profitability, and he examines the changes this approach has brought about in our relationship with food.
Roberts' description of the problems brought about by our global food economy is quite chilling. He comments "the cheapness of Chinese food is a reflection of the billions of dollars that have yet to be spent on improved safety." He goes on to write "Because our global industrialized food system is now so tightly integrated and interdependent, so reliant on the constant flows of material between regions and the ceaseless transactions among input industries, producers processors, and distributors, there is no longer the possibility of discrete failure: a collapse in one part of the system will have extraordinary ramifications for everyone else."
Roberts considers both sides of the genetically modified foods, discussing some of the problems with genetically modified seed escaping into the wild and the loss of genetic diversity that goes along with the concentration of food seed suppliers, but he also argues that measures as extreme as genetic engineering may be necessary in order to supply food for future populations. He examines the local foods movement and finds it unrealistic as a solution for addressing environmental problems, since he feels it is unrealistic for concentrated urban areas to rely on solely local food suppliers, or potentially unhealthy if animals are raised in close proximity to crowded urban centers (because of the risk of potent viral diseases jumping species). Roberts sees the food economy as being endangered, at risk of catastrophic collapse from a variety of stresses. Even after reading the book, I'm not quite convinced that a food disaster is looming, but the issues he explores are well worth being informed about.