The End of Food

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July 27, 2008

Nothing to Eat

THE END OF FOOD By Paul Roberts.

390 pp. Houghton Mifflin Company. $26.

Paul Roberts’s prophetic and well-received 2004 book, “The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World,” anticipated the current energy crisis. Now he’s moved on to what we put in our mouths. Roberts’s new book, “The End of Food,” which takes into account a vertiginous pile of recent developments — including the so-called tortilla riots of 2007, during which thousands took to the Mexico City streets to protest the rapidly rising cost of maize — may prove no less prescient.

A contributor to Harper’s and other magazines, Roberts sketches a dire present and ponders a bleak future. Readers with a sci-fi bent might, upon completing this book, decide that the 1973 film “Soylent Green” should no longer be viewed as merely a schlocky doomsday vehicle for Charlton Heston, but as an almost plausible peek at the year 2022, when global warming and overpopulation have rendered the earth inhospitable to most plants and animals, and steak and strawberries are black market goods consumed only by the super-rich.

We have reached the end of the “golden age” of food, Roberts writes. No longer do the things we eat “grow only more plentiful, more secure, more nutritious and simply better with each passing year.” Instead, E. coli outbreaks “have almost become an annual autumn ritual,” and a new day is arriving when “cost and convenience are dominant, the social meal is obsolete” and the act of eating has “devolved into an exercise in irritation, confusion and guilt.”

Roberts’s worst-case scenario isn’t tomatoes devoid of taste. It’s a “perfect storm of sequential or even simultaneous food-related calamities.” Climate change and spiraling population growth have him wondering not just “whether we’ll be able to feed 9.5 billion people by 2070, but how long we can continue to meet the demands of the 6.5 billion alive today.”

Roberts delivers a litany of terrors small and large: “Arable land is growing scarcer. Inputs like pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are increasingly expensive. Soil degradation and erosion from hyperintensive farming are costing millions of acres of farmland a year. Water supplies are being rapidly depleted in parts of the world, even as the rising price of petroleum — the lifeblood of industrial agriculture — is calling into question the entire agribusiness model.”

Agribusiness and the industrial food it engenders have, of course, already attracted serious critics. Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” exposed the ills of a lowest-common-denominator diet of burgers and fries. Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” traced among other things the perils of high-fructose corn syrup and grain-fed cattle. Both were works of literary journalism, well-reported and well-written meta-polemics that asked tough questions of both producers and consumers.

But they didn’t finish the job. What eaters (and readers) still need, Roberts argues, “is a way to consider such critical questions and concerns in a larger, more global context.” Roberts aims to go Schlosser and Pollan one better. “The End of Food” wants to be what marketing wonks call a category killer, a book that, through its wide-angled scope, trumps all other takes on the subject.

He gets about halfway there. Roberts is an expert at marshaling facts and collating figures, but a workmanlike writer. He travels to, among other food crisis flashpoints, Kenya and China. No matter the locale, Roberts measures inputs and outputs. And he draws conclusions from the differences. Our modern “food system can only truly be understood as an economic system,” he argues, “one that, like all economic systems, has winners and losers, suffers periodic and occasionally profound instability and is plagued by the same inherent and irreducible gap between what we demand and what is actually supplied.”

Roberts isolates a number of culprits. Wal-Mart, for example, where America spends 21 cents of every food dollar and where some experts say we will soon be spending 50 cents of that dollar, continues to drive down retail prices to unsustainably low levels. One consequence is that food is becoming, once again, a commodity of “lesser quality and nutritional value.”

And there’s the food industry itself, which has long funneled research dollars into scarf-and-bolt goods of the high-flavor and high-fat sort. Roberts cites a report projecting that the true measure of success will soon be whether foodstuffs “can be consumed one-handed, and whether packaging causes a mess.”

Then there’s the issue of where, exactly, we get our protein. “The Hummerlike inefficiency of the beef cow,” Roberts writes, “never really mattered when corn and other feed grains were cheap.” That was then. Now, as China and other nations grow more prosperous and adopt Western-style diets, beef cows — which must eat 20 pounds of grain to gain one pound of flesh — are becoming ecological pariahs, gobbling up corn and driving up prices for all goods that require corn, which, a perusal of Pollan will remind you, is in nearly every modern product, from fuel for our bodies to fuel for our cars.

Consumers are largely left out of the dialogue here. In Roberts’s book, they are statistical simulacra. To understand the motivations of urban eaters, who view dining “as a hobby and as a vehicle for socializing and fun,” he cites (groan) a PowerPoint presentation from the 2006 meeting of the American Meat Science Association.

Late in the narrative, Roberts reveals himself to be not a wild-eyed locavore, intent upon growing his own food and transforming the world economy in the process, but a moderate. In an epilogue, he suggests that we eat less meat and more farmed fish; support regional, instead of merely local, food systems; and work within the system to gain support for sustainable farming methods, while engaging the scientific community in open and honest debate about the possibilities of genetically modified crops.

After hundreds of pages of alarm-sounding and rabble-rousing, moderation seems like a curious position for a man who declares that our food production and distribution system is “so focused on cost reduction and rising volume that it makes a billion of us fat, lets another billion go hungry, and all but invites food-borne pathogens to become global epidemics.”

John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, is general editor of “Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing.”