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July 6, 2008
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Thought for Food

A friend sent me a copy of The End of Food, by Paul Roberts, with the suggestion that I read it.  It arrived from Amazon with a couple of coupons tucked away in the package, from McDonald’s, for two new products: chicken for breakfast, chicken for lunch. First I traded in the coupons and ate the sandwiches, then I read the book. I might not have done the same in reverse order.

 

The End of Food is the most recent in a spate of books raising alarms about the ways global food system has evolved over the last, say, sixty years. Other notable titles include The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michel Pollan; Food Politics, by Marion Nestle; and Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.

 

And certainly world food problems are in the news. Thanks, in part, to the Bush administration’s decision in 2006 to divert large quantities of corn to cars via its ethanol program, soaring grain prices have triggered riots from Haiti to South Africa to Bangladesh. Jalapeno peppers, a prime ingredient in salsa, have become the prime suspect in the latest salmonella outbreak in the US (a thousand persons hospitalized) – but only after much of the current tomato crop has been destroyed.

 

I am a fan of good reporting and there is a considerable quantity of it in The End of Food. There are chapters on the evolution of the human metabolism; the production apparatus, prepared food in particular; on the retail system; the rise of “junk” food and the growing problem of obesity; the ill-effects of global trade (except, perhaps, in China); the failure of “the green revolution” to reduce hunger in Africa; the vulnerability of the food chain to disease; the promise of genetic engineering, and its obverse, organic; and the resource constraints, notably water and soil. I better understand the logic of high-volume production and distribution of chicken (and those coupons), having read “Buy One, Get One Free.”

 

I’m with Roberts when he says that food should be understood as a social institution. “To an important degree, the success of the modern food sector has been its ability to make food behave like any other consumer product,” to be distributed through the same channels as televisions and toothpaste. In fact, he says, it’s not; at least it shouldn’t be. Nor has the industrialization of food been confined to infant formula vs. breast milk. In the era of the microwave and the prepackaged salad, we are all in danger, statistically at least, of losing the ability to cook at home.

 

Moreover, he is surely correct when he says that the current system is possible only because of myriad unaccounted externalities in an overworked system – contaminated water, soil erosion, direct government subsidies, medical costs arising from excess calories consumed, and, above all, the strange caloric leverage of meat (it takes twenty pounds of grain to make a single pound of beef, according to Roberts, compares to 4.5 and 7.3 pounds for chicken and pork, respectively). And indeed, there does seem to be something fundamentally unsustainable about the profusion that confronts grocery-shoppers entering a modern super-super market. You have to wonder what will happen as the currently unexamined costs of environmental degradation are gradually incorporated into price.

 

Yet there’s an air of alarm that hangs over the book which renders it unpersuasive. For a time, I thought the title was just the publisher’s feverish conceit. It slowly dawned on me that Roberts actually means it.  He thinks we are in danger, not just of having to pay more for food, of having to make significant changes in our growing and eating habits through the workings-out of the price system, but running out of it altogether through some kind of terrible collapse. (He also wrote The End of Oil in 2004.)

 

“Markets are adept at substituting a scarce product with another, more readily available one, but there is no substitute for food,” Roberts writes. “Once we deplete the resources on which food production depends – primarily soil, water and the natural stock of plants and animals, all of which are threatened by industrial agriculture – we have no synthetic version of food. Which means that once yields begin to fall, as they have in regions like Asia, the decline in output will be extraordinarily difficult to reverse. Thus, even as we are daunted by the complexity of remaking the system, we grow more aware of the risks of failure.”

 

Coming up next, presumably, The End of People. It doesn’t get more dire than the “perfect storm” he envisages, a spiral of crop failures and ever-increasing pollution, culminating in a deadly global flu epidemic. As for Cuba, the exemplar he offers of how to cope with such a crunch – after the former Soviet Union eliminated its heavy subsidies in the early 1990s, the island de-industrialized its export-oriented agricultural sector,  breaking up its huge state-owned  farms in favor of small market-oriented cooperatives sending city-dwellers back to work on them – well, maybe so. But the short-term results may have to do more with the transformative power of markets than with the oxen that Roberts says are being bred there to replace tractors.

 

An alternative view is conveyed by Peter Senge and his co-authors (Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur and Sara Schley) in The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World.   Senge, who teaches at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the author of The Fifth Discipline, a best-selling paean to “systems thinking” that became a fad among businesses in the 1990s. But don’t hold that against him. The new book argues “organizational learning” actually works, and that big companies such as General Electric, Google and Home Depot can be counted on to lead the way to a carbon-neutral, water-conserving, resource-respectful future.

 

Whether or not you expect that Senge’s arguments will apply to the handful of giant companies that dominate the global food business, you have to recognize that corporate management will be an immensely powerful force in determining how these interlocking industries will adapt to changing circumstances, at least as interesting and probably much more powerful than the “vast reservoir of popular resentment” that Paul Roberts seeks to tap among “ordinary citizens… who have begun to take matters into their own hands.”  Having read Roberts, I’d like to know what the corporate strategists are thinking.

 

Any one of Robert’ chapters would make a nice book. For my money, the logical starting point is the material about widespread use since the 1970s of high fructose corn syrup, “the crack of sweeteners,” in the phrase of one frustrated reformer. But then The End of Food is less a job of reportage and more a political testament, in line with Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature.

 

Anyone mainly curious about their personal relationship the vast food chains that sustain us would do better with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book so graceful and crammed with interesting facts (“Originally ‘corn’ was a generic English word for any kind of grain, even a grain of salt – hence hence ‘corned beef’…”) that it is difficult to put down. I don’t have time to read another book on the food industry, no matter how good it is.

 

But I do plan to spend a little part of my vacation with nutritionist Walter Willett’s Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. I know enough to stay away from those absurd chicken breakfasts that McDonald’s is pushing.  It’s the US “Food Guide Pyramid,” prepared by the US Department of Agriculture on behalf of its clients, that needs debunking.

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