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The End of Foodby Paul Roberts
Synopses & Reviews
Paul Roberts, best-selling author of The End of Oil, turns his attention to the modern food economy and finds that the system entrusted to meet our most basic needs is failing dramatically.
In this carefully researched, vividly recounted narrative, Roberts lays out the stark economic realities beneath modern food--and shows how our system for making, marketing, and moving what we eat is growing less and less compatible with the billions of consumers that system was built to serve.
At the heart of The End of Food is a grim paradox: the rise of large-scale, hyper-efficient industrialized food production, though it generates more food more cheaply than at any time in history, has reached a point of dangerously diminishing returns. Our high-volume factory systems are creating new risks for food-borne illness--from E. coli to avian flu. Our high-yield crops and livestock generate grain, vegetables and meat of declining nutritional quality. Overproduction is so routine that nearly one billion people are now overweight or obese worldwide--and yet those extra calories are still so unevenly distributed that the same number of people--one billion, roughly one in every seven of us--can't get enough to eat. In some of the hardest-hit regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of a single nutrient--vitamin A--has left more than 5 million children permanently blind.
Meanwhile, the shift to heavily mechanized, chemically intensive farming has so compromised the soils, water systems, and other natural infrastructure upon which all food production depends that it's unclear how long such output can be maintained. And just as we've begun to understand the limits of our industrializedsuperabundance, the burgeoning economies of Asia, where newly wealthy consumers are rapidly adopting Western-style, meat-heavy diets, are putting new demands on global food supplies.
Comprehensive and global, with lucid writing, dramatic detail and fresh insights, The End of Food offers readers new, accessible way to understand the vulnerable miracle of the modern food economy. Roberts presents clear, stark visions of the future and helps us prepare to make the decisions — personal and global — we must make to survive the demise of food production as we know it.
Paul Roberts is the author of The End of Oil, which was a 2005 New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award Finalist. He has written about the resource economics and politics for numerous publications, including The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone, and lectures frequently on business and environmental issues.
"This potentially interesting investigation into the challenges of global food production and distribution is marred by the burial of its argument at the end of the book. Beneath a history of food (old news to any reader of Michael Pollan), factoid avalanches and future-tense fretting, Roberts (The End of Oil) makes a familiar plea for rethinking food systems. When the author illustrates his points with actual players, the narrative becomes affecting and memorable: a French meat packer shows how retail powerhouses dictate prices; a Kenyan farmer demonstrates how 'hunger-ending' technologies are often poorly suited to the climates, soils and infrastructures in malnourished regions. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are overshadowed by colorless recitations of Internet research and data culled from interviews. Roberts worries about our 'vast and overworked [food] system' and proffers the usual solutions: eat less (land-based) meat, farm more fish, support regional (not just local) agriculture and pressure food policy makers to fund research into more sustainable farming methods (including genetic modification). Despite the undeniable urgency of the issue, Roberts's arguments are as commonplace as his prescriptions. (June 4)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
If you think the biggest food problems you are ever likely to face are safety issues like outbreaks of salmonella (spinach in 2006, tomatoes and jalapeno peppers this summer) and the high cost of organic produce, you're woefully naive. Because, as Paul Roberts and Raj Patel will tell you, the food we eat is part of a global system, one made possible by international trade and transportation... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) systems as well as advances in preservation technologies. And, they warn, this once promising and plentiful system has become vulnerable, over-extended and inadequate to feed the hungry. "On nearly every level, we are reaching the end of what may one day be called the 'golden age' of food," writes Roberts. Both authors lament that, in today's world, superabundance paradoxically exists alongside persistent global hunger. Each points to the drive for cheap food as a major culprit in the current crisis. As Roberts puts it, "Demand from consumers, who expect the food they buy to be better and cheaper every year, but, even more important, demand from retailers ... as well as food service giants such as McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's ... have put the sellers of food, not the producers, firmly in charge of the food chain." (The idea that cheap food could be bad is unlikely to resonate with people struggling to pay today's higher prices. To be fair, both books were completed before the costs of food skyrocketed, but neither really grapples with the everyday economics of an ideal system.) Food supply is governed by a market in which, writes Roberts, food is "produced wherever costs are lowest." That benefits the bottom line, but "consumers suffer," according to Patel, because food then is produced to maximize profit rather than nutrition or accessibility to the neediest. The authors caution that the situation is only going to get worse. In parts of the world where the population is primarily poor and the climate unforgiving, the demand for food will get ahead of supply, causing unrest and violence. In countries where the food supply and the ability to buy it are still in a more-or-less viable balance, people eat the wrong food (less expensive but nutritionally barren) and too much of it. News reports reflect this distorted picture regularly: an obesity crisis that's growing worldwide; violent demonstrations against rising food costs in Egypt; food riots in Haiti, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Yemen; an extended Australian drought that's decimated the country's rice harvest; triple-digit increases in the price of corn as farmers divert large amounts of their crop to biofuels; crops destroyed by unpredictable natural disasters like the recent floods in the American Midwest and the Myanmar cyclone. The authors follow different approaches as they examine the forces that propelled us here. Roberts (author of the best-selling "The End of Oil," which anticipated the current energy crisis) does extensive reporting, investigating the origins, operating procedures and critics of the current industrialized food system. There are many guilty parties in his analysis, among them the purveyors of factory-farmed meat and the consumers who can't envision life without it, and the enormous food companies that produce cheap, processed, unhealthy food and the supermarket system that demands it. He provides glimpses of the industrial food system that consumers probably don't want to know much about, such as "PSE," which stands for "pale, soft exudative," a description of the meat from the breasts of today's chickens, which are slaughtered before the breast muscles are fully formed, making them less tasty. Even less appetizing are the poop lagoons, an inevitable consequence of large-scale meat production, where a "typical hog CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation, generates as much sewage as a midsize city." Raj Patel is a policy analyst and activist (rather than a journalist) who has worked for the World Bank, World Trade Organization and the United Nations. (He claims to have been "tear-gassed on four continents protesting" against those organizations.) The international investigations he conducted for "Stuffed and Starved" sometimes describe similar parts of the food system and even reach similar conclusions to those in "The End of Food," but they're delivered with an all-or-nothing, power-to-the-people fervor that can be unsettling, especially given his casual sourcing. For example, he writes, "In different ways the countries of Europe and North America set their food policies in order to ensure that the cries of the urban hungry didn't lead to civil war," a description that, at best, is highly politicized. Books like these, which are ultimately calls to arms, are almost obligated to make recommendations for action. And for both authors, there are no easy steps. Roberts' goals, while challenging, are imaginable: He believes we should try to create regional food supply systems that are separate from supermarket supply chains, like existing ones in Asia (he cites Hanoi and East Calcutta). He'd also like to see a science-based, nonpolitical approach to investigating genetically modified foods. Patel's platform is more concerned with food justice. After examining the food system for fairness, sustainability and, yes, enjoyment, he advocates activities that range from the somewhat practical (transforming our tastes and weaning ourselves from processed foods) to the political (eating "agro-ecologically," supporting local businesses rather than supermarkets, treating all workers with dignity and providing all with living wages). These books, while different in emphasis and political bent, leave no doubt that the situation is dire. The enormous challenges involved in conceiving and constructing a new food system (or even many new, localized food systems) won't be met without active support from an informed public. Reading these books is a good start. Judith Weinraub, a former Washington Post reporter, is a W.K. Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. Reviewed by Judith Weinraub, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Salmonella-tainted tomatoes, riots, and skyrocketing prices are only the latest in a series of food-related crises that have illuminated the failures of the modern food system. In The End of Food, Paul Roberts investigates this system and presents a startling truth—how we make, market, and transport our food is no longer compatible with the billions of consumers the system was built to serve.
The emergence of large-scale and efficient food production forever changed our relationship with food and ultimately left a vulnerable and paradoxical system in place. High-volume factory systems create new risks for food-borne illness; high-yield crops generate grain, produce, and meat of declining nutritional quality; and while nearly a billion people are overweight, roughly as many people are starving.
In this vivid narrative, Roberts presents clear, stark visions of the future and helps us prepare to make the necessary decisions to survive the demise of food production as we know it.
The bestselling author of "The End of Oil" turns his attention to food and finds that the system entrusted with meeting one of the most basic needs is dramatically failing us. With his trademark comprehensive global approach, Roberts investigates the startling truth about the modern food system.
About the Author
Paul Roberts is a regular contributor to Harper's Magazine, for which he has written about the timber industry, the auto industry, and the destruction of the Florida Everglades. A longtime observer of both business and environmental issues, he is an expert on the complex interplay of economics, technology, and the natural world. He lives in Washington State.
Table of Contents
Contents Prologue ix
I 1 Starving for Progress 3 2 Its So Easy Now 29 3 Buy One, Get One Free 57 4 Tipping The Scales 82
II 5 Eating For Strength 113 6 The End Of Hunger 144 7 We Are What We Eat 175 8 In The Long Run 205
III 9 Magic Pills 239 10 Food Fight 269
Epilogue: Nouvelle Cuisine 298 Acknowledgments 323 Notes 324 Bibliography 363 Index 366
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