Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Book Review: End of Food

Ruchi a.k.a. Arduous was our very first guest poster. Since she spoke up on Rubbish here, she's gone back to school, to learn about policy, meet folks from all over the planet, and hopefully solve the world's problems. Today, she is weighing in on The End of Food. Thank you, Ruchi.

About a month ago, I spent some time in the villages of India. with my uncle who works for an NGO there. I had been to these villages on two occasions prior: one for a relatively long stay about 13 years ago, and one relatively short stay five years back.

The changes since my first stay 13 years ago were tremendous. The watershed development my uncle and his NGO have done has had a dramatic effect on the landscape. But one of the things I noticed particularly was that the crops had changed. Previously, the main cash crops had been sorghum and maize. Now I noticed that the sorghum had mostly been replaced by wheat.

I mentioned as much to my friend and tour guide, a member of the NGO for years, who had volunteered to show me around the villages. He laughed, deeply appreciating that I had noticed the change. "Ah, you see, when water comes, wheat replaces sorghum!"

I wondered why the sorghum was replacing the wheat, so I asked one of the local people if the villagers preferred wheat, through my friend who acted as a translator.

Strangely, the villager responded that they preferred sorghum! Confused, I figured something must have gotten lost in the translation. Why would the villagers switch to wheat if they preferred the taste of sorghum?

Later that night, my uncle answered my question. Very simply, wheat commands a higher price on the market than sorghum. Thus when the villagers have enough water to grow wheat, they grow wheat, even if their own taste preference would be to sorghum.

An obvious answer, and yet one that completely evaded me. But perhaps, had I already read The End of Food by then, I would have figured it out immediately.

The End of Food by Paul Roberts is an excellent book, providing a clear picture into the global food market. Similar to writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, Roberts carefully deconstructs the modern food industry, giving us a glimpse at the major players, and exposing the hidden problems with the way the industry is set up.

But Roberts also goes further than that. Instead of talking simply about modern times, Roberts also provides us with a detailed understanding of food production history, that further demonstrates just how unusual the increases in agricultural efficiency of the 20th century are. And importantly, Roberts does not merely focus on the first world food economy, but delves deeply into the food economies of under-developed nations.

Carefully, Roberts builds his argument to demonstrate effectively why the emerging food crisis developed, who is going to suffer the most, and what the dangers are if we don't succeed in reforming our food system.

As for who is going to suffer the most, it is unfortunately the people least responsible for causing the crises developing. Roberts writes:

Projections by Robert Mendelsohn of Yale University, an expert on climate and agriculture, and his colleagues suggest that eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa- Zambia, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Togo, Botswana, Guinea-Bissau, and Gambia- could lose nearly three-quarters of their agricultural output, while the African continent as a whole could see its total food output fall by as much as $194 billion. Overall food security will also suffer: one report predicts that by 2080, climactic shifts will have increased the population of malnourished people by fifty-five million, nearly all of them in Africa. (226)
Clearly, we need to reform our system, but how? Roberts struggles a little to answer the question, and although that's frustrating, it's also understandable. Like Pollan, Roberts is somewhat critical of organic agriculture. Unlike Pollan, Roberts doesn't see the local food movement as the answer. Roberts argues:

The more fundamental problem with the food-mile concept is the same one that plagues organic: it's a simplistic solution to an extraordinarily complex problem. In the same way a pesticide-free head of lettuce may still not be environmentally friendly, distance isn't always the most important determinant in a particular food product's sustainability. Organic food produced in Chile and flown to the United States may represent massive food miles, but it also represents a shift in farming practices in Chile- fewer pesticides and synthetic fertilizers- which might be beneficial to the Chilean environment and people (285-6)
I can't really fault Roberts for not having a clear solution to the food crisis, because … well, it's a complicated problem. And ultimately, there are no easy answers, but there are some changes that we know can be made and should be made. Obviously, the American farm bill needs to be reformed. Clearly, it's important to educate the public at large. And as any nutritionist would remind us, we all need to eat healthier. And maybe, if we start to fix some of the things we know how to fix, we'll start to figure out solutions to the bigger problems.

Star rating: four out of five stars, and recommended for moderately dark green to dark green readers or for people who have already read The Omnivore's Dilemma and want a more global perspective.


Going Crunchy said...

Thank you for an amazing review! The information sounds very good. Shannon

Green Bean said...

Thank you so much, Ruchi, for sharing this review. It sounds like a book with real insight into the global food system. I'll have to add it to my list. Of this and Stuffed and Starved, which would you suggest reading first?

ruchi said...

I actually have only read a few chapters of Stuffed and Starved ... I was sneaking reads at the Borders, but then the move happened and I no longer had time to spend lunch hours surreptitiously reading 15 pages. I bought S&S in India, but haven't gotten back to it yet. When I do, I'll answer your question. ;)

Green Bean said...

Ahh, and here I thought you had polished that book off in a dark corner at Borders. Good to know.

Kale for Sale said...

I picked this book up some time ago but didn't make it past the introduction even though I've loved hearing Paul Roberts speak on the radio. I appreciate the review and the next time I pick the book up you'll be reading along with me and maybe I'll make it further. I'm not sure what kicked me out as subject is one of my favorites. Sometimes it's just timing I guess. Thank you.