The end of food? Don’t swallow it

Paul Roberts launches some astute attacks on the system of global food production. But in the end, his partial criticisms and doom-laden outlook leave him choking on pessimism.

Rob Lyons


Paul Roberts has the making of a franchise. In 2005, he produced The End of Oil, which forecast the end of an economy based on cheap oil. Since prices have risen from about $30 per barrel when the book was published to around $120 per barrel today, he’s probably feeling quite smug.

Now we have The End of Food, based on the failings of industrialised food. But, whatever Roberts says, the oil economy is not over by a long way, and neither is the current way we produce food.

Roberts’ latest effort is one of a string of handwringing tomes about the way food is produced, which also includes Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, with British counterparts from the likes of Felicity Lawrence and Joanna Blythman. For all these writers, to one extent or another, our food system is a cause for concern. Built on mass production and intensive farming, and controlled from the soil upwards by a small number of huge corporations, they argue, the way we produce food leads to poor quality products while screwing both farmers and consumers, and wrecking the environment.

The health effects of our warped food production methods are most readily observed in our expanding waistlines, these writers claim. The rapid rise in rates of obesity have produced a much-noted dichotomy: roughly a billion people are malnourished while a similar number are considered too fat. Chronic ‘diseases of civilisation’ are widely blamed on our apparently terrible diets. These are exacerbated by a tendency to snack, says Roberts, and snacking is one of the food industry’s main targets to get us to spend more money. Roberts also notes the changing make-up of our food, from the tendency towards increasing portion sizes to the introduction of unfamiliar food ingredients such as the sweetener high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

The environmental damage of food production occurs at many different levels, we are told. Roberts points to the overworking of soils that are never really replenished with organic matter; instead, ever-increasing quantities of artificial fertiliser are dumped on fields to maintain yields. This has consequences, such as when excess fertiliser leaches into water systems. The meat industry is driven by feeding massive quantities of grain to animals, which in turn belch and fart greenhouse gases and produce lakes of slurry. For Roberts, our globalised food market, dependent on cheap fossil fuels, produces yet more greenhouse gases and undermines local and regional markets.

The current food price rises have brought these concerns into sharp relief. Wheat prices have doubled in the past year, and there have been dramatic price rises in many staples, including rice and maize, with knock-on effects for products like meat which rely on grain for feed. There have been protests about food in many parts of the developing world, where many are now struggling to get by, particularly in countries heavily reliant on imports and most vulnerable to world price fluctuations. While the price rises in the West haven’t hurt so much, they have still stoked inflation and hit family budgets.

For Roberts, one of the main roots of the wider food crisis is the way a unified farming process was broken down into discrete components in the twentieth century so that they could each be industrialised, from the development and production of seeds and the mechanisation of planting and harvesting through to factory-scale food processing.

This achieved enormous increases in production. As Roberts notes: ‘Whereas farmers in industrialising Europe had been proud to double their yields once a century, farmers now quadrupled their output in half that time.’ And fewer and fewer farmers were needed to do the work: ‘In 1885, more than half the US population was engaged in farming; in 1985, that share had falled to less than three per cent.’ However, in turn, says Roberts, these changes have led to a system where each individual step in the process takes no account of the wider costs – ‘externalities’ – imposed on the rest of society.

Ironically, given recent events, one problem is that the food industry’s efficiency has led in the past to falling prices. With lower prices, the industry must constantly find new ways to cut costs, putting pressure on farmers and other groups within the production chain, like meat processors, to do things which are bad for their workers, the environment and consumers. So, much of the world’s food supply is reliant on low-paid migrant workers; fertilisers and meat producers pollute water supplies with pesticides and excrement; the vast scale of processing is a breeding ground for microbes like E.coli 0157 and salmonella, both potentially deadly causes of food poisoning.

Even the kinds of foods that we are sold have altered dramatically, with an increasing consumption of meat and dairy products, while big corporations like Nestlé try to find more and more elaborate ways of selling us basic commodities – fat, starch, sugar, coffee and so on – dressed up to appeal to some psychological need or simply made more convenient to prepare.

This process of using additional processing to justify increasing prices is called ‘adding value’ and it is hugely lucrative. As Roberts notes: ‘Food processors have become so adept at adding value that by the end of the process, the initial cost of the grain or other raw materials is only a tiny fraction of the retail price; of the $3.50 you pay for a 12-ounce box of cereal at the supermarket, less than 25 cents represents the cost of the grain itself.’ With such huge potential paybacks, the economics of branded foods is based on enormous volumes of advertising to encourage us to fork out over-the-odds for what should be very cheap food.

For Roberts, the ‘end of food’ means the collapse of this industrialised food system. The current system is built on a global division of labour backed by a cheap means of transport and the theory of ‘competitive advantage’ – that countries with ideal conditions for producing one kind of good, like wheat, meat or fruit, should specialise in that and trade with other countries producing something else. But rising oil prices make transport and agricultural chemicals much more expensive, making both production and trade more expensive, too. And ‘competitive advantage’ sounds good until the price of your country’s commodity goes through the floor while the price of the food you need goes up. Suddenly, food security becomes a real issue.

Then there is the ongoing concern about climate change. Not only does this system generate enormous greenhouse gas emissions, says Roberts, especially in transport and the farming of livestock for meat, it is also dependent on huge quantities of water, something that is likely to become less secure as existing water sources are used up, never mind any effect from rising temperatures.

The icing on the cake for pessimists is the one really big problem that cannot be averted: the rising number of mouths to be fed. With world population likely to peak later in the century at something like nine billion people, and with those people each having greater demands in terms of products like meat and dairy, the amount of food that must be produced in decades to come is likely to be double or more what is produced now. For a number of reasons, Roberts is less than sanguine that this increase in production is possible. For example, he argues, the big gains that could be made through fertilisation and selective plant breeding have all been made; there is little more that can be done in this direction.

No doubt there is plenty of truth in the problems that Roberts outlines. To maintain our current expansion of production and to achieve the goal of adequate food supplies for all will require some tough choices and considerable ingenuity. But at times, Roberts lurches from pessimism into outright alarmism. In his epilogue, he conjures up nightmare scenarios of what might happen if a bird flu epidemic, caused by the cramming of humans and animals together in less-than-hygienic circumstances, swept around the world. In the USA, 200,000 people could die; in sub-Saharan Africa, it could be millions.

But, says Roberts, ‘bird flu is only one of a number of bullets that could strike the modern food system’; he also lists oil price rises, extreme weather, plant diseases and the loss of water supplies as other potential disasters awaiting us in this global Russian Roulette.

And it is this pessimism that runs to the heart of the book. Roberts is quite often able to acknowledge the progress that has been made in ending the problem of food insecurity in many parts of the world, or to strike a sceptical tone about the capacity of organic agriculture to feed the world. Yet he wants to indulge in fearmongering, too, in such a schizophrenic manner that I wondered if the book had been written by a committee containing both optimists and doomsayers. Maybe Roberts is just a moody kind of guy.

What isn’t entirely clear to me is why the book was written, other than to make its readers anxious – or rather, to appeal to a generalised sense of anxiety that already exists. The book seeks to throw up terrible scenarios that might occur, but rather than suggesting that society might innovate around these emerging problems to develop something better, the assumption seems to be that big corporations will buy off our useless political leaders or that the technical problems we face are simply insurmountable.

There are, of course, some very big problems with the way food is produced at the moment that do illustrate the wider failings of the market system. As long as 800million people or more don’t have enough to eat, we need to find ways of producing more of the right food in the right places in a manner which liberates humanity from the anxiety of getting enough to eat. As long as societies must obsess about such immediate problems, wider social development is difficult. While the market has provided an unprecedented range of produce available all-year-round in the developed world, it has failed billions of people elsewhere.

But to dismiss the productivity gains of recent decades would be wrong, too. Is the system we have really on the point of collapse? It seems unlikely. After all, the improvements in agricultural productivity seen in the USA could be replicated in other parts of the world if the right incentives were in place to encourage farmers to adopt the best and most productive practices. Elsewhere, Roberts notes the efficiency of fish farming in turning feed into protein. Could this encourage a shift in popular tastes in just the same way that cheap chicken become popular after the Second World War?

Roberts’ critique seems rather partial. Yes, the endless new product releases by multinational corporations that supply ‘choice’ without satisfying any fundamental human need seem rather irrational. Yes, the wasteful way fresh fruit and vegetables are produced to exacting standards of appearance with much of it simply thrown away seems equally daft. But drawing attention to these food-specific symptoms of the free market simply avoids some rather bigger issues about the benefits and failings of the market system itself.

The biggest problem is that there is no alternative to capitalism that is actually forward-looking. Instead, critics of the market fall back on localism or outmoded methods of production like organic farming, as if a retreat to the small and the old-fashioned can do anything more than replace new food problems with old ones.

Perhaps, instead, we should demand that the food system really lives up to its ambitions. Let’s have a truly global food market without the protectionism and distortions of Western subsidies so that the developing world can compete. Let’s promote the latest and best techniques in farming to every country – including the much-maligned genetic modification of crops. Let’s think big about how to solve the environmental problems that mass production creates, like providing secure supplies of clean water for irrigation. And let’s be thankful that an increasing proportion of the world’s people have enough to eat. If there are problems ahead, they pale in comparison to the problems we’re leaving behind.

If we could really appreciate the strides that have been made so far, and adopt a truly ambitious outlook, Roberts might have one more book to write to complete his pessimistic franchise: The End of Gloom and Doom.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

The End of Food, by Paul Roberts, is published by Bloomsbury. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)