Book Review: The End of Food: The Coming Crisis in the World Food Industry

For Paul Roberts, the end of food, like the end of days, is just a matter of time. It could be avian influenza, which he calls only one of a “number of bullets that could plausibly strike the modern food system. A sharp spike in the price of oil, a series of extreme weather events, an outbreak of some new plant disease, the depletion of some critical aquifer, all would send massive and potentially disrupting shock waves through a system that, despite advances in areas such as bio-security, is losing more and more of its overall flexibility and resilience by the week.”

In exhaustive study of the world’s industrial food system that took him from the United States to China to Indonesia to Africa to Russia, Roberts, the author of the critically –acclaimed The End of Oil, paints a picture of looming catastrophe, of a system that has grown dangerously distorted, with perhaps a billion people starving at one end of it and 1.5 billion overweight at the other.

Roberts blames industrial agriculture, which he charges is depleting soils, emptying underground aquifers, overloading the planet with both fertilizers and pesticides, turning more and more forest – the planet’s green lung – into farmland. Even without a pandemic or natural catastrophe, Roberts writes, it is only going to take perhaps 10 to 20 years before the world’s expanding population faces disaster.

What he calls the epicentre of a perfect storm is probably going to be Asia. The mathematics appear to be inexorable for China and India in particular, both of which are demanding more protein in their diets. As he points out, it takes seven kilograms of feed to produce a single kilo of meat. As the Chinese and Indians take increasingly to a meat diet, the ability of the world to produce it will be unbearably strained. Already, vast areas of tropical rainforest, the world’s green lung, are being levelled for pasture. As rainforest comes down it produces growing amounts of carbon dioxide. Indonesia is the world’s largest contributor to greenhouse gases despite the fact that it has little industry and relatively few combustion engines.

“Although the catalyst could occur anywhere on the planet,” he writes, “Asia’s massive population, the rapid growth of its food sector and the yawing gap between that sector and the capabilities of its medical and political systems suggest that Asia’s odds of being the lead domino are quite high.”

In just the last couple of months, China has proven the concerns over its food system are tragically real. At least 53,000 people were stricken from milk and infant formula which had been adulterated by melamine. As many as 13,000 people have been hospitalized with kidney stones and renal failure. It wasn’t fly-by-night companies that added melamine to their milk products. It was such widely known and respected companies as Mengniu Dairy, Sanlu Group, Yili and others.

In one fascinating chapter, Roberts describes the introduction of antibiotics into animal feed, which began in the 1950s, when it was discovered that fish below a Lederle Laboratories facility on the Hudson River were gaining both size and weight after feeding on the laboratory’s discharge, which contained tetracycline.

In the wake of that discovery, Roberts writes …”the tetracycline was treating the intestinal infections that are routine in closely confined farm animals, and …calories that normally would have been consumed by the chicks' immune systems were going instead to make bigger muscles and bones….Other researchers soon confirmed that low, subtherapeutic doses of tetracycline increased growth in turkeys, calves, and pigs by as much as 50 percent, and later studies showed that antibiotics made cows give more milk and caused pigs to have more litters, more piglets per litter, and piglets with larger birth weights”.

From that point on, the use of antibiotics, particularly penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, lincosamides, streptogramins, aminoglycosides, and sulfonamides, soared upwards in animal feeds. It is estimated by the Union of Concerned Scientists that farm animals in the US are fed 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics per year. Of the medically important antibiotics used as feed additives, 69 percent are fed to hogs, 19 percent to broiler chickens and 12 percent to beef cattle, according to the Environmental Defense Fund in June 2005.

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That raises the seeming inevitability that as microbes mutate to find their way around all those antibiotics, superbugs will be created – and, in fact, Roberts writes – already are, resulting in almost unstoppable pandemics.

But in addition to the possible creation of superbugs from all those antibiotics, the larger question is what industrial farming is doing to the earth itself in terms of the destruction of topsoil, the elimination of noncommercial species of fruits and vegetables and seeming scores of other problems.

In particular, Roberts finds a systemic disparity in the whole agriculture sphere. The big chains – retailers like supermarkets and other outlets – keep cutting the prices they pay to farmers because their margins are so small. The only way growers can make it is by increasing production and reducing per-unit costs, which adds to the amount of food produced, which leads to cheaper prices, which causes the retailers to cut prices, generating a vicious circle.

There are so many things wrong with the current industrial food chain that it appears virtually impossible to know where to start to clean it up. Roberts’ answer doesn’t seem to be a viable answer – refashioning the food economy around a more sustainable model. Only one country, Roberts writes, has found a way to do that, and that’s Communist Cuba, which was forced to do so after the fall of the Soviet Union and the oil, fertilizers, pesticides and other elements of large-scale agribusiness that the Communist bloc had supplied disappeared.

Cuba, at that point, was forced to radically transform its agricultural system, de-industrializing the system. State-owned farms were broken into cooperatives and hundreds of thousands of workers were reallocated to jobs on farms. Because of the lack of fuel, farmers switched from tractors to beasts of burden. Crops were rotated and interplanted and pest management was integrated.

“The results,” he writes, “have almost been Chinalike. Although Cubans are still short of meat and dairy products, per capita intake has recovered so completely that the country now leads most developing nations in nearly all nutrition and food-security categories.”

But doing that required El Jefe – Fidel Castro, one of the world’s last dictators, who could order hundreds of thousands out of the factories and onto the farms. It would be difficult, as Roberts acknowledges, for a country to mobilize its people without a one-party state filled with political prisons. And despite its agricultural model, there are still thousands of people taking to the boats to get the 90 miles across to the United States. Just last week, Cuba once again had to ration food in the wake of a devastating tropical storm.

What Roberts touches on only glancingly is the real problem -- the world is rapidly becoming overburdened with too many people to feed, no matter what agricultural system is in place. China earned the world’s condemnation by instituting its Draconian one-child policy, but as a Chinese official once told reporters, what if they hadn’t done it? Half a billion people haven’t been born because of that policy, and China is largely food-sufficient, at least for now. It has taken a long time for Malthus to be right, but it is finally starting to look like the capacity of agriculture to transform itself is strained to the limit, and now Malthus indeed is starting to be right.

Not even Dracon himself could force the rest of world into adopting such a policy as the Chinese have. But the embrangled agricultural policy that Roberts describes so well in this book is a symptom of overpopulation, of having to feed too many people on too few resources. The breakdown in the system that appears inevitable is going to come about because there are too many mouths to feed, no matter what system feeds them.