Missed In 2008, part 1

by Weston Cutter

            Paul Roberts’s The End of Food is, as you’d sort of guess, the exact book you want to read if you’ve read and/or enjoyed any of the following: Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, anything by Bill McKibben, Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, etc. What’s weirder is that it’s also a great book if you want to have your thinking re: food and food production fundamentally reshaped.

            What Roberts does well and quickly and throughout his book (and it’s been done before: I’m not praising him for coming up with this, just for how good a job he does) is he quantifies food in ways that, by and large, aren’t inherently aspects of how we as consumers think about food. I know this is maybe slightly Schlosserian territory, about, for instance, how to increase the smokiness of pre-cooked beef or whatever; Roberts does it across the board. For instance, I get a Snickers and it’s yummy and etc., but I don’t think I’ve ever once considered the component bits that make a Snickers: I don’t think of the cocoa beans from one place, the peanuts from another, the sugar from another, etc.

            Now imagine those components looked at in all their depth: the effects of political instability on cocoa-producing countries, the potential for Salmonella in plants which process too many peanuts with not enough oversight (though they have to process that many peanuts with that little oversight because we consumers still expect a pound of peanuts to cost $3 or fewer); temperature fluctuations wreaking havoc on sugar production. Plus in each of these individual cases, factor in the price of the oil necessary not just to transport the goods themselves, but the oil that’s used in the production of fertilizers for all this stuff, and after factoring all that in, consider what would happen if oil prices doubled again, or if the supply of oil was largely cut-off because shaky or at-war governments failed to produce enough. You get the idea.

            This, this, is what Roberts does: he tries heroically to establish a picture of all the moving pieces, the levers and fulcrums, that make up the food production industry. But, of course, there’s no way to actually get that whole picture: there’s simply too much to picture, are too many moving parts, plus way, way too many hypotheticals to fully back up some of the hypothesis. It’s the only thing that’s even mildly discomfitting about the book, and it’s right there in the title: The End of Food. Even if I happen to largely agree with or believe much of what Roberts is herein detailing, that doomsday title is limiting as hell (which of course means it’s not a criticism of Roberts, necessarily: maybe he didn’t choose the title, though given his last book was titled The End of Oil, I’m guessing he had a say). The facts that he presents are (to some degree, depending on what you’ve already read) startling and inarguable: we’re eating too much, we want food too cheaply, and companies are working desperately to satisfy those (conflicting) demands and, in the process, have destabilized the food industry. The food indunstry is just freakishly vulnerable, as anyone knows who has in the last few weeks thrown away peanuts.

            But the catastrophe calls throughout the book are a little too rah-rah, I think. It’s absolutely fine to speculate about oil price spike or the outbreak of some strain of avian flu, but Roberts actually doesn’t need the real scary stuff, the Oh-My-God-The-World’s-Breaking what-if’s: he does an amazing job of showing how, regardless of what crisis might come along to cripple things, we’ve allowed, in one century, the production of food to become industrialized and made dangerously weak. In the end, it won’t matter if the death-blow for the food industry comes with a bang or whimper: things simply need to change. It’s a fascinatingly good (if disconcerting and somewhat scary) read.