The End of Food by Paul Roberts feels a little like reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Clearly, there are plenty of dissimilarities between a heavily researched, non-fiction account of the food system and a Christmas-themed ghost story set in 19th century London. Yet, the comparison is accurate insofar as the two books share similar themes; their narratives revolve around greed, hunger, death and whether or not a single human being’s desire to change for the greater good will indeed do any good at all.
Like Dickens’, Roberts begins his tale with a visit from death, more aptly named E. coli O157: H7. The strain of bacteria that got inside some spinach in the Salinas valley, in 2006, killing three people and sickening many more. The E. Coli story is the warning at the beginning of the tale. The micro for the macro. The anecdote that exposes the dirty underbelly of this giant, lumbering, shadowy, thing we call “the food system”. The prologue explains there will be visits from three ghosts: the Ghost of Food Systems Past, the Ghost of Food Systems Present and the Ghost of Food Systems Yet to Come. In truth, Roberts outlines how each section of the book corresponds to or reflects the part of the economy it seeks to unravel. Nonetheless, there is something quite haunting about the whole thing.
The first part of the book gives an incredibly dense, yet succinct, summary of the relationship between humans and food. From early man to the present suburban-inhabiting-super-store-shopping-schmoes we — in the developed world — have become. Yet, rather than the downright apocalyptic approach these types of books tend to take, Roberts’ writing is calm, cool and collected. He sticks to the facts. He praises the human race for its scientific innovations and applauds our ability to consistently dodge total annihilation by starvation. At the same time, he points out the glaring flaws in our so-called brilliant food system, the choices we made under pressure in order to feed (or not feed) the ever-rising number of hungry mouths and the economic forces that dictate the majority of our decisions.
In the second part of the book, Roberts examines the impact of our choices. We are transported back to the present to look upon the table we have laid for ourselves. He challenges the Western World’s perceptions of cost and abundance. He calculates the price we truly pay to have bananas all year-round or chicken breast two to three times a week. Once again, he deftly avoids inflammatory accusations. He simply states the facts. This section truly brings to mind the starving children “Ignorance” and “Want” that deeply troubled Mr. Scrooge during his visit from The Ghost of Christmas Present. Without being quite so didactic as Dickens, Roberts manages to foster an incredible amount of discomfort and shame by placing us in front of a window that looks upon a world that is despairing, exploited and quite frankly on the brink of starvation unless we somehow manage to change.
Finally, in the third part of the book, we look into the future. What will become of us? Is the food system permanently broken? Will we destroy the planet? Are we still good people, capable of change, or is it too late? Roberts isn’t sure and neither are the myriad of food experts, scientists, politicians, historians or farmers that he quotes throughout his book. Some are ringing in doomsday while others our plowing ahead with the latest innovations or the most encouraging alternative farming methods. What he does conclude, however, is that it is our duty, as individuals, as a society, to take responsibility for our choices. It is very likely our best chance at survival. He ends with a powerful statement: “Hunger has always been an invitation to make a better world, and it remains so.”
The most enlightened aspect of this book is its refusal to present a single solution. Roberts does not prescribe veganism or vegetarianism to the whole planet. He does not insist upon organic farming. Nor, does he condemn transgenic crops or imported foods. Rather, he points out that we have traveled much too far along our current path to turn back to the “good old days” when the country-side was scattered with tiny farms growing vegetables for their immediate community without the help of synthetic fertilizers.
We chopped down the forest and the soil is eroded. There is no turning back. We need damage control; that is a series of interwoven, multifaceted solutions that create an approach which is equally complex as the problem itself.
This book is very much worth reading. It is especially appropriate for anyone interested in food activism, farming, economics, food security and the food system in general. If you think one-buzzword (i.e. vegan, local, organic) is the answer I encourage you to pick this up.