When the next administration is confronted with tough decision-making on the crucial issue of how to feed the planet's 6.5 billion people, it will come as no surprise to anyone who has read "The End of Food." by Paul Roberts. Houghton Mifflin, 390 pp., $26

Share story

“The End of Food”

by Paul Roberts

Houghton Mifflin, 390 pp., $26

In the U.S., the dire news coming out of the recent U.N.-sponsored summit on the global food crisis took a back seat to coverage of America’s presidential campaign.

But when the next administration is confronted with tough decision-making on the crucial issue of how to feed the planet’s 6.5 billion people, it will come as no surprise to anyone who has picked up this summer’s nonfiction must-read, “The End of Food.”

With his prescient 2004 book, “The End of Oil,” Paul Roberts proved his ability to sift through the complexities of an overwhelming issue and present prognostications that are both comprehensive and comprehensible.

Call him a professional Cassandra if you will, but this time out the Leavenworth author, who also is a regular contributor to Harper’s, tackles the troubling future of human food consumption. He starts by touring us through the history of mankind’s quest for food, from hunting and gathering, to the advent of agriculture, to the mechanized production lines of today. Roberts pinpoints the flaws of the current situation as “so focused on cost reduction and rising volume that it makes a billion of us fat, [and] lets another billion go hungry.”

The situation is especially surreal in this country. Despite our wealth, we have lengthening food-bank lines and children who are chronically hungry. Yet at the same time, for another segment of the American population, eating has devolved into a practice fraught with psychological implications and physical afflictions. On the whole, we’re an increasingly fat-marbled society, with all of the attendant health risks and diet fads.

And the phenomenon is spreading. As developing countries play catch-up and consumer expectations rise worldwide, local food cultures from China to India — even proud France is succumbing — are being usurped by global food-production models that emphasize mass production at low cost, but that also glorify meat consumption.

Do the math and consider the consequences: It takes 4.5 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken meat, 7.3 pounds of grain to produce a pound of pork, and a whopping 20 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef.

Beyond the inefficiencies, there are other considerations. The next time you have bacon for breakfast, chew on this: A typical pig produces three gallons of excrement a day. Modern hog CAFOS (concentrated animal feeding operations) require huge sewage lagoons that contain carcinogenic concentrations of nitrogen.

Other meat industries face similar problems — and air, water and soil quality isn’t even the worst of it. The practice of recycling leftover animal parts into feed for other animals, many of whom have no evolutionary history as carnivores, is resulting in the unprecedented spread of dangerous pathogens that are quickly developing resistance to any antidote scientists can throw at them. “The chicken vector” may sound like the title of a cartoon, but it is no laughing matter.

Side effects like these, called “externalities,” were once the hidden costs of our food-production efficiencies. Now they are manifesting in wide-ranging ways and can no longer be ignored. Throw in factors like the uncertainties of global warming, skyrocketing energy prices and increasing population pressure (the human population is forecast to balloon to over 10 billion before the middle of this century) and the question becomes:

What are we going to do with a globe full of hungry people?

Just as the problems are complex, so are the possible answers. They will require commitment, savvy and sacrifice from many sectors — politicians, food producers, scientists and especially consumers. No matter how heaping a platterful of solutions Roberts offers, the question is: Will we help ourselves?