From Harper’s contributor Roberts (The End of Oil, 2004), another dire warning of hard times ahead.
This time the author scrutinizes the modern food system, examining its history from prehistoric big-game hunting through the rise of industrialized food production to the retail revolution in which large grocery companies control the supply chain. The result, he asserts, is a low-cost, high-volume model that has reduced the nutritional value of processed food and increased such health problems as obesity and diabetes; it offers superabundance to a few while millions of others go hungry. Roberts argues that the present system is critically vulnerable not only to escalating energy costs and declining supplies of land and water but to the threats of climate change, soil contamination and food-borne diseases. He paints a horrific picture of how all these factors could come together in what he calls “ a perfect storm of sequential or even simultaneous food-related calamities” that begins with wheat rust in Uganda and cascades into a global crisis involving droughts, floods, unemployment, mass migrations and a deadly epidemic. To understand how the system operates, the author visited food giant Nestlé in Switzerland, a meat-packing plant in France, an agricultural fair in China’s Shandong Province and an Albertsons market in Washington state, among other sites, and he consulted with politicians and scientists involved in protecting and expanding the food supply. In his search for solutions, Roberts examines genetically modified foods, organic and integrated polyculture farming, aquaculture and the growing locavore movement (“eat food grown locally”), all of which hold promise but none of which has all the answers. The key to change, he declares, lies with an informed and activist public, which is precisely what his book aims to create and energize.
A revealing, deeply dismaying overview of how the world’s food is produced and marketed.