The End of Food by Paul Roberts

What’s been fascinating about these two books that i’ve been reading lately is that there is more than one book out there with the exact same title – both Affluenza and now The End of Food show up online with multiple authors.

Stepping back from the almost sci-fi sense of global information overload, for me the most relevant aspect of this book has been the fact that even food, a basic necessity (not even an unmet need) is now considered simply a profit oriented component the global industrial ecosystem. While I found this book particularly US centric in its approach, to the point where the global food system too was perceived from that specific lens, it did have one key message that I think will become increasingly relevant in the near future.

That is, the system is degrading – its not infinitely sustainable, its designed on principles of abundance, consumption and waste and most importantly, it needs to be redesigned in order to become effective and meaningful for more than just the mainstream consumer market. Roberts himself asks, how unbalanced can a system be if the first billion are tending towards obesity while the last billion towards starvation?  From the New Yorker’s review,

“As of 2006, there were eight hundred million people on the planet who were hungry, but they were outnumbered by the billion who were overweight. Our current food predicament resembles a Malthusian scenario—misery and famine—but one largely created by overproduction rather than underproduction. Our ability to produce vastly too many calories for our basic needs has skewed the concept of demand, and generated a wildly dysfunctional market.”

Plus Roberts has a distressing tendency to lump Sub saharan Africa and India together at times – mostly times of famine, disease and despair. This tends to lower his research credibility on occasion. However, continues the review,

“If Roberts’s overarching thesis is simplistic, he is nevertheless right in his scathing analysis of some of the market alternatives. The conventional view against which Roberts is arguing is that the food economy is “more or less self-correcting.” When the economy gets out of kilter—through rapidly increased demand or sudden shortages and price rises—the market should provide the solution in the form of new technologies that “push the Malthusian monster back into its box.” This is precisely what Malthus is thought to have missed—the capacity of a market economy to turn pressures on supply into innovations that can meet future demands. But endless innovation has now generated a series of demands that are starting to overwhelm the market.”

The obsession with innovation, particularly technological innovation – call it quick fixes or the ‘silver bullet’ – has been a disturbing fact of life of late when it comes to approaching solution finding to large scale, “wicked problems” on a global scale. Sounds similar to what Easterly has critiqued on the planner’s approach to economic development at the bottom of the pyramid – a grand plan to solve everything often going nowhere.

And yet, in emerging markets around the world, moves are being made to turn as many small farms into giant agribusiness cooperatives continues. There’s a deep connection here to the challenges of alleviating poverty, social development and all the rest of the fuzzy goodness focused at the bottom of the pyramid that needs to be teased out and evaluated critically. Or as Roberts tells us, substitutes can be found for oil and other natural resources, there are no substitutes for food.

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