Books and Arts

Nature 453, 722-723 (5 June 2008) | doi:10.1038/453722a; Published online 4 June 2008

Staving off the global food crisis

C. Peter Timmer1

BOOK REVIEWEDThe End of Food

by Paul Roberts

Houghton Mifflin/Bloomsbury: 2008. 416 pp. $26, £12.99

Sometimes an author gets lucky, or is truly prescient. He can work for years researching a complex and obscure topic, only to see it hit the headlines just as his book is published. Suddenly, the topic is hot.

Food is hot. If high supermarket prices have not grabbed the average citizen's attention, the world food crisis surely has. With food riots from Haiti to Egypt and panic-buying of rice in Hong Kong and Vietnam, food scarcity is the topic of the day. Following on from his earlier best-selling book The End of Oil, Paul Roberts's The End of Food taps into these timely concerns.

Staving off the global food crisis

L. LIWANAG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Supporters of the Gabriela political party protest against rising food prices near president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's palace in the Philippines in April.

Food crises tend to recur in history. The most severe in recent times was the world food crisis of 1973–75. Even the Old Testament of the Bible talks of years of glut and famine, and the role of good governance in smoothing out supply.

Are our worries about food different this time? Perhaps in the future we will see constantly high prices, the re-establishment of food scarcity in the developed world after decades of surplus, and widespread hunger. Or perhaps a technological solution will lessen the tension between a growing human population and the natural resources that feed it. Will there be a continuation of the trends that Roberts documents so well, of perpetually lower prices, greater reliance on world trade to source the cheapest commodities, the spread of meat-intensive diets with increasing affluence, and more land used to grow corn for ethanol to fuel our cars?

Roberts's answers are clear. The global food system, as it is currently structured and driven, is heading for a cataclysm. Roberts offers a sobering scenario of a 'meltdown': "We are already growing fatter (and hungrier), depleting more soil organic matter, drawing down more water tables, using more fertilizers and pesticides, losing more acres of forests and farmland." Consequently, he warns, "There is no longer the possibility of discrete failure; a collapse of one part of the system will have extraordinary ramifications for everyone else."

The End of Food makes the case that system-wide collapse is inevitable. Roberts starts by recognizing that economic forces drive the world food system, although our basic biological needs for nutrition have not changed since we evolved. This tension between food as an economic commodity — produced, processed, even speculated on as if it were copper or steel — and as a biological necessity is not new. But Roberts argues that globalization of our food supply and the westernization of dietary demand have driven the entire system irrevocably out of balance.

The result is a list of woes. The industrialization of the food industry creates a need for sources of cheap inputs and continual supply of new products. The retail revolution has led to a tendency to offer 'supersize' portions to push up demand. Obesity is the consequence of these two transformations of the food system. Global trade is able to supply progressively cheaper food, at high cost to humans and the environment, yet there is a paradox of plenty amidst widespread hunger. Food-borne diseases resulting from modern farming techniques for livestock have also sharply raised the probability of an uncontrollable pandemic.

Roberts is not hopeful of a solution to these problems because of the economic forces that dominate. He avoids conspiracy theories, but distrusts the coordination between the producers and consumers that is central to the capitalist system. He is not alone. To paraphrase British prime minister Winston Churchill on democracy, capitalism is the worst way to organize society's economic activities, except for all of the alternatives. Communist Cuba, for example, returned to a system of local food production using human and animal power to produce a nutritionally adequate diet. Roberts accepts this is hardly a good global solution.

There are two approaches to making our food system safer and more sustainable, yet still accessible to the world's population, which is expected to increase by two billion during the next 30–50 years. Both strategies should be pursued simultaneously.

First, and ironically in view of Roberts's critique, the global capitalist system needs to be harnessed to help solve problems of food scarcity, pricing and inequity. Fortunately, it is already moving in the right direction. The rising cost of energy makes many elements of the food industry unprofitable. High fertilizer prices, high transportation costs and high meat prices all push the system towards less intensive, locally produced and healthier alternatives.

Second, good public policy and government investments in food and agricultural research can make a big difference. More-effective regulation, better-educated consumers and healthier school environments can all follow from elected officials who care about the quality and quantity of the food they and their families eat.

The End of Food is a call to arms. But there will be no revolution. We will all be buried in our oversized coffins before a radical solution comes, because change will be gradual. So we must get on and fix the system we have.

  1. C. Peter Timmer is a visiting professor in the Program on Food Security and the Environment, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA, and author of A World Without Agriculture: The Structural Transformation in Historical Perspective.