Many news stories from the first half of 2008 read like a page out of the Book of Revelation.  Rising grain prices were already leading to food riots in developing countries when a one-two punch, in the form of Cyclone Nargis and a series of tornadoes and floods, devastated the rice crop in Burma and corn production in the Midwest.  When food wasn’t too expensive, it frequently made people ill, such as in the salmonella outbreak that sickened customers and caused restaurants and grocers to dispose of several varieties of tomatoes in more than a dozen states, although the cause of the outbreak has yet to be determined.

Paul Roberts, with The End of Food, is here to tell the eating public that the problem isn’t as bad as the media make it seem—it is, in reality, much worse.  The book is a searing indictment not only of the dominant methods of food production, but, implicitly, of the political and media culture, which does a great job of reporting on flag pins and flip-flops but drops the ball when it comes to serious issues.

American agriculture has for decades been geared toward producing large quantities of commodities at low prices.  Roberts quotes the two secretaries of agriculture who most explicitly articulated the guiding philosophy of American agricultural policy in the post-World War II era—Ezra Taft Benson (“get big or get out”) and Earl Butz (plant corn from “fence row to fence row”).  Prices in the grocery store have been kept low by government subsidies and by the ability of powerful agribusiness interests to avoid paying for the externalities that they create.

In recent decades, animal husbandry evolved from the bucolic image of a farm with a henhouse and cows in a pasture to what is called a CAFO, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.  Cramming a large number of livestock into a CAFO results in increased economies of scale, and thus lower costs.  But Roberts describes numerous negative side effects, including the “protein-starved chickens [who] turned cannibalistic, eating one another’s feathers . . . until farmers began supplementing grain with protein-rich soybeans and amino acids.”  In addition to promoting cannibalism, raising animals in close quarters makes the spread of disease a serious problem, which CAFO farms address by drugging animals with antibiotics.  Agriculture consumes half of the antibiotics that the world produces.  These are used for controlling disease and promoting growth among livestock.  An unintended consequence of drugging animals on this scale is that “livestock and poultry producers must constantly upgrade to different antibiotics—a demand curve that even some pharmaceutical companies aren’t sure how long they can meet.”  If they fail to do so, humans as well as animals will pay a price in deaths by infections.

The most obvious externality of the CAFO comes in the form of animal waste.  Roberts uses the quaint euphemism “poop lagoon” to describe this side effect of high-density feedlots.  In more traditional forms of agriculture, manure was an asset, not a waste product.  (I remember my grandmother having a large pile of it in her yard for her rose bushes.)  But since industrial animal production commonly takes place at a distance from the industrial farm, this is no longer the case.  These “poop lagoons” threaten air and water quality, and their concentrated nitrogen content disrupts ecosystems even when they remain intact—and they don’t always remain intact.  A North Carolina lagoon collapse in 1995 did great damage to nearby crops and killed aquatic life in a 17-mile stretch of the New River.

The flipside of the waste problem may be seen in the chemical fertilizers that fueled the explosion of agricultural productivity in the years after World War II.  After decades of enormous growth produced by the use of chemical fertilizers, yields are no longer advancing at the rate of a few years ago, nor even keeping pace with rising demand.  This is occurring in part because “plant breeders . . . are running into the law of diminishing returns, in the plants themselves.”  Also, soil becomes degraded and eroded by the intensive methods accompanying chemical fertilizer use.  And since it is a product of natural gas, the cost of chemical fertilizer is affected by tightening energy supplies.

The thirty-three thousand cubic feet of natural gas needed to make a ton of nitrogen fertilizer could be used instead to generate 9671 kilowatts of electricity . . . [F]ertilizer companies . . . are now directly competing for natural gas with utility companies . . . and losing.

Another serious problem associated with nitrogen is the effect it has after it has caused crop growth.  Running off into lakes, rivers, and oceans, it kills most of the life there.

In rivers and lakes, this wayward nitrogen essentially fertilizes whatever is in its path, such as milfoil, which clogs waterways, and various algae, which coat rocks, beaches, and piers in green muck.  Worse, when these organisms die, they set off a chain reaction known as eutrophication, which sucks the oxygen from ponds and lakes and creates massive fish-killing dead zones.  According to a 2003 report by the United Nations Environment Program, the number of dead zones worldwide is nearly one hundred and fifty.

The final resting place for much of the runoff from Midwestern agribusiness operations is in a Massachusetts-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, produced by deposits from the Mississippi River.

Recent economic and environmental developments have conspired to make Roberts appear prescient, though at times even he can seem excessively optimistic.  Writing about oil prices, a critical factor in the cost of food, Roberts predicts that they may hold in the $90 range for the next several years.  Roberts also speculates that the corn belt could suffer from a climate-change-induced “succession of droughts, rainstorms, and widespread floods . . . ”  Reports from the spring of 2008 told of the toll that excessive rain was having on corn planting—right before the aforementioned epic flood hit the Midwest, with massive damage to the corn crop.  Other weather phenomena that have restricted the global food supply include a drought in Australia, which has adversely affected wheat production.

After devoting hundreds of pages to exposing the direct and indirect subsidies that distort the market for food, Roberts erroneously attributes the “transformation of the food system” to “one of the most powerful and brutally efficient of all human forces—the market.”  In fact, the system by which Americans obtain their foodstuffs has been heavily shaped by government policies, from agricultural subsidies to the Interstate Highway System to the neglect of border security.  Of course the market plays a role in conditioning Americans always to demand more, primarily in the form of advertising, as well as by exploiting the guilt and anxieties of working mothers.  The food industry, notes Roberts, cannot afford to have Americans eat less, else it would lose billions of dollars in revenue.

In the current climate, the critical first step in addressing the looming crisis is as obvious as it is impossible: to eliminate farm subsidies and force agribusiness to pay for the environmental damage it creates.  Yet a change of mind on the part of the public is more important than any specific policy change could possibly be, as consumers have been lulled by decades of public and corporate policy geared to instilling ever-increasing expectations.

Irrespective of the effect this has on our collective cultural and physical health, the evidence suggests that it is not sustainable.  Economist Herbert Stein once formulated the axiom “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”  American and world agriculture, as described by Paul Roberts, meets the definition of a process that cannot go on forever.  The evidence suggests that most people will not be prepared when this one finally does grind to a halt,  and grocery aisles are no longer filled with an abundance of cheap food.


[The End of Food, by Paul Roberts (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 390 pp., $26.00]