The End of Food

The End of Food

by Paul Roberts

Paperback(First Edition)

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Paul Roberts, the best-selling author of The End of Oil, turns his attention to the modern food economy and finds that the system entrusted to meet our most basic need is failing.

In this carefully researched, vivid narrative, Roberts lays out the stark economic realities behind modern food and shows how our system of making, marketing, and moving what we eat is growing less and less compatible with the billions of consumers that system was built to serve.

At the heart of The End of Food is a grim paradox: the rise of large-scale food production, though it generates more food more cheaply than at any time in history, has reached a point of dangerously diminishing returns. Our high-volume factory systems are creating new risks for food-borne illness, from E. coli to avian flu. Our high-yield crops and livestock generate grain, vegetables, and meat of declining nutritional quality. While nearly one billion people worldwide are overweight or obese, the same number of people—one in every seven of us—can’t get enough to eat. In some of the hardest-hit regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of a single nutrient, vitamin A, has left more than five million children permanently blind.

Meanwhile, the shift to heavily mechanized, chemically intensive farming has so compromised soil and water that it’s unclear how long such output can be maintained. And just as we’ve begun to understand the limits of our abundance, the burgeoning economies of Asia, with their rising middle classes, are adopting Western-style, meat-heavy diets, putting new demands on global food supplies.

Comprehensive in scope and full of fresh insights, The End of Food presents a lucid, stark vision of the future. It is a call for us to make crucial decisions to help us survive the demise of food production as we know it.

Paul Roberts is the author of The End of Oil, which was a finalist for the New York Public Library's Helen Bernstein Book Award in 2005. He has written about resource economics and politics for numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Harper’s Magazine, and Rolling Stone, and lectures frequently on business and environmental issues.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547085975
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/06/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 611,807
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Paul Roberts is the author of The End of Oil, a finalist for the New York Public Library's Helen Bernstein Book Award in 2005. He has written about resource economics and politics for numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Rolling Stone, and lectures frequently on business and environmental issues. He lives in Washington State.

Read an Excerpt

1 Starving for Progress

In the late 1940s, anglers who fished the waters of the Hudson River near Orangetown, New York, noticed something odd about the trout they were reeling in: every year, the fish were getting larger. Fishermen rarely complain about big fish, but because the creatures in question were being hooked downstream from Lederle Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company, some may have wondered whether the phenomenon was entirely natural. Eventually, the fish stories reached the upper management at Lederle, where they piqued the curiosity of Thomas Jukes, a brilliant biophysicist and expert in the new field of vitamin nutrition, who decided to investigate. Jukes knew that Lederle discharged its factory wastes in great piles near the river. He also knew that one such waste product was a residual mash left over from the fermentation process that Lederle used to make its hot new antibiotic tetracycline. Jukes surmised that the mash was leaching into the river and being eaten by the fish, and that something in the mash—Jukes dubbed it a "new growth factor"—was making them larger.
Initially, Jukes suspected the factor might be vitamin B12, a newly identified nutrient that was known to boost growth in laboratory animals. The vitamin was a byproduct of fermentation, so it was very likely to be in the mash. But when Jukes and a colleague, Robert Stokstad, tested the mash, they found something quite unexpected, and even world-changing: although B12 was indeed present, the new growth factor wasn’t that vitamin but the tetracycline itself. When mixed with cornmeal and fed to baby chickens, even tiny doses of the amber-colored antibiotic boosted growth rates by an unprecedented 25 percent.
Jukes wasn’t sure why this was happening. He speculated (correctly, as it turned out) that the tetracycline was treating the intestinal infections that are routine in closely confined farm animals, and that calories that normally would have been consumed by the chicks’ immune system were going instead to make bigger muscles and bones. In any case, the phenomenon wasn’t limited to baby chickens. Other researchers soon confirmed that low, subtherapeutic doses of tetracycline increased growth in turkeys, calves, and pigs by as much as 50 percent, and later studies showed that antibiotics made cows give more milk and caused pigs to have more litters, more piglets per litter, and piglets with larger birth weights. When the discovery was announced to the world in 1950, Jukes’s new growth factor was the closest thing anyone had ever seen to free meat and a welcome development amid rising concerns over food supplies in war-torn Europe and burgeoning Asia. As the New York Times put it, tetracycline’s "hitherto unsuspected nutritional powers" would have "enormous long-range significance for the survival of the human race in a world of dwindling resources and expanding populations."
Jukes’s discovery would indeed have enormous long-range significance, although not quite in the ways the Times envisioned. By the middle of the twentieth century, the global food system was in the throes of a massive transformation. In even the poorest of nations, thousand-year-old methods of farming and processing were being replaced by a new industrial model of production that could generate far more calories than had been possible even a generation earlier—and which seemed poised to end the cycle of boom and bust that had plagued humanity for eons. But the great revolution was incomplete. For all our great success in industrializing grains and other plants, the more complex biology of our cattle, hogs, chickens, and other livestock defied the mandates of mass production. By the early twentieth century, meat—the food that humans were built for and certainly the food we crave—was still so scarce that populations in Asia, Europe, and even parts of the United States suffered physical and mental stunting, and by the end of World War II, experts were predicting global famine.
Then, abruptly, the story changed. In the aftermath of the war, a string of discoveries by researchers like Thomas Jukes in the new fields of nutrition, microbiology, and genetics rendered it possible to make meat almost as effortlessly as we produced corn or canned goods. We learned to breed animals for greater size and more rapid maturation. We moved our animals from pastures and barnyards and into far more efficient sheds and feed yards. And we boosted their growth with vitamins and amino acids, hormones and antibiotics (it would be years before anyone thought to ask what else these additives might do). This livestock revolution, as it came to be known, unleashed a surge in meat production so powerful that it transformed the entire food sector and, for a brief time, allowed many of us to return to the period of dietary history that had largely defined us as a species— and where the story of the modern food economy properly begins. By most accounts, that narrative started about three million years ago, with Australopithecus, a diminutive ancestor who lived in the prehistoric African forest and ate mainly what could be found there—fruits, leaves, larvae, and bugs. Australopithecus surely ate some meat (probably scavenged from carcasses, as he was too small to do much hunting), but most of his calories came from plants, and this herbivorous strategy was reflected in every element of Australopithecus’s being. His brain and sensory organs were likely optimized to home in on the colors and shapes of edible (and poisonous) plants. His large teeth, powerful jaws, and oversize gut were all adapted to coarse, fibrous plant matter, which is hard to chew and even harder to digest. Even his small size—he stood barely four feet tall and weighed forty pounds—was ideal for harvesting fruit among the branches.
So perfectly did Australopithecus match his herbaceous diet that our story might well have ended there. Instead, between 3 million and 2.4 million years ago, Australopithecus got a shove: the climate began to cool and dry out, and the primeval jungle fragmented into a mosaic of forest and grasslands, which forced our ancestors out of the trees and into a radically new food strategy. In this more open environment, early humans would have found far less in the way of fruits and vegetables but far more in the way of animals, some of which ate our ancestors, and some of which our ancestors began to eat. This still wasn’t really hunting, but scavenging carcasses left by other predators—yet now with an important difference: our ancestors were using stone tools to crack open the leg bones or skulls, which other predators typically left intact, to get at the calorie-rich, highly nutritious marrow and brains. Gradually, their feeding strategies improved. By around 500,000 years ago, the larger, more upright Homo erectus was using crude weapons to hunt rodents, reptiles, even small deer. Erectus was still an omnivore and ate wild fruit, tubers, eggs, bugs, and anything else he could find. But animal food—muscle, fat, and the soft tissues like brains and organs—now made up as much as 65 percent of his total calories, almost the dietary mirror image of Australopithecus.
On one level, this shift away from plants and toward animal food was simple adaptation. All creatures choose feeding strategies that yield the most calories for the least effort (anthropologists call this optimal foraging behavior), and with fewer plant calories available, our ancestors naturally turned to animal foods as the simplest way to replace those calories. But what is significant is this: even if the move toward meat began out of necessity, the consequences went far beyond replacing lost calories. In the economics of digestion, animal foods give a far greater caloric return on investment than plants do. It might take more calories to chase down a frisky antelope on the veldt than to pluck fruit in the forest. But for that extra investment, Homo erectus earned more calories—far more. Fat and muscle are more calorie dense than plants are and thus offer more energy per mouthful. Animal foods are also easier to digest, so their calories can be extracted faster. In all, meat provided more calories, and thus more energy, that could then be used for hunting, fighting, territorial defense, and certainly mating. Meat was also a more reliable food source; by shifting to meat, prehistoric man could migrate from Africa to Europe, where colder winters and lack of year-round edible vegetation would have made an herbivorous diet impossible.
But meat’s real significance to human evolution was probably not the quantity of calories it contained but the quality of these new calories. Because animal and human tissues have the same sixteen amino acids (whereas most plant-based proteins contain just eight), animal converts readily into human: meat is the ideal building block for meat. That’s why bodybuilders eat a lot of meat; it also helps explain why, as our ancestors ate more animal foods, their bodies grew larger. Whereas Australopithecus stood four feet tall, Homo erectus was a strapping six feet in height, and much stronger, which made him better at eluding predators and hunting. (The point isn’t that meat made us big but that by eating more meat, our ancestors could then adapt more readily to an environment where greater size and strength were advantageous. But once attained, our new stature had to be maintained, which is one reason our ancestors sought out larger prey animals; not only did these big beasts supply a lot of calories, they also supplied more fat per pound than did smaller animals.) As important, Homo erectus’s skull was a third larger than that of Australopithecus, and the brain inside vastly more developed—an adaptation known as encephalization that was also related to the meatier diet. Just as muscle grows best on a diet of meat, brains thrive on the fatty acids, and especially on two long-chain fatty acids, the omega-3 fat docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the omega-6 fat arachidonic acid (AA), which are abundant in animal fats and soft tissues. Plants have omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, too, but these are shorter forms and can’t provide the same nutritional benefits.
Fatty acids were just the start…

Table of Contents

Contents Prologue ix

I 1 Starving for Progress 3 2 It’s So Easy Now 29 3 Buy One, Get One Free 57 4 Tipping The Scales 82

II 5 Eating For Strength 113 6 The End Of Hunger 144 7 We Are What We Eat 175 8 In The Long Run 205

III 9 Magic Pills 239 10 Food Fight 269

Epilogue: Nouvelle Cuisine 298 Acknowledgments 323 Notes 324 Bibliography 363 Index 366

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The End of Food 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
Journalist Paul Roberts investigated the global food-delivery system and he reports that food product production and prices have advanced like the production and prices of other contemporary consumer goods. The economics of the food system push an ever-faster product cycle driven by supply-and-demand pressures. The infrastructure that delivers food to consumers uses ever-advancing technology. However, food itself is not an ordinary consumer ¿product.¿ Inexpensive food is an illusion, because the process externalizes many food production costs as cheap labor or cheap oil. Roberts explains why the food-delivery system is mired in economic, political and cultural problems, and examines the crisis that looms if it runs out of fuel or water, or both. getAbstract recommends this investigation to readers who want to understand the production, market and consumer implications involved in feeding the people on our planet.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'The End of Food' is a highly organized nonfiction novel in which the author, Thomas F. Pawlick, reveals the dismal truth behind The United States' disjointed food industry. The case proposed is convincingly supported by statistics and data throughout the novel, and raises the reader's awareness in a subjective manner. Pawlick begins by focusing the reader¿s attention towards a personal experience regarding his conflict between the appetizing appearance of store bought tomatoes, and the reality of their unfavorable firmness. From this point, Pawlick details the system which provided the tomatoes, exposing a labyrinth of issues which negatively portray the fast, attractive, yet deficient food industry of The United States. In addition, Pawlick elaborates on the statistical evidence suggesting a decrease in nutrition of commercially grown agriculture over the past forty years. The reader is also introduced to the poor utilization of fertile soil, water, and fossil fuels by these industries which, afterwards, discharge dead soil and chemically saturated water, leaving the surrounding environment uninhabitable. Furthermore, as the reader discovers the unnatural condition of the modern food industry, Pawlick suggests alternatives, such as to plant private gardens using heirloom seeds. Major corporations which profit as a result of the food industry are accused of stealing our humanity and health. The wellness of our health is a monumental priority of daily life in order to yield an improved body performance. This, coupled by the nature of our humanity, which has provided food with cultural significance for centuries, are meaningful aspects of our existence. These characteristics should not be reduced by the government's inability to provide reasonable amounts of food with higher quality, opposed to a surplus of food with lower quality. In conclusion, 'The End of Food' is a fascinating journey inside America's flawed agricultural industry. The novel succeeds in arguing food's significance to humanity, suggesting that food sustains our life, strengthening our relationship to the Earth which provides us with sustenance. He further argues that food is more than a product to be consumed without awareness, but rather something to be cherished and cultivated naturally. Thomas F. Pawlick thrives in highlighting the importance of not only our nutrition and relationship with the world around us, but also the importance of indulging our lives with quality instead of quantity.
Sovranty on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Do you currently, or have you ever eaten food? If your answer is yes, then this book is for you!Paul Roberts takes the reader on a data-rich journey towards understanding the food that sits in front of them. If you've never taken the opportunity to think about the origin of your food, the journey in The End of Food will be enlightening and apocryphal at the same time. From the origin of seeds to the politics of import/export, the complexity of the food system is bluntly detailed in this book. It is more common than not in this date and age (especially in America) to look for the "right" quick fix. Roberts doesn't offer a single, correct solution for problems evident within in the food system. Instead, the wisdom put forth is that sustainability must be achieved in order to gain the time to address the complex problems with complex solutions. This book is the perfect reference tool to help the eater make more well-informed, sustainable, and healthy (for person and environment) decisions.
RChurch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book covers a whole spectrum of topics from pathogens to transgenic technology (all food is genetically modified). Makes a compelling argument for vegetarianism or at least reducing our 200 pound per person per year consumption of meat. India averages around 12 pounds. How many of us are aware that it takes about twenty pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef? Or that livestock is responsible for one-fifth of all greenhouse gases? Or the thousand or so gallons of water it takes to raise this pound of beef? We have become so far removed from the source of food that we take it for granted. That our food supply is no more secure than it ever was. Climate change (disruption by human activity), overpopulation and environmental destruction are all adding to our food insecurity. The End of Food is a book that has changed the way I think about food. One of the best books on a topic that is vital to all of us. Highly recommended.
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Corn is awesome
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