Overfed and Undernourished
Two books describe a global food system on the brink of collapse.

Reviewed by Judith Weinraub
Sunday, August 17, 2008


By Paul Roberts | Houghton Mifflin. 390 pp. $26


The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

By Raj Patel | Melville House. 398 pp. Paperback, $19.95

If you think the biggest food problems you are ever likely to face are safety issues like outbreaks of salmonella (spinach in 2006, tomatoes and jalapeno peppers this summer) and the high cost of organic produce, you're woefully naive.

Because, as Paul Roberts and Raj Patel will tell you, the food we eat is part of a global system, one made possible by international trade and transportation systems as well as advances in preservation technologies. And, they warn, this once promising and plentiful system has become vulnerable, over-extended and inadequate to feed the hungry.

"On nearly every level, we are reaching the end of what may one day be called the 'golden age' of food," writes Roberts.

Both authors lament that, in today's world, superabundance paradoxically exists alongside persistent global hunger. Each points to the drive for cheap food as a major culprit in the current crisis. As Roberts puts it, "Demand from consumers, who expect the food they buy to be better and cheaper every year, but, even more important, demand from retailers . . . as well as food service giants such as McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's . . . have put the sellers of food, not the producers, firmly in charge of the food chain."

(The idea that cheap food could be bad is unlikely to resonate with people struggling to pay today's higher prices. To be fair, both books were completed before the costs of food skyrocketed, but neither really grapples with the everyday economics of an ideal system.)

Food supply is governed by a market in which, writes Roberts, food is "produced wherever costs are lowest." That benefits the bottom line, but "consumers suffer," according to Patel, because food then is produced to maximize profit rather than nutrition or accessibility to the neediest.

The authors caution that the situation is only going to get worse. In parts of the world where the population is primarily poor and the climate unforgiving, the demand for food will get ahead of supply, causing unrest and violence. In countries where the food supply and the ability to buy it are still in a more-or-less viable balance, people eat the wrong food (less expensive but nutritionally barren) and too much of it.

News reports reflect this distorted picture regularly: an obesity crisis that's growing worldwide; violent demonstrations against rising food costs in Egypt; food riots in Haiti, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Yemen; an extended Australian drought that's decimated the country's rice harvest; triple-digit increases in the price of corn as farmers divert large amounts of their crop to biofuels; crops destroyed by unpredictable natural disasters like the recent floods in the American Midwest and the Myanmar cyclone.

The authors follow different approaches as they examine the forces that propelled us here. Roberts (author of the bestselling The End of Oil, which anticipated the current energy crisis) does extensive reporting, investigating the origins, operating procedures and critics of the current industrialized food system. There are many guilty parties in his analysis, among them the purveyors of factory-farmed meat and the consumers who can't envision life without it, and the enormous food companies that produce cheap, processed, unhealthy food and the supermarket system that demands it.

He provides glimpses of the industrial food system that consumers probably don't want to know much about, such as "PSE," which stands for "pale, soft exudative," a description of the meat from the breasts of today's chickens, which are slaughtered before the breast muscles are fully formed, making them less tasty. Even less appetizing are the poop lagoons, an inevitable consequence of large-scale meat production, where a "typical hog CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation, generates as much sewage as a midsize city."

Raj Patel is a policy analyst and activist (rather than a journalist) who has worked for the World Bank, World Trade Organization and the United Nations. (He claims to have been "tear-gassed on four continents protesting" against those organizations.) The international investigations he conducted for Stuffed and Starved sometimes describe similar parts of the food system and even reach similar conclusions to those in The End of Food, but they're delivered with an all-or-nothing, power-to-the-people fervor that can be unsettling, especially given his casual sourcing. For example, he writes, "In different ways the countries of Europe and North America set their food policies in order to ensure that the cries of the urban hungry didn't lead to civil war," a description that, at best, is highly politicized.

Books like these, which are ultimately calls to arms, are almost obligated to make recommendations for action. And for both authors, there are no easy steps. Roberts's goals, while challenging, are imaginable: He believes we should try to create regional food supply systems that are separate from supermarket supply chains, like existing ones in Asia (he cites Hanoi and East Calcutta). He'd also like to see a science-based, non-political approach to investigating genetically modified foods.

Patel's platform is more concerned with food justice. After examining the food system for fairness, sustainability and, yes, enjoyment, he advocates activities that range from the somewhat practical (transforming our tastes and weaning ourselves from processed foods) to the political (eating "agro-ecologically," supporting local businesses rather than supermarkets, treating all workers with dignity and providing all with living wages).

These books, while different in emphasis and political bent, leave no doubt that the situation is dire. The enormous challenges involved in conceiving and constructing a new food system (or even many new, localized food systems) won't be met without active support from an informed public. Reading these books is a good start. ยท

Judith Weinraub, a former Washington Post reporter, is a W.K. Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow.

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