Book World Live: 'The End of Food'

 The End of Food by Paul Roberts
The End of Food by Paul Roberts (Houghton Mifflin)

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Paul Roberts
Journalist and Author
Tuesday, August 19, 2008; 3:00 PM

Author and journalist Paul Roberts was online Tuesday, August 19 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his new book, The End of Food, which was reviewed in Book World.

Roberts is also the author of The End of Oil.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book Worldor in the weekday Style Section.

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Paul Roberts: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining the online discussion for my book, The End of Food. I'll admit, the title seems more prescient today than when I began writing the book in 2005. At that time, the "end" I was referring to was more figurative -- the end of a golden era in food, when each year brought steady and seemingly automatic improvements in our food supply, in every from lower costs to better safety and convenience. Given the problems we were having with issues such as food borne illness, nutrition, and obesity, it seemed we had come to an end in our confidence in that food system. Since then, however, with food prices rising, and with renewed concerns about feeding a future population that will not only be larger, but rich enough to eat higher up the food chain, the question seems a bit more literal. In any case, the subject is a provocative one, and to judge by the number of questions received already, is provoking a lively discussion.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't get the factory farming industry. I don't work for PETA or any of them, but it seems bizarre and ridiculous that one sector of one industry is protected by Federal laws which make it nominally illegal to expose cruelty to animals and significant food safety risks. Is there anybody in Congress who even remotely cares about any of this?

Paul Roberts: It is a bizarre set-up. But I think it's the result of the government's huge interest, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to supercharge U.S. food production with a mix of science and heavy subsidies. Lawmakers really wanted to avoid the shortages that had afflicted Europe and Asia -- and we did. The downside is that our food system is now heavily depending on federal largesse, and completely corrupted by it -- and reducing that support -- or more accurately, shifting government support to encourage sustainable food production, will be key to turning this crisis around.

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Lyme, Conn.: The population today is approximately equal to all who lived in the past 2,000 years before. We have found ways, with major faults, to attempt to feed as many people today as lived over the past 2,000 years. How are you going to continue making such demands upon our food supply, especially since the population boom is growing, and doing so rapidly?

Paul Roberts: That's the trillion dollar question. Feeding a world that wants not simply more bulk calories, but more "resource-intensive" foods, such as meat and dairy, in safer and more convenient forms -- all while dramatically reducing the food industry's use of energy, water, and fertilizers, its production of wastes, and its degradation of soils, forests and other natural systems.

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New Delhi, India: What would be your reaction on the recent comment of President Bush regarding the world food crisis especially in an Asian context?

Paul Roberts: If you mean his press conference in May, I think it underscores our slow acceptance of the problem. The president downplayed the impacts of biofuels on food prices (not surprising, given that the White House has little else to offer in terms of an energy policy) and insisted that new technologies, like GM, will solve the problems. Yes, biofuels are only one of the factors driving food costs -- drought and population growth are another -- but to pretend that the impacts of biofuels is negligible is absurd. Likewise, while GM has huge potential, its benefits (assuming they exist, and can be exploited safely) won't be realized immediately.

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Jackson, Wyo.: I have always heard that on a global basis, we make enough food to meet our population's caloric requirements. The question then becomes transportation, and perhaps gluttony (personal or cultural). When you discuss The End of Food, are you taking a global perspective, or a domestic and American cultural perspective? Why?

Paul Roberts: Both actually. Many food trends that begin in the U.S. -- from industrialization to over-consumption to ultra-convenience -- end up going global.

And yes, historically, hunger has been more a social or political issue: worldwide, we had enough calories, but in certain regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, political instability, bad roads, or low incomes were preventing this surplus from reaching those who needed it. Today, we still have these "non-food" problems, but on top of that, we also have more actual scarcity than we've dealt with in decades.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Paul -- So much of our corn and soybean crop is now being used to make biofuels, especially ethanol, and prices for these crops (and others) have gone through the roof. When will we get past this obsession with using food for fuel? Thanks, Ryan -- Silver Spring

Paul Roberts: With food prices so high, lawmakers in the U.S. and in Europe are already under growing pressure to reduce or eliminate biofuels subsidies -- or to accelerate production from non-food crops. The danger here is that the biofuels debate will distract us from the longer-term drivers, like population growth and resource constraints. Although biofuels are unquestionably contributing to higher food prices, these programs are temporary, in that Congress can change them; the same can't be said for population growth or the decline in oil supplies-these will need long-term planning.

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Washington, D.C.: What effect does food aid from multinational or bilateral NGOs have on national food production in developing countries? Could support be directed in a more efficient and sustainable manner?

Paul Roberts: Complicated question. While food aid is critical in cases where weather or conflict have undercut food security, aid can warp local food systems and make them dependent on handouts. But this problems tends to get overhyped, as the biggest food aid NGOs not only understand this critical dynamic, but have all kinds of programs to build lasting food systems, not just hand out more free food.

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Freising, Germany: Thanks for the description on how antibiotics boost growth rates by treating the intestinal infections that are routine in farm animals. I'd never understood the need for antibiotics in the farm business beforehand. But how does this affect us human beings, when we eat animals treated with antibiotics? Do we get treated for intestinal infections as well?

Also, you mention, "Animal foods are also easier to digest, so their calories can be extracted faster". I'd always believed that, other than legumes, plants and vegetables were easier to digest than meat. Are human beings so inept at digesting and extracting nutrition from plants?

Paul Roberts: The main impact for humans is that we're creating populations of pathogens which are immune to our strongest antibiotics.

As for digestions, plant fiber is simply harder to break down than animal tissue-- that is one reason cows have four stomachs!

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Roberts, I work in the agribusiness field and have recommended your book to just about everyone who expresses an interest in understanding about the recent food crisis and "where food comes from." I appreciated your perspective of the "tightness" in the global food system, and its evolution from (dependence on) cheap oil. And the fact that it was mostly written before events of the past harvest year showed how prophetic your predictions would be. Your case is even stronger now, despite what many predict to be a record harvest this year.

BTW, I think your writing style is excellent, easy to read (full of good connecting/transition words), and with colorful examples. And, I enjoyed the audiobook format for half the chapters too (very good reader).

Paul Roberts: Thanks very much. I have to say that some of the best conversations and interviews I conducted for this book were with people in the food business -- who were positioned to understand how the system works, what it does well, but also where it needs fixing.

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Baltimore: As a federal scientist with the USDA, I found your book fascinating, and a very accurate reflection of business driven policies and politics regarding food supply. In that regard, my colleagues and I are worried about global supplies of water. So few people understand that agriculture is the largest use of fresh water, and with changing climatic patterns, it is unclear where that water will come from in the future.

What can we do in the scientific community to emphasize to policy makers and the public at large, the importance of water to food security at a time of climatic uncertainty?

Paul Roberts: Water really is key here. What scientists and policymakers need to emphasize at every opportunity is how water is not water is not only essential to agriculture, but to our past successes at dealing with scarcity. Irrigation projects in Asia and elsewhere were as critical to the Green Revolution as new seeds or fertilizers were. Yet where we can find alternative to synthetic fertilizers and to oil, but there is no replacement for water.

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Burke, Va.: I will soon be growing a lot of vegetables, fruits and herbs in my home garden. Just as recently with energy, those homes or businesses which send a surplus of solar-produced energy back to the grid for monetary credit. why can't I and all of the other home gardeners bring our surplus crop into a local market where we can get paid a little something so that we can use that money toward meat, fish, etc. to more economically feed our families? Or how about we just "barter" right on the spot? Seems logical.

Paul Roberts: This is big challenge--creating a kind of reverse distribution system that will allow small producers to periodically contribute their surpluses. One issue is the physical network you'd need; but another is creating some kind of quality- and safety assurance standards to make sure that your tomatoes don't hurt someone who buys them. safety problems aren't unique to mega factory farms.

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London,UK: Mr. Roberts -- I am American, living temporarily in the UK. Obviously this is a topic that is hotly debated everywhere, but two issues were in the news here recently. The first is Prince Charles' comment that GM foods are a significant contributor to global warming and Gordon Brown's comments about people needing to reduce the quantity of food that is wasted. I am not qualified to speculate about Charles' comments, although I would be interested to hear your opinions.

As to the food waste issue, I waste so much less food here. I didn't realize the extent that low food prices influenced my behavior. I assume that our farm policies keep these prices artificially lower. What could we do as a society to get food prices to reflect actual costs and force us to make better choices? I would be interested to know what percentage of food is wasted in the US. In the UK, it's about 3.3m tons per year or 15p of each pound's worth spent on food.

Paul Roberts: Can't answer the GM question -- industrialized, mechanized farming of all kinds is quite a contributor to climate change. Brown's comment on waste got a lot of play here, and inspired a lot scrutiny of our own very wasteful system. And as you suggest, a lot of the waste, whether in the home or the supply chain, happens because food has until recently been quite cheap. If food prices remains higher as most forecasts suggest, I expect we'll see a systematic reduction of waste at all levels.

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Washington, D.C.: While it's true that current capacity in food production, particularly in the developing world, is leaving many people hungry, isn't there a lot of arable land not being adequately tilled? I'm thinking of Africa specifically, where with development assistance, we could replace outdated slash-and-burn practices with more modern technologies? Would that help alleviate some problems, at least in the mid/long-term? How could we avoid the kind of mess we have here with agriculture being run by large corporations?

Paul Roberts: It's true that much of the remaining, readily arable land in Africa; what are needed are ways to help and encourage African farmers to use that land sustainably -- with prudent levels of inputs, for example, and a fill mix of scales, from small niche farmers to larger, high-volume operations (which, believe it or not, CAN be run sustainably.) What must be avoided are policies that encourage an expansion of subsistence farming in these areas.

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Washington, D.C.: I see so much waste in our current system, especially the mounds of fresh produce that get tossed (especially after coming from Chile/Peru/New Zealand/South Africa). Supermarkets tell us consumers like to see "abundance" and vote with their wallet to places that feel abundant. I'm not one to wish Soviet-style bare shelves, but couldn't the excess "show buffer" of food be one simple place to stop (slow down?) the madness?!

Paul Roberts: That makes sense in theory, but you'd be hard pressed to find a supermarket willing to risk a dip in sales by more prudently stocking their produce section. Ultimately, I think price will be what spurs retailers to adopt more sensible displays.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think the increased demand for biofuels is a result of primarily U.S. policies? Corn is a horrible source of ethanol production, especially compared to sugarcane or even other starch-based material. Are other countries really promoting corn as the gasoline of the future?

Paul Roberts: The biofuels initiative is truly global -- U.S., Europe, Asia and South America. It's worth noting that these programs came into being when commodities prices, and the price of farm land, were relatively cheap. Today's higher prices are clearly forcing policymaker to rethink the biofuels idea -- though what this rethinking will produce is anyone's guess.

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Seattle: On biofuels, you ought to be aware that a LOT of research and very rapid progress is being made on "second-generation" biofuels -- that is, fuels that come from biological sources that do not compete with the food supply. And that doesn't mean just using substances that aren't edible, but also using plants that can grow in places where food does not. Special focus is being paid, for example, to developing fuel from algae, since it seems to have far and away more energy potential that other sources and needs very little space to grow, and the space it does need is in use already -- literally skimming the scum off water treatment ponds, for example. And it takes in as much or more carbon dioxide than it emits when burned as fuel.

Not tomorrow, maybe, but within the next decade. There is an awful lot of money to be made for whomever can pull this off, and the smart money knows it and is investing.

Paul Roberts: There is indeed massive and growing research into non-food biofuels -- refined with everything from wood chips and crop waste to your algae. The problems I see aren't so much economic (this stuff IS feasible) and financial: although investors are keen on second generation biofuels, (at least, today) private sector backing doesn't offer the kind of long-term steady and commitment second generation biofuels will require. Look at the way investment is now flowing OUT of corn ethanol -- not because corn ethanol is bad for the environment or energy-inefficient, but because margins were temporarily squeezed by high corn prices low ethanol prices (due to distribution problems). Similarly, what's to stop today's second-generation investors from fleeing if a recession knocks the wind out of oil prices and makes even "good" alternatives suddenly look silly? Like it or not, government support is the only way to iron out these oscillations and push these new technologies the point where the market can "see" them. And here's the rub: the black eye that corn ethanol has already given government biofuels programs will make it even harder for lawmakers to push for the kind of support second generation biofuels needs.

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Atlanta: Has any inventory of land usage been made on a global basis? The "green revolution," deforestation and war have left vast land masses in completely different ecological balance. Is there any measurement of the productive land not "in use"? Would it have any appreciable effect on the phenomenon you are describing? Or would the population/ownership shifts be as disruptive?

Paul Roberts: There is a LOT of land we could farm -- see the FAO's Web site for surveys -- and much of it could be farmed sustainably. But there are many constraints, including limited water, pricey energy and fertilizers, the looming effects of climate -- not to mention the massive costs of building roads, etc. -- to these often remote areas.

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Paul Roberts: Thanks, everyone for your really great questions. Wish I could have typed faster.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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