Overfed and Undernourished

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

A Pakistani boy waits for his rice ration, Aug. 10, 2008.
A Pakistani boy waits for his rice ration, Aug. 10, 2008. (Emilio Morenatti - ROH)
Reviewed by Judith Weinraub
Sunday, August 17, 2008; Page BW03


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.

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