I generally read two books at a time: a non-fiction piece that exposes the depressing reality of our world, and a fantasy novel that provides an escape from everyday life. Well, I just finished my slap-in-the-face real world book - The End of Food by Paul Roberts. Knowing what I know about the food system and our global economy, I shouldn't have been at all surprised by Roberts' analysis. But, for some reason this book threw me off balance. Maybe it wasn't as peppered with optimistic tidbits as some others I have read; maybe it was Roberts' focus on the politics of the matter. Whatever it was, this is a dense, info-packed thought-provoker.
The treatise begins by recounting the evolution of Homo sapiens food consumption. This was actually one of my favorite parts (maybe because I am a bit of an anthropology nerd at times). Roberts tracks our progress from hunters and gatherers, to the advent of farming, and through our more recent industrialization of food production. For all our thousands of years experience in procuring and eating food, we have only recently begun distancing ourselves to such a great extent from our source of foods - although we have been manipulating crops and animals almost from the beginning.
This little historical bout quickly turned to a description and critical analysis of the development of modern industrial agriculture. Believe it or not, in less that 100 years, America has gone from a largely small-family-farmer agrarian society, to conglomerate consolidated industrial power. And along with this shift, our food has morphed into the almost unrecognizable. We learn about the political and economic underpinnings of this transition as well as its continuing development. From the grocery store shelves of highly processed corn products in a multitude of shapes, colors, and flavors, to the health consequences of the big business livestock industry, and finally to the impact of global food markets on world hunger, The End of Food covers as many bases as one book can.
Paul Roberts tries to take an unbiased approach of a journalist in unearthing and conveying the "true" story of our food system. I think he does a pretty darn good job of this, while still managing to scare the living daylights out of me. The harsh reality is not often softened with sunshine and rainbows, but it is not presented in a way that makes me want to curl up under a rock and just shut down. There is hope; there is a LOT of work to be done and a huge necessary reworking of our mentality and approach to food . But, there is hope.
If you enjoy food, care about the direction our food system is headed, and want a matter-of-fact explanation of our current and potential future situation, The End of Food is an excellent choice and a good (if not the fastest) read.