King Corn & The End of Food

>> Sunday, August 2, 2009

I know that if it were possible to look behind the displays and shelves, to trace the chain of transactions and reactions represented by each ripe melon or freshly baked bagel, by each box of cereal or tray of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, the confident picture would change dramatically. I know I would see a vast and overworked system that is straining to satisfy a market that wants its food fresher, more varied, and cheaper every week. I would see feedlots with their thousands of identical animals, sprawling factory farms with their acres of identical plants. I would see the enormous inflows of feed and fertilizers, of Atrazine and Roundup, and the massive outflows of farm chemistry. I would see soils that are eroding, insects that are adapting, forests that are being converted to farms, and farms being turned into shopping malls. I would see irrigation wells reaching deeper for falling water tables, and air-cargo routes reaching farther for falling wages. I would see the declining margins and the lean inventories, the supply chains that grow simultaneously longer and thinner, with steadily rising throughputs and steadily declining margins for error. In fact, more and more these days, I find myself picturing how rapidly this system could shut down and how quickly these shelves and displays would be picked clean were the food economy to stumble across an "event" that exceeds its narrowing tolerance for disruption. (The End of Food, p. 298-9)
I watched King Corn in February. I had wanted to see it back in 2007, when it was originally released. It's a pretty good film. It focuses specifically on corn and its permutations in the food industry. Most of the corn grown isn't for consumption as corn on the cob. Most is for industrial use, like one farmer says, "We're growing crap." My favorite part was when the guys made high fructose corn syrup in their kitchen, demonstrating how complex it is. I probably would have enjoyed this more if I had seen it when it was originally released; however, I've now watched and read so much on the food industry that there is little that surprises me or is something that I haven't heard or read before, particularly after reading The End of Food.

I don't think I've ever read a more comprehensive book on food. I haven't read any of Michael Pollan's books; although, I have read many of his articles and listened to many interviews with him. But just to give you an idea of how comprehensive Paul Roberts's book is, here is a general outline:

Part 1: The origins and operations of the food system
  • Ch. 1 - backstory of food economy: from our carnivorous origins to the first agricultural revolution, from near extinction in some areas in the eighteenth century to our rescue by the rise of industrial food production
  • Ch. 2 - the industrialization of food: shows the operations of the world's largest food company, NestlĂ©, and how raw materials are disassembled and then reassembled in ways that give the food industry more control over what we eat
  • Ch. 3 - the retail revolution: large grocery companies leveraging their size and market share to control the supply chain and thus change food production and actual food
  • Ch. 4 - transformational fallout: from the declining nutritional quality of processed food to the emergence of obesity, diabetes, etc.
Part 2: the impacts of industrial food production
  • Ch. 5 - the rise of the global food trade: incredible benefits yet new dangers such as the easier transmission of diseases, vulnerability to rising energy costs, and growing competition among food superpowers such as the U.S., Europe, Brazil and China.
  • Ch. 6 - the paradox of plentitude: persistent global hunger in an era of superabundance
  • Ch. 7 - the battle against food-borne disease: how industrialization has created conditions for a new generation of pandemics
  • Ch. 8 - the factors that will require a completely re-engineered system of food production
Part 3: the challenges of fixing the current food system
  • Ch. 9 - transgenic versus organic food
  • Ch. 10 - critiques of other food alternatives
  • Ch. 11 - scenarios of how needed food transformations could take place
Does it sound like he missed anything? While Paul Roberts, the author, states that he left things out, I wouldn't think it was possible given how much he covered. For examples of Roberts' comprehensiveness, here's an excerpt on water and another on industrial vs. organic farming. One of the strangest that I had not read about before was the Ugandan wheat rust.
In 1999, plant pathologists in Uganda noted the appearance of a fungus known as stem rust taht was destroying even wheat varieties specially bred to fend off rusts. Once in a field, this new fungus can wipe out three-quarters of the crop, and its spores spread easily by wind. Since its emergence, the so-called UG99 rust has migrated into Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen and is now moving north and east, threatening India, China, and eventually, even North America with a wheat-crop failure that could cost billions of dollars while adding significant pressure to global grain supplies. (p. 220)
And it's still currently spreading. Last I recall, it had reached Iran already in some capacity. Imagine something ravaging through Asia. A catastrophe is certainly coming within the next few years.

I think I've read so much about food problems that I don't feel like I need to see one of the newest documentaries on it, Food, Inc. Maybe I'll catch it later on dvd.


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