December 22, 2009

Book Review: The End of Food

One of the great things about working in a new program area like Natural Security is that we’re constantly reassessing how to best address our research area. Recently, the implications of agriculture and food security on national security have been gaining prominence. When President Obama outlined his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, he specifically noted that revitalizing the agricultural economy of that country was a step towards security. Elsewhere, reports on the links between climate change and agriculture and the importance of agriculture at Copenhagen have put our food system in the spotlight.

To that end, I recently read The End of Food, the second novel by Paul Roberts, a journalist, who successfully followed his debut The End of Oil by delving into the inner workings of the global food economy. Roberts’ book takes a very journalistic approach to the problem and, in effect, looks at each sub-problem of the food economy as a separate essay. Marketing, industrialized assembly of food products, conglomeration and specialization in farms, pesticides and other chemical solutions, and the persistent problems of unequal food distribution in the global marketplace all warrant chapters.

Roberts artfully interweaves the feeling of a rising crescendo of panic and an imminent crash throughout the book. Every technical advancement is placed under the scrutiny of sustainability and he tells the story of a system that is too big, too technologically reliant, and too specialized to deal with any systematic disruptions.

The book toes a difficult line between explaining why past Malthusian rejections (pdf) of the agricultural system have failed to materialize while claiming that once again the Earth has reached its natural limits. Roberts’ prediction of a complete failure of the world’s ability to produce food is a bit difficult to buy and his disaster scenarios are a tad far out, but he makes a variety of important and valid points that have affected my thinking on the security imperatives of agriculture.

The agricultural system as it stands is incredibly vulnerable to small shifts in weather and natural disasters. As we enter into an age where the implications of climate change come to pass and the agricultural ramifications are clear (pdf), we may face a breakdown in our “just in time” food system. As the economy has moved towards efficiency and global transport of food has increased, the number of places a problem can occur has skyrocketed. While Roberts explicitly does not endorse it, he explains the movement towards all local food that takes into account “food miles,” or the distance food has traveled, in order to help close the supply chain.

Roberts writes that effects in wealthy countries are expected to be severe as food prices rise in response to diminished capacity for production. This has spawned a variety of movements as more active consumers try to fix the system. Many believe that organic products are to be lauded while food with any sort of bioengineering is to be scorned. Meanwhile making cities self-sustainable is now seen as a desirable goal. Consumer movements and grassroots-level solutions have been largely co-opted by the agricultural system though and Roberts discounts their effectiveness.

However, the real effects will be seen in developing nations. In 2008, consumers took to the streets when the world experienced food shortages and price hikes; protests were violent and worldwide. As millions of new people join the planet—mainly in developing countries—the worldwide distribution of food will have to shift. Food and agricultural aid are already a major source of support for many struggling countries. If demographic trends increase and agricultural outputs decrease as Roberts suggests, developing nations will face the true impacts of a failing food system.
The agricultural system will not only suffer from the structural problems Roberts enunciates, but the system will also be hit with climate change-related disasters. Fields will become less productive in many parts of the world and farming practices will have to adapt to new and different rain patterns. In addition, natural disasters will add to the challenges mounting for food security in developing nations. When tragedy occurs and infrastructure is destroyed, governments often do not have the resources to quickly rebuild. This, coupled with a food system that is already insufficient, means that countries may be forced to dramatically increase grain imports.
Although Roberts steers clear from addressing the national security aspects of our food system, his future reality implicitly presents security challenges. It made me think about Secretary Clinton’s speech last September when she unveiled the administration’s new food security initiative. She noted that “food security is not just about food. But it is all about security: economic security, environmental security, even national security.”  Although agricultural concerns are not often part of security calculations, future scenarios may push them into the spotlight.