Paul Roberts on The End of Food

Did you know that it’s possible to be obese and still be starving? It seems counter intuitive, doesn’t it? Yet that’s what’s been happening for the last hundred years or more, all around the world, particularly when we watch traditional people groups start eating the nutritionally empty foods of industrialization.

Paul Roberts, journalist and published author, foresees a world where we won’t be able to afford nutrient-dense foods — a world where empty calories make us fat and kill us off. He calls it The End of Food, and in the video below he gives a brief overview of his position.

Most of you are familiar with the story already. It’s the story of industrial agriculture and its unquenchable desire to make food cheaper, bigger, faster. In the videos below, created by my friends over at Cooking Up A Story, Roberts leaves us with a few fascinating talking points.

First, most of the problems we have today in our food system began as solutions. He starts by telling the story of Thomas Jukes — the man who solved a global food crisis by figuring out that administering sub therapeutic levels of antibiotics to animals made them grow bigger, faster. Of course, we know what kinds of problems that has caused.

Second, the problem with our food supply is systemic. Any attempts to solve it that do not address the system as a whole will simply leave us with another set of problems. His own predictions for the future of our food supply are quite dire, mostly because the entire global food chain is so unstable and oil dependent. We all remember how rising fuel prices last summer set off food riots in various parts of the world.

Of course, system wide change doesn’t happen overnight, so Roberts argues that we need to put the wheels in motion now to get us to where we want to be.

He begins by positing that we need to come up with a new story to sell consumers. We need to build consumer awareness of what’s currently wrong (ala Food,Inc.), and we need to set their expectations appropriately. (Consumers need to understand that they will not get a food system back that cuts their food costs every year, or that allows them to get any food they want any time of year from anywhere in the world.) And we also need narratives that expand the discussion and bring in a new audience.

Although we’re building awareness right now (hopefully Food Renegade is doing its own small share), there’s not enough critical mass or concern to fundamentally change the system. Roberts argues that when we do get to that critical mass, we won’t have the tools necessary to change the food system because we’ve turned over research to the private sector.

Don’t get me wrong, I love private sector solutions and generally prefer them if they spontaneously arise. But the nature of economics can’t be denied. The private sector will only research what will turn a short term profit. They can’t afford to do otherwise. So, when it comes to re-thinking our food supply, we will need to get our federal government involved somehow.

Roberts has a few ideas for what governmental policy changes would make the most sense, and I’m not sure what I think of them.


  1. says

    I was really humbled by the interview done with former Secretary of Agriculture (under President Nixon) Earl Butz. He really revelled in his accomplishments in bringing cheap food to millions. Coming from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era, I could absolutely see how he would consider his actions a triumph over hunger and need. It wasn’t until twenty years later we began to see the long-term effects of his policies.

    We would do well to keep this kind of humility in our hearts as we search out the next generation’s triumphs. I don’t think it’s a good idea to point fingers and blame those who came before us. No one planned for the industrialization of agriculture to kill hundreds with foodborne diseases, make medicines useless through overuse or create an obesity epidemic. We’d be wise to tread lightly with great forgiveness and care.

    Local Nourishment

  2. says

    Peggy — I remember that interview well. In fact, it’s my FAVORITE part of King Corn. That’s why I find Robert’s point about today’s problems being yesterday’s solutions so fascinating. What’s to keep tomorrow’s solutions from being our grand children’s problem? Really, very little. It’s the law of unintended consequences. All we can do is the best we can do with what we’ve been given, and we can choose to act as firmly and wisely in our given circumstances as we can without embittering or embarrassing others.

  3. says

    I really worry about government solutions, as government no longer serves the people. Mega-corporations have bought our government, lock stock and barrel, and they bend government to their will. Until we end the pervasive influence of favoring wealthy private interests, there are no remedies. Small scale private sectors want to provide solutions, but are hindered by a game with rules fashioned by the big guys.

  4. says

    I share Anna’s concerns about government…it was our government that figured out that we could use surplus chemical warfare agents to fertilize US farmland. The pesticide 2-4-D is Agent Orange. The Green Revolution was fueled by the military-industrial complex and justified by research done at US Land Grant universities. ALL of the solutions to global warming, the problems with industrial ag have come from private individuals and grassroots organizations.

    In the 1970s a Japanese Farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, wrote a book about natural farming, that was translated into English with the help of an American soil scientist named Larry Korn and Wendell Berry. In his book, he describes a revelation he had, in which he recognized that every human solution to a “problem” in nature created unintended consequences, and that in trying to resolve those consequences, we create further unintended consequences, and so on. His idea was to remove as much human interference on his farm as he could. He didn’t till, he didn’t use chemicals…he called his method “do nothing” farming. He was far from perfect…he sprayed motor oil on his orchard to prevent pests, for example, but he had yields equal to and greater than his neighbors growing the same rice and winter grains.

    I agree that we need to address the whole system, but rather than overlay new solutions on top of old ones gone wrong, we need to peel back the layers. Just as many of us are figuring out that old, traditional ways of preparing food, that let time and nature work for us, rather than working so hard to control nature, we need to do the same with agriculture. Nature creates abundance without any interference from us…we should observe and see what we can do–or NOT do–in our farms and gardens that would allow nature helps us create abundance.

  5. says

    Chris & Anna — I share your concerns. In my political heart, I’m basically a libertarian (which is yet one more reason why Joel Salatin is my hero). That said, so much of what’s wrong with our food supply today is a direct result of government intervention, and the government needs to change these flawed policies. We simply can’t afford to keep propping up a failing food system with our tax dollars. In other words, we WILL need to get our federal government involved somehow if we want to change the status quo.

    I also appreciate the idea of “not farming.” I’d love to learn more about permaculture, but the little I have learned has totally fascinated me! Mostly I’ve just watched some videos and documentaries, but I’ve seen some amazing stuff — an oasis built in the desert (literally), super-productive “forest farms” that yield considerably more than “conventional” farms. It’s definitely worth looking into.

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