Through The End of Food, Paul Roberts makes complex arguments around the culture, politics and economics of food. An interview with the writer-journalist. By Pritha Kejriwal.
When you say The End of Food, it takes me to Fukuyama’s book The End of History, which essentially meant, that with liberal democracy, we had arrived at an ideology, which was the endpoint of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution – a place from where there was nowhere else to go. So does The End of Food mean that we have acquired a global food-system so efficient, that there is nothing left to do, or does it mean, literally, a diminishing supply of food?
Umm, I think it’s the former and I appreciate the comparison with Fukuyama’s idea. Obviously there are differences there but the central argument, is that we have created a food production machine that is based on an economic model that requires ever greater volumes, ever diminishing costs, ever greater efficiencies and that sort of paints us into a corner so to speak, where, the producers must find ways to continue to cut costs and that pressure creates all kinds of problems in the system and whereas, that same pressure is what made the food system so fantastic. At some point, we will reach a point of diminishing returns, so there’s always the possibility that the system crashes and food supply becomes an issue but it seems to me that the larger question is, how do we take this system that’s so marvelously efficient and keep it from running itself into the ground in this pursuit of lower costs?
So what’s the trouble in the pursuit of lower costs?
Well, if you considered a linear progression from most of history, there was nothing wrong with lower costs. It’s what allowed us to overcome so many obstacles and it wasn’t just lower costs and food, the same dynamic applies to everything, you know. Energy, housing, education… But, at some point, if you are so vigorous in reducing your costs that you are cutting corners and say, raising safety problems, then maybe you’ve gone too far and then the question becomes, how do you pull back from that enough to restore food safety without the whole mechanism toppling?
So, in that context, what do you think is the real challenge today – is it the challenge of food safety, the challenge of nutrition or is it the challenge of hunger and starvation?
Well, all of those things, because from a global perspective, we produce more than enough calories to feed everyone – so it’s not a question of supply. It’s a question of distribution and more specifically, of enabling populations that are currently food-insecure to create their own food security. So, in many cases, it’s about bringing political stability and financial stability to a population. There are so many countries now – developing nations, where farmers simply lack access to the inputs that a first world farmer doesn’t even worry about. It’s loans, it’s fertilizers, technology, and it’s political stability. Just having a bank that can provide you a loan…. If you looked at sub-Saharan Africa, the big issue there is, it has a lot of fertile land, it’s simply having the infrastructure and the local stability and the financial resources to put it to work. But then when you look at more developed nations, it’s a different set of problems. In many cases, it’s too many calories, it’s questions about what happens when you scale up production to the point where you are creating a whole new set of health issues, these are kinds of challenges. So, it’s not a one-size-fits-all question, unfortunately.
The way you look at it… does it mean, that we need to look at each of these geographical locations separately, in their own specific contexts, not connected to the world economic and food systems, not influenced by first world economic policies?
I agree there’s the global framework and there’s the understanding – as an example, under the Washington Consensus, we decided that it would be more efficient if developing nations no longer try to be food self-sufficient and that they instead would rely on cheap imports and you can see how attractive that sounded, based on the cheapness of First World food producers at the time and you can also see the problems that’s created. Any food self-sufficiency that those nations had, to begin with, was done away with – because we basically told them that their farm sectors didn’t need to have so much internal capacity, or diversity. So that has fully been a problem and finding a way to reverse that is important – so it’s a problem with a global framework but it has a local or a regional solution. So, again, it’s both. You have to move back and forth between the two and recognize that it’s not just one or the other.
Take us through some of the possible solutions… some steps to overcome these challenges…
Well, I think you have to think in terms of small, medium and large solutions. First of all, we have to resist the idea that there’s a single solution. So, in the United States and in Europe, we have this huge debate over GMO (Genetically Modified Food) products and to judge by the intensity of the debate, it’s almost as if that alone, once we’ve made the decision, will solve everything. And it’s clearly only a small, a very small part of the problem. So in the end, it’s small, medium and large, and we need to ask what the levers are in this system that most need to be adjusted. So if again, going back to the idea of the eternal march towards cheapness, what we need to ask about food costs, we need to ask about the external costs, the externalities that aren’t included in the price that we pay at the store. So when I go buy something at the store and I pay very little for a product that has say, wheat in it or corn, I’m not paying for the damage that that crop’s production does to the ecological system. For example, because a farmer happens to be putting 50% more nitrogen fertilizer on his crop than he really needs to, and the reason he’s doing that is because nitrogen is so cheap that it becomes an insurance policy for him. It’s cheaper for him to add more nitrogen than take the risk of not producing maximum bushels per acre or per hectare. So, we need to find a way to re-internalise those external costs and that takes you into an area where they were already talking about something like climate change, where we are saying that consumers and producers need to include the full costs of energy. We need to include the full costs of food or at least understand what those full costs are. So that would be an example of a macro-solution where we might require farmers to consider carbon, their carbon footprint… then we go down to say, the small level, the local level, where the individual needs to rethink how he or she interacts with the food system and this maybe just a First World issue or more of a First World issue but the fact that in countries like the United States, and increasingly in Europe, people have stopped being producers. They’re entirely consumers and it used to be that if you cooked, you had some role as a producer. And I think it was really important.
Human beings are designed to produce things. The fact that we’ve outsourced that function – almost entirely – is not healthy. It leads to all kinds of imbalances… we’re so disconnected from the system because we rely so heavily on someone else to do this very vital function that we no longer have a very realistic view of what is happening in the food system.
So, to restore some of that connection by becoming producers again is important. I don’t think that anyone will suddenly start cooking all their own food because no one has the time; I mean the economic circumstances remain very similar. But, as an example, if I’m a person who’s in my early 20s and I am single and I am out on my own and I am sort of creating the lifestyle that’s going to be, I am creating habits, that are going to be with me throughout my life – I don’t have a lot of requirements on my time: I don’t have kids yet, I don’t have family yet. And yet, in many cases, people in that age group are relying on food that’s already produced. In other words, at a time when they actually have the time and the resources to become cooks or at least to learn to cook, they’re not doing that. So naturally when they take on family and have busier jobs, their habits are already set and those are the habits they pass on to their children. So that’s an example.
Another micro-level example would be local production and emphasis on local production and then if we went to developing countries, an obvious micro-solution is to find ways to allow small farmers to be productive and to let them choose if they really want to farm or not. In many cases, a lot of people don’t want to farm. It’s a very hard existence and it might be that their skills would be better suited for some other trade. But until we can allow them the opportunity to make that choice, the system can’t advance. And, finally, it’s the mid-level. Mid-level solutions are – regional food systems where we acknowledge that it might make sense for a region in a country to start operating with some independence. Or another example would be a farmer who is not a small scale farmer but on the other hand, is not so large that he or she is required to follow industrial practices and instead has some flexibility to try a strategy that might be more sustainable. So again, it’s multi-pronged at multiple levels or scales.
What do you think of the organic food movement – the entire concept, and the fact that you pay a lot more for that kind of food? It’s really catching on…
Well, I think it’s become so large and complicated that it’s hard to say; it’s hard to have a single opinion about it. I think that finding ways to reduce the unnecessary industrial inputs in our food is great. It’s a good thing for a number of reasons: being more conscious of our food – where it’s from, who made it, anything about it, to the extent that the organic movement can reverse that, I think that’s great. On the other hand, I think that organic has become an essential label. You can walk into a store and have junk food that has been made with organic ingredients. But it’s still unhealthy for you. So what’s the point? If you go into a health food store, you’ll find shelf after shelf of food that’s crap. It just happens to have been made with organic ingredients. And that’s a total perversion of the idea of organic. So, the original idea of organic was to reintegrate people: the people consuming the food with the production but we seem to have really moved far away from that.
There’s this other take on the organic food movement, by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek and he says, and I quote, “Let’s take a typical guy who buys organic food: he doesn’t really buy it in order to be healthy; he buys it to regain a kind of solidarity as the one who really cares about nature. He buys a certain ideological stance. It’s the same way as if you have stonewashed jeans, you don’t really buy it for the jeans, but you buy it to project a certain image of your social identity. So again, you are not buying a product, you are buying a certain social status, ideology, and so on.” So what do you think of that?
Yeah, I think it’s exactly right because as he says, you can purchase the aspirational identity of someone who cares without threatening, changing or challenging the system at all. In fact, you’ve left the system intact, you’re allowing the system to adapt and the consumer culture has proved quite adept at allowing us to feel as if we’re doing the right thing without changing anything. In some respects, it seems to me that the only thing you can do to be truly revolutionary in your food is to constantly step out of the system. The problem is that the food industry wants to contain the revolution within its shelves, so to speak. But we can’t simply allow the industry to be the sole context for this solution because the industry has its imperatives that it must follow and those will, by definition, fail to completely solve the problem. So we’ve always got to work at the margins and the margins sometimes aren’t attractive. It’s the problem with being a post-materialist – societies do things for practical reasons and also for emotional, aspirational and lifestyle reasons. So, I think the first step is to be aware of that sort of dichotomy and just be conscious of it.
Right… and what do you think of, these new technological advances in terms of, cooking techniques or delivering nutrition etc – for this issue, we interviewed Herve This who is essentially a physical chemist with his area of research being molecular gastronomy, and he spoke about this completely new approach which is called ‘note by note’ cooking, where, instead of meats and vegetables, you use compounds like amino acids etc, which he says reduces spoilage to a very great extent . Food puritans definitely have a lot of objection to that sort of eating but it could also be radical solution to problems of starvation…
I think that it’s an interesting approach. I don’t think it solves everything but I also don’t think that it solves nothing. I think we need as varied a toolbox as we can possibly get and the idea that we can know at this point which solutions will work and which won’t is pretty conceited. So I think the more creative we are, the better. I’m always wary of anyone who says this is the only way we can do this or that won’t work. That’s what the problem with the whole GMO debate is – there are so many instances where it appears that we have had real progress and to write off an entire technology seems kind of foolish at this point, in the same way that those who claim that GMOs are completely safe is also foolish. I think we need to keep an open mind and perceive and understand that we couldn’t possibly know how things will turn out, five or ten years from now.
What is your opinion on vegetarianism?
I think if someone wanted to take an individual step towards reducing the load on the global food system, taking meat out of your life would be a great way to start for obvious reasons because, just the amount of grain and resources that are required for every kilogram of meat is so disproportionate! That said, I think that we have to understand that being a vegetarian in say, the United States, is a lot different from being a vegetarian in sub-Saharan Africa. I have the resources where if I decide to do without meat, it won’t affect my health when I’m older. In other parts of the world, that’s not at all a certainty. And further, I think we have to understand the specific economies of countries – like, Kenya is very meat-dependant. It’s critical that small farmers produce meat. That’s how they advance… increase their assets. It’s basically a bank account and I think a lot of the First World ignores that. So again, it’s an important part of the solution, a very important part. But we have to be very careful about broadly and blindly applying it.
The idea of food policing also entails from this…
Well, in the US, we’ve always had a puritanical streak where we’re always looking for ways to feel good about our own actions and elevate ourselves above someone else and food policing is another sort of mechanism for exercising power. The problem of food police – and that points at a larger problem, which is, that we lack a moral context for a lot of this. We’re often afraid to couch our solutions or our discussions in moral terms. So what we try to do is to keep our discussions free of morals or a moral framework and that also doesn’t work because at the end of the day, the individual needs to be able to say this is right and this is wrong. We say, oh well, science will lead us but science can be politicised and perverted, so it’s finding a moral framework that works. That’s probably the biggest challenge right there.
Do you agree with the Malthusian theory or do you rubbish it?
Well, you know, we have to be nice to Mr. Malthus because he was operating 200 years ago and we understand that he failed to foresee how rapidly innovation would change the framework. But in the same way that we can’t write off Marx… you know, Marx’s solutions might have been a little off, but his analysis of the problem was spot on and I think, in the same way, Malthus and that whole motion of finite resources, have to be acknowledged. We do live on a finite planet and at some point it doesn’t matter how many bushels per acre you can grow if your acres are struggling, if you’re having so many problems with the soil health. There are huge parts of the world that are rapidly running out of water. Moving food around the globe, given the energy costs, is a serious issue and those are the sort of things that aren’t necessarily solved simply by piling more technology on them. So Malthus was wrong in a lot of ways but his fundamental caution is one that we would do well to keep today.
And what do you think of gourmet food – the idea of eating for pleasure in a world, which on one hand is struggling with hunger and on the other, with obesity and this whole idea of food as art?
I think that we should have ways to bring grace and beauty to everyday activities but everything can be taken to an extreme. Any sort of “lifestyle” could be taken way too far and particularly when it’s used as a way to ignore the larger problems… I’m having this wonderful meal, I’m getting together with my foodie friends and we’re discussing the latest French cuisine and we’re sort of intentionally not thinking about the larger problems of the food system. That’s a little suspect. On the other hand, I think that there’s sort of the anti-foodie who intentionally doesn’t enjoy his food because of all the problems associated with the food system and makes that his lifestyle – like the person that buys the stonewashed jeans. So, I think again, it’s what happens when you give a population too much leisure time. We spend a lot of time building our identities and acting less and less realistic and the food – as a luxury movement can certainly fall into that trap.
Just to end this, what I can gather from all that you said – that our food systems are way too complex – and that there are specific challenges with specific contexts and specific solutions, with no overarching frameworks – there is this distinct lack of any meta-narrative here…. an absence of the socialist-capitalist discourse…
Well, I mean, it’s a very true question and it does get at one of the big dilemmas that we face.
I think that we need the discussion about meta-narratives but I think what we’ve realized is that it’s impossible to translate a meta-narrative into a meta-policy. It simply doesn’t work. We could calculate with our big computers exactly the kind of economic system that we need, down to the penny. But politically and culturally and socially achieving that would be probably impossible. So we’re left with thinking, trying to create a vision based on a meta-narrative and then implementing it through micro steps.
Of course, the socialism-capitalism question is interesting for a lot of reasons. I think that’s probably the understatement of the century! But the idea right now is – we’re still in the aftermath of this global financial crisis when we’re being forced to rethink what we know, what we think we know about global economics and it’s clear that things are cyclical and that we’ve allowed deregulation, for example, to proceed too quickly, particularly in the financial sector. And so, what does that mean? Do we go back to a time, say in the United States, do we go back to a time when we were heavily regulated? Can we go back? The United States was very close to a socialistic orientation in the 30s and 40s and even in the 50s than we are today. Then the 1980s marked a very big break in that and so, we’re asking that question. What is it, what is the proper form of capitalism? What is the proper balance between a capitalism that pursues only profits and a capitalism that is required to pursue social objectives? So, we’re sort of back to that point where we are asking those questions and I think that food is a really useful context. As a quick example, the idea that some of the big banks were hedging with food speculation is a pretty frightening notion. That they were essentially using food commodities as a way to make up for their losses in the housing market and very likely could have triggered the run up in the cost of food prices, but not entirely… There were many other things going on but that was no doubt a component of that food price hike which was devastating for a lot of developing nations. In this anything-goes attitude that we had from the 1980s – that was okay because the market allowed it. So those are the sort of things that we have to rethink and I think food is probably as good a place to start asking those questions as any other sector is.