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Malthus revisited

Book>> The End of Food • by Paul Roberts • Bloomsbury, Rs 450

By Hrishikesh Mattoo
Published: Sunday 31 January 2010

imageIn 2005, Paul Roberts wrote The End of Oil, which forecast the end of an economy based on cheap oil.

Three years after the book was published, oil prices touched US $120 per barrel. Though they have come down to about US $70, Roberts would still be feeling quite smug.

He has followed up with another apocalyptic story. But by switching from oil to food, Roberts has boldly stepped into a crowded field. In the last few years, Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Raj Patel (Stuffed and Starved) have helped create awareness about food production. They argue that the modern food economy controlled by a small number of large corporations leads to poor quality products and that it works against both farmers and consumers.

Robert’s historical frame drives home a key point his predecessors didn’t quite make—modern food production is an attractive response to centuries of chronic food insecurity. Who wants to spend nearly all of one’s income on food, and rely on sugared tea as a key source of calories, as the 19th century British working class? By the dawn of the 20th century, people longed for food security and freedom from drudgery.

The modern food system—for all the problems it created—largely met those desires, at least in the US and Europe. The eat local movement will eventually have to confront this aspect head on. But Roberts sees humankind increasingly struggling to meet its food needs. He predicts that in the next forty years, as agriculture is threatened by climate change, “demand for food will rise precipitously,” outstripping supply.

Roberts is at his best discussing the geopolitical consequences as the world’s most economically powerful nations scramble to respond to these challenges. The US agricultural machine once dominated global food trade. But the “emergence of a new global [food] trade axis, with Brazil and Argentina at one end and India and China at the other”, as Roberts shows, challenges its hegemony. Simultaneously, rising oil prices make transport and agricultural chemicals much more expensive, making both production and trade more expensive, too.

imageThe icing on the cake for pessimists is the rising number of mouths to be fed. With world population likely to peak later in the century at nine billion, the amount of food that must be produced in decades to come is likely to be more than double of what is produced now. Roberts is less than sanguine that this increase in production is possible.

Hrishikesh Mattoo is a PhD candidate in history at York University

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