Author: 'End of Food' May Be Near
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, there's much talk about Barack Obama as the first potential African-American president, but he is also a member of a new generation of leaders who openly talks about his biracial background. We'll talk about biracial identity in a moment.
But first we want to talk about food. We've been reporting on the unrest and hardship caused by spiraling food prices around the world, but now some wonder whether wealthy countries like the U.S. are being faced with a different kind of food crisis, one of food quality and safety. Right now the U.S. is in the middle of a 17-state salmonella outbreak linked to raw red tomatoes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since mid-April, 167 people have been infected and almost two dozen hospitalized due to infection via salmonella linked to tomatoes. Fast food chains, restaurants, and supermarkets are fast pulling tomatoes from the shelves. But this is just the latest in a series of food safety scares. In South Korea for example, tens of thousands demonstrated in opposition to the reimportation of American beef, citing concerns about Mad Cow Disease. So it begs the question, is our food safe? Here to talk about this is Paul Roberts; he is author of the new book "The End of Food." He's here with me in Washington. Welcome. Thank you for stopping in.
Mr. PAUL ROBERTS (Author, "The End of Food"): Good to be here.
MARTIN: First of all, that's a pretty dire title. Are we literally running out food or are we running out of good food?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, I think, you know, the title really is a couple of levels, but one is that we're running out of confidence in the food system. You were alluding to, you know, a lot of concerns about safety and quality, but there is definitely now we're in a food price crisis. And we're being forced to consider, you know, are we going to be able to feed ourselves going forward and, you know, we've been here before. We've faced food crises before. We've always come through with technology and we will again have new technologies. Transgenic food is the, you know, the star right now, but we're also going to face new constraints. We're looking at energy costs. I mean right now, you got to consider this is a food system designed for oil at 15 dollars a barrel and the prospect of oil at 150 to 200 really raises some questions about long-term sustainability, and you throw in higher fertilizer costs, climate, water scarcity, a lot of questions that we haven't had to face for some time, so it's kind of this generation's first food crisis, at least in this country, and we're really still getting our heads around it.
MARTIN: And I want to talk about the immediate sort of news story, the salmonella outbreak, in a moment, and how this connects to your thesis, but I want to hear more about, you know, your overall thesis. You know, modern agriculture is considered one of the triumphs of the modern age. We have had more food, more variety at lower prices, than ever before. To the degree that there are sort of dislocations, it's generally perceived as bad luck, because you know you live in a part of the world where you've just - you have bad luck, like you have cyclones, or poor local decision making. What's wrong with that way of thinking about it?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, those factors are still playing a huge part. I mean you can look at the dysfunction in Myanmar, formerly Burma, or you can look at, you know, distribution problems in sub-Saharan Africa. Those are clearly issues, but sort of on top of that now is this larger question of, you know, we've got a population that's not only getting larger, but its diets are changing. It's getting richer. It's getting rich enough to eat meat. I mean that's really what it comes down to, and you look at China, you look at India - these are traditionally vegetarian cultures that are now wealthy enough to eat meat. And we all thought of them as, wow, they're philosophically inclined to eat less meat! But it turns out they were just poor. As they're eating more meat, now we're forced to consider the meat equation. It takes eight pounds of grain to make a pound of meat. And so you start thinking, well, if we're going to double our meat intake globally over the next, you know, half century, that means another billion tons of grain every year, 50 percent above what we're doing now, and we're really not sure where all that grain's going to come from.
You know, and again, we're dealing with, you know, we don't have the acres to just plow up endlessly anymore so the idea is well, let's increase the number of bushels we get per acre, that's what we've always done in the past, but again, we're running into constraints. Fertilizer costs, you know, look at synthetically produced nitrogen, you know, you have to keep in mind that 40 percent of the calories that we produce on this planet come from synthetically produced nitrogen. And the idea that we're going to, you know, go through the next half century with nitrogen costs that are four and five and six times above historic trends is breathtaking. And you can go through the list of inputs, you know, that you need, you know, the ingredients that you need to make food, whether it's nitrogen, oil, water, a stable climate, and you keep - and you keep ending up with question marks: how are we going to do this?
MARTIN: So the big issue for you is meat. We, as we get richer as a population, we eat more meat, and the more meat we eat the more it distorts the food economy. Is that about right?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, it is, and what's so perverse and ironic about that is that meat has been sort of the - meat was the star of raising nutritional standards over thousands of years. I mean the more meat you ate as a population, the healthier you were, the bigger you got physically, so if you could increase a population's meat intake, that was the first step toward really improving their food security. Now you come to a place like the United States or Europe, and clearly we've passed that threshold. You know, we're eating on average about 227 pounds of meat per person a year. That's way above the global average obviously. It's way above what we need so clearly, you know, we've passed that point.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with Paul Roberts. He's the author of "The End of Food." So connect the dots for me, if you would, to this current crisis, this current salmonella outbreak? That doesn't seem to have to do with meat, or does it?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, it does in the sense that it's really the same model for, you know, creating the food, whatever it is, meat or produce, creating it in mass quantities as cheaply as you possibly can and then distributing it as fast as you can. I mean if you think about it, the reason that you and I can go to the supermarket and get vegetables in the middle of winter is that we've got this system that can move, you know, produce from Chile to a supermarket in D.C. or Seattle, you know, in 48 hours.
The downside of that is that if a pathogen breaches the food system's walls, which it's doing, you know, with more frequency, it can be, you know, in your home and in your stomach before the health authorities even know there's an outbreak. And that is really what we're facing whether we're talking about meat, produce, or any other perishable foods, is that we've created a system that can move things quickly, but it can also move bad things quickly as well.
MARTIN: It's like parasites are stowaways.
Mr. ROBERTS: Right. They're exploiting our system. They're taking a free ride and that's really the, I think the flaw of the system is that we thought we could produce food like any other thing like a car or a TV set, big factories, you know, high output, low per-unit costs, fast distribution, but what works with cars, you know, reaches a point where it doesn't work with food and that's where we're paying the price right now.
MARTIN: What's the way forward out of this kind of terrible cycle that you've identified that you believe that we're in? Obviously more upper income Americans are trying to buy more organic products, both produce and meat, less meat, more fish, more chicken. What about those options? What about that?
Mr. ROBERTS: That's great, but I think what beneath that is a greater awareness. It's consumers saying wow, the food system isn't near as safe, isn't near as high quality as I thought it was. I got to wake up, I got to start educating myself. I got to start realizing the government and the industry aren't going to take care of me anymore, all right. That's step one. Step two is then taking action that's going to improve your position in that food system so changing...
MARTIN: But how are you going to do that? I mean, the spinach was the last sort of food scare where people thought that they were opting for fresh produce as a way to be healthier, and it sickened some people and actually killed some people, so what's the idea? That everybody should grow spinach in their own backyard if you have a backyard? And what about people who don't have a backyard?
>Mr. ROBERTS: If you have a backyard - that's right. I think that you're probably going to have to start investigating what your options are for eating more locally. Now local isn't going to be the total solution here, but it's got to be a piece of it. I think for a lot of people starting cooking, and I don't want to get all Martha Stewart here, but you have to start cooking so that, you know, you force yourself to pay attention to the food that's coming into the house. We used to do that regularly, obviously, you know, in this country and everywhere else, and we've given that up. And in giving that up we've essentially outsourced that whole, you know, process and thinking about food to an industry that doesn't share our values. I mean it really comes down to that.
So taking that role back again is a first step, but recognizing that this - it took a long time to get into this mess, we're not going to solve this overnight, and I think that's what critical. You know, things that are going to work in the United States aren't going to work overseas. We recognize, for example, that cheap meat, there's a huge cost to cheap meat. You know, it's not as safe, it's not as nutritious. It has all sorts of environmental impacts. So there's a consensus emerging that we need to go back to, or come up with a different way to raise meat, but one of the impacts of that will be higher costs. Now, that's the last thing you want to be telling consumers right now, as food prices are high. Now, in this country we can afford to pay more for our meat if we had to. If you go to a place like sub-Saharan Africa, or China, they can't and so you are going to need to come up with solutions that are global and yet take into account regional differences. And that's a huge challenge and I think it is something that policy makers are just getting their heads around.
MARTIN: Can you put the genie back into the bottle? I mean one of the issues you raise is development. The more land you develop, the more arable land you take - the more land you take out of agricultural use, the more pressure there is to produce more per acre, to produce more grain, to produce more meat per acre, and that has all kinds of negative environmental impacts. Can you put the genie back in the bottle? Once you've taken land out of agricultural use, can you put it back in? Because one of the arguments you make is that local distribution, local production is more sustainable and healthier. But can you do that in a country that is sort of rapidly getting paved over?
Mr. ROBERTS: That's right, well, if you've turned a - if you've turned farmland into a golf course, you could conceivably plant food back on that golf course. The point, though, is the land values for that, you know, that land. The price is simple too high to farm on it, and that's what happens around urban areas. I think, you know, more fundamental issue maybe here is that we are trying to hold - we want to fix the system, but hold onto what we have. We don't want to have to eat less meat, for example. But the truth is that if we were to reduce our meat intake by even 25 percent - you know, if Americans were, that would take such a load off - given the ratio of grain needed to raise each pound of meat, that would take such a load off the system. That would free up a lot of excess grain that is now going into meat. That's probably where the solution lies. It's reducing our impact by reducing the intensity, if you will, the caloric intensity of what we are eating. It's a tough thing to bring up. My argument has always been, don't be preaching to people about this. Don't be telling them how to eat, but lay out the economic argument. Show them what the ramifications of their eating decisions and let them come to it. I think people will. They are already understanding they want to reduce their household food expenses. They are understanding they want to improve their health. They don't need, necessarily, to see this as an environmental crusade. But that would be the - that would be the impact of reducing meat intake.
MARTIN: Can I ask you what you eat?
Mr. ROBERTS: I eat nothing but air. No, I have really reduced my red meat intake. I'm not a vegetarian and - but I eat a lot less meat than I used to, and you know when I come back from the grocery store, I look at the things that I'm buying. I look at each item and I ask myself, how would I produce this if I had to? And how, you know, how would I get this? How would I substitute this if this weren't available? If it were suddenly twice or three times as expensive? And it's a really sobering experience. You should try that. You should look at everything and go, wow, I don't know where this is produced or how it's produced, or what I would do without it. You know, but that's the kind of thing people...
MARTIN: You must be really fun at a dinner party.
Mr. ROBERTS: My kids hate me. They say, look Dad, you know write a book about a happy thing, like the beginning of cake.
MARTIN: OK, well, maybe that will be the next book? Paul Roberts is the author of "The End of Food." His previous book, "The End of Oil" was a bestseller. He joined us here in our Washington studio. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. ROBERTS: It was a pleasure.