Book Reviews

Pantry Politics

With food shortages threatening global stability, we need to reorient food policy from quantity to quality.

By Adam Sheingate

Tagged AgricultureFood Policy

The End of Food By Paul Roberts • Houghton Mifflin • 2008 • 416 pages • $26

Somewhere in East Africa a new, virulent strain of fungus attacks the stalks of wheat plants, decimating millions of acres of farm land. Its spores carried by the winds, the fungus (or “rust”) crosses onto the Arabian Peninsula, eventually reaching Pakistan, India, and China. It wipes out three-quarters of the wheat crop in these countries, and Asian grain markets implode. Commodity prices reach record levels, and farmers respond with a planting spree. In the American Midwest, however, years of heavy fertilizer use and intensive crop production have depleted the soils so much that corn and wheat yields are falling. Rising temperatures, a product of global warming, lead to worsening insect infestations and crop damage, exacerbating short supplies. A powerful El Nino effect, another consequence of climate change, produces a succession of droughts and floods that further reduce grain production. As attempts by the United States and other food-exporting nations fail to calm global markets, rising prices and crop failures spark a humanitarian crisis. Food riots threaten to topple governments throughout the developing world. Millions of the poor from Central America migrate north to the United States. Africa is in the throes of a massive famine. East Asian economies grind to a standstill.

This is the scenario Paul Roberts describes in The End of Food, a book about a global food system on the brink of disaster. He details how our pursuit of high-output, low-cost food generates a host of pathologies and risks: third-world hunger, first-world obesity, food-borne pathogens like E. coli, soil erosion, depleted water tables, dead zones in our oceans, and global warming. Do not read this book before dinner.

Roberts joins the ranks of Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Eric Schlosser, whose stomach-turning Fast Food Nation evoked Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, on the leading edge of a renewed public consciousness about what we eat. Each week, consumers hear stories about tainted spinach, recalled beef, and, of course, obesity. The pinch of rising commodity prices is being felt at the supermarket. Concern about “food miles” is growing and more restaurants are appealing to “locavores” by sourcing many of their ingredients from nearby farms. The End of Food contributes to this growing public awareness by placing our industrial food system in a global context. This means more than simply pointing out that the asparagus we buy in January comes from Chile. Rather, the book is concerned with how precarious our global food economy actually is, and how the world’s taste for meat and sweet is unhealthy and unsustainable.

All this should be familiar to anyone who reads the headlines. As World Bank President Robert Zoellick recently put it, “Thirty-three countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices.” Riots have already struck countries as diverse as Egypt and Haiti; in the latter, some residents have taken to eating patties made of mud in order to fill their empty bellies. Last year, poor Mexicans took to the streets to protest the high cost of tortillas, an unintended consequence of America’s quick embrace of corn-based ethanol. We may be on the verge of a prolonged international crisis.

Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, books such as Roberts’s have the potential to move the public to action, prompting policymakers to either take notice or run the risk of being overtaken by events and miss the chance to ride the cresting wave of policy change. At a time when concern over food safety, childhood obesity, and rising food prices around the world is mounting, The End of Food will hopefully do just that. Unfortunately, showing us that our supermarket cornucopia is teetering on the brink of a human and environmental disaster, as Roberts does, will not by itself move us toward a safe and sustainable food system. Advocates of a new food policy must also shift how the public and policymakers in Washington understand the problem, addressing the concerns of producers and consumers alike.

How did we get here? The answer, in a kernel, is cheap corn. Since World War II, synthetic fertilizers and hybrid seeds have resulted in massive increases in agricultural productivity. Over the last 60 years or so, there has been a four-fold increase in corn production and yields. At 13 billion bushels, the 2007 corn crop was the largest in U.S. history. Over the same period, the real (inflation-adjusted) price of corn has dropped by two-thirds. Even with the ethanol-fueled boom in commodities this year, the price of corn is about where it was in real terms in the mid-1990s, the last time prices spiked, and it is well below the historic highs seen during the tight commodity markets of the 1970s.

Cheap corn makes for cheap high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient in everything from soda to bread and a likely culprit in the rising rates of obesity in this country. Cheap corn also makes cheap feed for livestock, and thus cheap meat produced on massive feedlots. These industrial feeding operations are a breeding ground for E. coli, which can spread quickly through the highly concentrated meat-processing industry. And cheap corn means narrow profit margins, prompting farmers to plant more acres, forgo crop rotation, and apply heavier applications of fertilizer and chemicals that deplete the soil of nutrients and damage our rivers and oceans. In other words, cheap corn is not really cheap at all. It is just that many of the costs of cheap corn have been externalized in the form of rising health care costs and environmental degradation.

Nor is this cheap food system sustainable. As countries develop economically, food consumption increases, especially for meat. Nowhere is this more visible than in China, where per capita meat production has more than doubled since 1990 and the number of cattle has increased six fold over the same period. Today, China is the largest meat producer in the world. Rising demand for meat increases demand for corn, supplies of which are further strained by the booming market for biofuels. Higher corn prices encourage farmers to plant more acres, including land that is highly erodible or otherwise marginal. And because this entire food system rests precariously on top of intensive corn production, even a minor change in the global climate or a single pest outbreak could have disastrous consequences. Roberts wonders, quite rightly, how long we can continue to feed the 6.5 billion people alive today, much less how we will feed the nine billion people expected to be alive 50 years from now.

In offering us this neo-Malthusian future of a global population crisis, The End of Food calls on us to rethink the central question of food security: How do we eradicate hunger worldwide? But, in this day and age, this is the wrong question to ask, because the inevitable answer risks propping up our flawed food policies of the last 60 years. In fact, time and again, defenders of the status quo and other vested interests have used the idea that intensive agriculture is the only way to feed a hungry world to dismiss any alternative to our heavily-subsidized, production-focused agriculture policies. As Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz once put it when environmentalists raised concerns about heavy fertilizer and pesticide use: “Before we go back to organic agriculture, somebody is going to have to decide what 50 million people we are going to let starve.”

Put differently, the traditional focus on food security is entirely a question of quantity: How do we ensure the world has enough to eat? But to deal with the food-related challenges we face today–environmental, health, and economic–we need to focus not only on quantity but on quality as well. We need to examine the foods we eat, how they are produced, and what the consequences of our food policies are for human health, economic growth, and the environment. For example, because calories derived from sugar and fat are much cheaper than those from fruits and vegetables, there are higher rates of obesity and diabetes among low-income Americans. Because our current food system is so industrialized, it has exposed us to more virulent strains of food-borne pathogens, such as E. coli, that place children and the elderly at risk. Intensive agriculture also has global implications, ranging from its effects on the environment and its contribution to global warming to the way farm subsidies in the United States and the European Union distort global markets and make it harder for the poor in developing countries to climb out of poverty.

Looking at the issues surrounding food production through the lens of quality brings together a number of rising public concerns–such as obesity, food safety, and climate change–that are usually considered separately, and as a result, may actually improve our ability to feed ourselves in the future. More importantly, it presents an opportunity for fundamental reform across these issue areas as disparate groups realize that their concerns are interconnected.

Any shift in how we think about the problem of food must start with the recognition that our modern food production system was not a simple miracle of the market, but the product of specific government policies. Since the Civil War, the federal government has supported agricultural research, constructed dams to irrigate the arid West, and built transportation links to move crops to market more easily. Since the 1930s, a complex system of subsidies has supported farmers’ incomes through a mixture of direct cash payments and government loans. As an entitlement, outlays for farm programs depend on the prices farmers receive. When commodity prices declined thanks to the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, farm supports ballooned to $30 billion a year. This year, with commodity prices at record highs, these subsidies will still cost American taxpayers around $16 billion.

Subsidies are critical for understanding our current problems as well as solving them. The government pays farmers on a per unit basis, usually dollars per bushel. This means that producers have an incentive to adopt intensive farming practices: The more they produce, the more money they receive from the government. Since the 1970s, most government supports have been in the form of direct cash payments that allow commodity prices to remain low while supporting farmers’ incomes. As a result, farmers can produce more and more of a subsidized crop like corn in the face of lower and lower prices. The system is a boon for food processors that use bulk commodities for inputs, as in the production of high-fructose corn syrup. And because the government simultaneously protects domestic cane and beet sugar producers by taxing cheaper foreign imports, corn is even more attractive as a sweetener. These subsidies may explain why high-fructose corn syrup, despite its negative health effects, is in nearly every processed food we eat, from Coca-Cola to sliced bread, and why most meat in the United States comes from cows who have dined on corn day in and day out.

The unpredictability of the market and the complexities of contemporary politics have made long-term subsidy reform notoriously difficult to achieve. In 1996, spurred by fiscal conservatives and aided by a spike in commodity prices, the Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation that would phase out subsidies over five years. When prices tanked in the late 1990s, however, Congress stepped in with several emergency measures that channeled an additional $28 billion in government payments to farmers between 1998 and 2001. In 2002, Congress reversed most of the 1996 reforms as part of an omnibus farm bill that authorized $94 billion for commodity programs over six years. Now, with the 2002 law set to expire, House and Senate conferees have settled on a $307 billion farm bill that will fund agricultural subsidies, conservation policies, nutrition programs, and agricultural research for the next five years. Despite efforts by several organizations and their allies for farm bill reform and record high commodity prices, the House and Senate proposals leave existing subsidy programs largely unchanged. This unwillingness to change has international consequences as well. The next farm bill will do little to unlock the Doha Round of multilateral trade talks, which are stalled on the issue of agricultural subsidies, because the United States and other developed agricultural exporters refuse to reform policies that distort markets and disadvantage farmers in developing countries.

Of course, it is no secret why farm-subsidy programs are so difficult to reform. The topic rarely makes news, except in those districts and states that rely on their payments and whose representatives control the relevant committees in Congress. According to an analysis conducted by the Environmental Working Group, 40 percent of all subsidies paid out between 2003 and 2005 went to districts represented by the 46 members of the House Agriculture Committee. And in an era of tightly contested presidential elections and closely balanced congressional parties, neither Democrats nor Republicans want to risk alienating farm state voters. We are left with an increasingly important area of public policy serving only a very select group of farmers at the expense of the broader public good.

Such a situation may seem depressing, causing anyone to reach for their favorite corn syrup-laden snack for comfort. But there is a way to break this logjam, and that is by letting farmers in on the dirty little secret of our farm policy: The current system isn’t so good for them either. Maximizing output requires the intensive use of industrial inputs like chemicals and machinery. The costs of these inputs narrow profit margins, prompting farmers to borrow heavily to pay for them in the hope that higher yields will keep them afloat. Over the last 60 years, many farmers have lost that bet. Since the great leap in productivity began in the 1940s, the number of farms in the United States has declined by more than 60 percent. When credit markets tightened in the 1980s, U.S. agriculture entered its worst crisis since the Depression, a highly concentrated version of the current sub-prime mortgage mess we are experiencing today. Farm foreclosures have been a steady feature of rural life in America ever since: In the last 25 years alone the number of farms has declined by more than 300,000.

Meanwhile, larger farms absorb the smaller ones, aided by government policies that reward increasing scale. Because subsidies pay by the bushel, the distribution of payments is heavily skewed. In 2006, the largest 10 percent of farms in terms of sales received more than half of all government payments. Nearly one million farms received nothing from the federal government in 2006, and of those farms that did receive a subsidy that year, almost 800,000 received an average payment of only $5,500. In other words, just over 125,000 farms pulled in two-thirds of all government payments. The unspoken truth of our farm policy is that it provides very little in the way of a benefit for the vast majority of American farmers.

It is by appealing to farmers who do not benefit from the current system–those working on the vast majority of our two million farms–that an alliance can be built with those who live beyond the farm states to shift our food policy from food quantity to food quality. A progressive urban-rural coalition would link farmers disadvantaged by the current system of subsidies with consumer, public health, and environmental groups engaged on issues of food safety and sustainability. Together, such a coalition could lobby to cap subsidies received by the largest farmers and require that any savings from a subsidy cap be used to support organic farming, encourage regional supply chains that link local producers to urban markets, or reward environmental stewardship practices–in short, subsidize quality instead of quantity. Of course, big farmers and their agribusiness allies will vigorously oppose such a change. But a coalition that includes rural voters could put enough constituency pressure on the senators and representatives who sit on the agriculture committees to overcome the advantages in organization and resources currently enjoyed by the larger, vested interests in farm policy.

We can look to Europe to see the potential power of this union between producer and consumer. There, environmentalists, consumer advocates, and small farmers have joined together in a broad movement to change European-wide policies. For example, they have met with dramatic success in opposing the introduction of genetically modified foods and crops in the European Union. Particularly after Mad Cow Disease weakened public support for policies that reward intensive production methods, the door opened for a new effort to reorient agricultural policy toward food safety and the environment, a process in which farmers and their representatives are playing a central role.

Europe is far from solving the problem entirely. There as well, agricultural subsidies are heavily skewed toward the largest farmers, albeit less so than in the United States. Agricultural negotiators for the European Union are just as obstinate when it comes to reaching agreement on cutting farm supports in multilateral trade talks. Nevertheless, the terms of the debate in Europe are changing. Reforms to the EU Common Agricultural Policy are gradually reorienting payments toward smaller producers. Wider concern about the effects of farm subsidies on developing countries is increasing public pressure on European leaders to break the deadlock in the stalled Doha Round. In Britain, the epicenter of the Mad Cow crisis, the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is now called the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. Although perhaps symbolic, the name change is a response to demands for public policies that serve a broader constituency than just farmers. Its goal, according to the ministry’s website, is to enable everyone to live within our environmental means by encouraging a safe and sustainable food supply.

The effects of the Mad Cow crisis in Europe illustrate how near-catastrophic events can open a window for policy change. Perhaps it will take a similar occurrence in this country before policymakers take notice of our fragile food system. Such an event may be closer than we think. Not only are commodity and food prices threatening to reignite inflation, but in March of this year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization announced that a dangerous new wheat rust, first identified in Uganda in 1999, had been detected in Iran and threatened 80 percent of the wheat varieties in Pakistan and India–precisely the scenario Roberts outlines.

Unfortunately, at the present moment, Congress is passing another farm bill laden with subsidies. If we want to avoid the doomsday scenario laid out in Roberts’ End of Food, then we need to change such outdated food policies immediately.

Read more about AgricultureFood Policy

Adam Sheingate is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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