The End of Food

Paul Roberts’s new book arrives with grimly perfect timing. After years in which caloric abundance had seemed like the new norm for much of the world, skyrocketing prices for staples like corn and rice are causing food riots in countries in both hemispheres. Analysts have blamed many factors — increasing use of corn for ethanol, growing meat consumption in Asia, drought in Australia — but it’s been difficult to discern whether we’re seeing a momentary blip or a future of growing shortages. Wide ranging and deeply researched, The End of Food argues that the global food system is dangerously overstretched and, failing a dramatic change, will be unable to feed a population expected to grow by several billions in coming decades. The title refers to the conclusion of the “brief, near-miraculous period during which the things we ate seemed to grow only more plentiful, more secure, more nutritious, and simply better with each passing year.” Roberts, author of The End of Oil, travels the globe and synthesizes staggering amounts of information to show how this age of plenty has shaped our way of life, and why that way of life is unsustainable. Neo-Malthusians have often been embarrassed by history; in 1968, Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb foretold imminent mass starvation even as modern farming practices were increasing agricultural yields worldwide. But in his sober (and sometimes plodding) way, Roberts makes a convincing case that this time, innovation may not be enough, and that food supplies could become as contested and insecure as those of every other kind of fuel.