Friday, June 20, 2008

Paul Roberts Speaks in Seattle on "The End of Food"

I vowed that, once I got back to Seattle, I would take greater advantage of this city's intellectual offerings. Less drinking, more thinking. I made good on that promise last night by going to hear Paul Roberts speak at Seattle Town Hall about his new book, The End of Food.

Today's Solutions Becoming Tomorrow's Problems?

From the reviews I'd read, Roberts' book sounded like little more than a re-capitulation of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Whether consciously or not, Roberts laid out immediately how his work differed. His curiosity lay, he said, in researching how our current food system grew from the seeds of seemingly fortunate accidents. He cited some fishermen in the 1940s who noticed that the fish they were catching were getting bigger every year. Given that they were fishing downstream from a pharmaceuticals company, this concerned them. They alerted the company, who assigned biologist Thomas Jukes to ferret out the solution. It turns out the company had been dumping the mash used in making Tetracycline - an antibiotic - into the river. Jukes correctly hypothesized that the antibiotics were killing gut bacteria in the fish, which freed up calories that were normally diverted to immune system functions. Tada - bigger fish.

The rest is history: Jukes' discovery led to slaughter operations across the country feeding Tetracycline feed to their livestock to create cheap supplies of large meat.

At the time, Roberts emphasizes, this was a good thing. It was shortly after WWII; there was a meat shortage in the US, and hunger worldwide. These weren't "bad people"; these were good people making what seemed like good decisions that ended up having unintended consequences. (On the other hand, Jukes was known for his anti-environmentalist and libertarian streak, having defended the use of DDT in the 60s. Jukes defended the use of antibiotics in feed at late as 1980, crying that if it were truly a harmful practice the market would eventually sort it out. Like many of his ilk, Jukes couldn't accept that the market does a shitty job of accounting for secondary consequences.)

Roberts used this story to pronounce two insights: (1) yesterday's solutions have become today's problems; and (2) we mustn't let today's solutions become tomorrow's problems.

Corn Ethanol and Slaughterhouses

Roberts gave two examples of how today's solutions are becoming tomorrow's problems. The first was "biofuels" - by which he meant not all biofuels, but specifically corn ethanol. When the government began paying a $1.50 subsidy on bushels of corn to divert more of that resource into ethanol production, it contributed to today's crop price problems. Roberts refuses to believe that our quadrupling of corn ethanol production has had minimal effect on crop prices.

I lean toward believing Roberts. I'm more convinced by Michael Grunwald's article in Time, where he points out that "[t]he grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year. Harvests are being plucked to fuel our cars instead of ourselves." We need to switch rapidly to alternative modes of transport and to denser urban populations - not find new paths to "cheap gas". (Note: Grunwald says we've quadrupled our production of ethanol. I swear that Roberts said "quadrupled". Not sure who's right. It's a staggering increase either way.)

The second example brought Roberts back to antibiotics. Companies are now feeding less antibiotics to the captives in their CAFOs. This means the animals are smaller - i.e., are "yielding" less. (And yes, I find it disturbing to talk about another living creature in terms of its "yield".) But the machines that dice 'em and slice 'em are expecting larger animals. The result: more fecal contamination in our meat.

So Why Not Go Vegetarian, Mr. Roberts?

The current system was devised to be "scalable." But that's a laugh, says Roberts. He points to the 2007 beef recall by Topps Foods. Because a single batch of e. coli-contaminated beef got into our food supply, this massive distributor had to go out of business. Forget environmental sustainability, says Roberts - that's not even economically sustainable!

Unfortunately, like Michael Pollan and others, Roberts makes a great implicit case for going vegetarian or vegan - but is unwilling to make it explicitly. He did call on us to reduce our meat consumption, eliminating meat from our diet at least three days out of the week. Three cheers for that. But during the Q&A session, he derided the idea of using the currenty food crisis to promote one's own "ideology."

This was the same speaker who, 20 minutes before, had his audience audibly groaning as he described how Tyson and other large chicken distributors used the process of "mechanical separation" to turn chickens into a slurry, which was then shaped into patties and nuggets. The thought of turning living beings into Soylent White was obviously distasteful, both to him and his audience. So why defend it? Why not go for The Full Monty? Roberts was fully aware that "manufacturing" (ugh) a pound of beef requires 20 lbs. of grain - what he called "an enormous storehouse of calories locked away" inside of animals. If ceasing to eat meat three days a week is good, then ceasing to eat meat seven days a week is better, no? In the absence of an assertive defense of meat-eating, Roberts' refusal to endorse vegetarianism for those ready to make that leap rang hollow.


As for solutions, Roberts didn't have much of anything new to add. But who does? The real solutions lay in action, not in speaking or writing.

One interesting observation he did have was that we needed to find ways to make farming fun again. Farmers love to farm; they quit not because they hate it, but because agribusiness has rendered farming both dull and unprofitable. He lauded Farmer's Markets as being one of the only means that urban kids can have to meet real farmers, and learn more about how their food is made and where it comes from.

Roberts begged us all to learn to cook for ourselves - a recommendation I can't second strongly enough. He scoffed at the idea that we don't have time to cook. How can that be true, he said, when the average American watches TV four hours a day - some of which consists of watching cooking shows?! If you want time to cook, he scoffed, it's easy: spend less time watching other people do it.

I'm ashamed to say that, despite having lived in this city previously for eight years, this was my first time at a Town Hall event. It won't be my last. Although he was something of a rapid-fire speaker, Roberts was still fun to listen to - a knowledgeable author who could rattle off interesting facts and insights effortlessly. It's heartening to see folks like him fighting the good fight.