Paul Roberts: The End of Food

Part 1. Paul Roberts, veteran journalist, and author of The End of Food, and The End of Oil, speaks at the first ever, Organicology conference, in Portland, Oregon. The story he tells here is a cautionary tale. Modern science has created the industrial agriculture revolution, producing enormous benefits for society. Though over time, many of these very same benefits: lower costs of production, greater production yields, and greater efficiency through increased economies of scale, have led to serious systemic problems that threaten the entire agricultural system, perhaps even our planet.

Roberts, through his telling of the Thomas Jukes story of how antiobiotics became the miracle drug, a later discovery quite by accident, of its enormous value in treating farm livestock. This example serves as a good metaphor for science; the problems science solves are many, and enormous in value; so too, science introduces new perils, and sometimes, they too become substantial in significance. After decades, the problems inherent in industrial agriculture have become too big to ignore.

When you listen to Paul Roberts, think about food safety issues today. For example, the latest Salmonella outbreak from peanut butter, and peanut butter paste emanating from just one plant. Does this sound eerily familiar to his story about the recalled hamburger meat? Think about biotechnology (genetic engineering), do we understand the full implications of this new technology upon our food, its potential environmental consequences, or the full (long-term) effects upon public health? And think about the Green Revolution, the wonders that modern science brought to food production in developing countries of the world. Was the Green Revolution a boon for humanity, and a huge benefit toward reducing starvation and hunger throughout the world, or an ecological and cultural disaster, diminishing plant diversity, reducing soil fertility, creating water shortages, and more, as some leading scientists maintain.

Should we be trying to produce food in such quantities, and with such efficiencies of scale, that our production methods could equally apply to television sets and automobiles, as to our food supply?

Paul Roberts gives us a mouthful to think about, and a beginning framework for how to address these problems. The solutions will not come piecemeal, but must be systematically tackled; the whole enchilada is on the table.


  1. says

    Thanks, Keli! I really enjoyed listening to Paul Roberts, too. As he talked he shared stories that helped explain the predicament our food system is in – and helped make it understandable. If he ever travels to your area, I would recommend going to hear him speak. Have you read either of his books?

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