23 June 2010
I originally found this book while working on a project in my graduate program concerning food transportation security. Paarlberg only tangentially examines food transportation but I was intrigued by his cogent analysis of the role of food in public policy. So I decided to read the book in my own time. Though not explicitly the author's intention, this book is an excellent, well-thought response to Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (which I reviewed here a few months ago). Examining the world's food supply from a holistic point of view, Paarlberg rebuts some of the growing criticism of the Green Revolution and provides evidence to support the positive aspects of the modern food industry.
Organic food, locally grown food, no processed foods, no GMOs, no food industry...this seems to be the trend for many Americans. In addition to these emerging concerns and movements, there remains the ever-present debates about farm subsidies, rural America, ethanol, corn, etc. Food and politics are closely intertwined, as Paarlberg repeatedly notes in this book. Thinking about food requires a careful examination of political and economic institutions as well. Structuring the book as a question and answer session with his readers, the author seeks to highlight how economics and politics play a role in what we eat. And though he seeks to be relatively unbiased, Paarlberg does try to push against some of the growing criticism against free trade, technological enhancement of food products, and agribusiness.
The evidence Paarlberg marshals in favor of the "postmodern farmer" is significant. The Malthusian famine has never occurred despite an incredible explosion in the world's population. And with the exception of a number of African nations and totalitarian regimes, famines are extremely rare at all. The reason is enormous productivity gains by the world's farmers. New crop variations, farming methods, pesticides, and (most importantly for Paarlberg) the invention of synthetic fertilizers all helped to dramatically increase yield per acre planted. Environmentalists or other groups who emphasize the negative aspects of these technological advancements fail to grasp that without these tools, the world's population could not be sustained. Or, in order to sustain such a large population, more and more environmentally sensitive land would have to be used for food production, seriously exacerbating problems such as erosion and deforestation.
Moving beyond the production of food, Paarlberg critically examines the consumption of food, particularly in the developed world. In this vein, the author and Michael Pollan see eye to eye. Subsidies and advertising techniques of many food companies have helped to promote an obesity epidemic. Paarlberg argues (rightly I believe) that obesity should be considered as serious a problem as malnutrition. Both create enormous public costs and reduce the quality of living. Developed countries are not doing enough to address the growing epidemic, in part because public officials do not have adequate tools to remedy the issue.
While I appreciate Paarlberg's economic rebuttal to Pollan, I remain unconvinced at the individual level. Not all food is created equally, and that which we ingest cannot feasibly be considered as simply any other commodity that has benefited from global free trade. The external costs of many agricultural practices have never been fully internalized, leading to persistent overproduction and tragedies of the commons. It seems appropriate too that developed countries start to act more aggressively to improve the quality of food production, for such improvements will not occur spontaneously through government action. Paarlberg's book would have benefited from a more comprehensive prognosis of the future of food politics, particularly in the US. I would also have appreciated better documentation of the sources for his evidence too. Still, I would recommend this book as a valuable supplement to ongoing debates about food subsidies, the obesity epidemic, international food trade, and food safety.