Nature Books for Kids
From instant coffee to breakfast cereal, an author takes a hard look at the costs of industrial-scale farming and the causes of a current global crisis.
The End of Food
By Paul Roberts
Houghton Mifflin, 390 pages, $26
Wander into any supermarket across the country, and the bounty you’ll find is almost overwhelming: glistening New Zealand apples and shiny Mexican melons, midwestern wheat transformed into box after box of cereal, flash-frozen fish caught in the Bering Sea. In the face of such abundance it seems absurd to imagine that our modern food economy might be fatally flawed. And yet, as the current global food crisis is starting to reveal, even to Americans completely disconnected from the production of our own sustenance, the system that feeds most of humanity is essentially balancing—and wobbling—on the edge of a steak knife.
The reasons are complex, but Paul Roberts, whose previous book was the bestselling The End of Oil, leads us briskly through them in his survey of the agro-industrial complex and its march toward potential apocalypse. Modern agricultural systems, Roberts concludes, are inherently unsustainable, not merely for the expanded population of tomorrow but even for those of us living and eating today.
All is not as it appears on the shelves at your local grocery. Perhaps the most telling sign of cracks in the current system is the “grotesque symmetry” of a planet with nearly a billion people suffering from malnutrition and a billion who are obese. (In the United States, where one in six children is malnourished, “the per-calorie costs of the two most common processed-food ingredients—starch and fat—have fallen faster than the per-calorie costs of less caloric ingredients, such as fresh fruit and vegetables,” which helps explain why obesity is increasingly associated with lower income levels.) As Roberts points out, the food industry has a stake in our continued gluttony: If we reduced our daily overall consumption by just 100 calories each, the U.S. food industry would lose between $31 billion and $36 billion.
But our halcyon days of plenty may be numbered. “After decades of all but drowning in excess food,” Roberts writes, “producers and consumers alike are waking up to the possibility of a food economy that is once again defined by scarcity.”
The rise of high-volume, large-scale industrial farming, where the game is to produce the most food for the lowest cost, has generated an industry dependent on environmentally malignant chemicals, herbicides, and farming practices. Arable land and fresh water are in shrinking supply. Our food, particularly meat, is increasingly vulnerable to emergent bacteria like E. coli O157:H7 and deadly viruses like avian flu. Much of what we eat is overprocessed and of questionable nutritional value. Climate change will bring yield-slashing droughts and pests and other plagues, just as exploding populations in developing countries are driving up demand for grain and meat.
As Roberts repeatedly warns us, it’s only going to get worse. Global meat consumption is ramping up to dangerous levels. “If the American level of meat consumption—about 217 pounds per person per year—were suddenly replicated worldwide,” he writes, “our total global grain harvest could support just 2.6 billion people—or less than 40 percent of the existing population, and barely a quarter of the ten billion expected by 2070.” In fact, the only way current grain supplies could support anywhere near 10 billion people is if everyone consumed meat at the Indian rate—about 12 pounds a year.
In other news, the rise of the mega-retailer, which is rapidly spreading into developing countries, has led to a marketplace in which, in one example, up to 50 percent of a farm’s produce harvest is aesthetically unacceptable for export—an extravagance that seems completely out of line with today’s supposed emphasis on efficiency. If you are a Kenyan farmer growing green beans intended for les supermarchés of France, you’d better make sure they’re stick-straight and 100 millimeters long. “So high are the costs of failure that the big export-oriented commercial farms now routinely overplant simply to ensure they’ll have enough acceptable product to make their promised deliveries—a practice that results in adequate supplies but is incredibly wasteful.”
Farming policies and subsidies throughout the past century shaped today’s food economy into a globalized network of monoculture in which bulk ingredients—corn, wheat, soy, beef—are grown in the country that can produce them most cheaply. This has left China, which puts enormous amounts of synthetic fertilizer to work swelling its yields, in control of vast amounts of the world’s base foodstuffs, like wheat gluten, ascorbic acid, and farmed fish (while at the same time, ironically, China imports 40 percent of the world’s soybeans and will need to double that in less than a decade). This is a scary proposition, considering China’s proven inability to keep poison out of its food exports: “A breakdown or other bottleneck in China,” Roberts writes, “will quickly disrupt a global food supply chain that often has few alternative sources.”
Such a breakdown is, in Roberts’s view, all but inevitable—and the doomsday scenarios he describes in the book’s epilogue are enough to set even the calmest reader to stockpiling supplies and searching real estate listings for Armageddon homesteads. Unfortunately, few solutions seem to be at hand. Organic farming, for all its growing popularity, is not necessarily sustainable. On the other end of the spectrum, biotechnology comes with its own problems. For one thing, most transgenic foods depend on expensive inputs like herbicides, which means developing countries often can’t afford them. A “blue revolution” in fish farming could help provide much-needed protein, but at the moment much of aquaculture is an environmental nightmare (with its heavy use of antibiotics, its potential to pollute the oceans, and its preposterous reliance on overfishing of wild species to feed the farmed stocks).
Roberts’s fairly uninspiring suggestions are regionalized farming, a kind of middle ground between industrialized agriculture and local farming that he believes could be efficient yet sustainable. He also advocates increased research dollars for anything that could make “alternative” food production a truly feasible alternative. Unfortunately, “most strategies for reforming the food system rely heavily on ‘thinking’ consumers,” a commodity that’s often in short supply.
Despite its lack of satisfying solutions, Roberts’s book is an excellent assessment of our current predicament and a captivating history of how we reached this point. We learn, for instance, that instant coffee was invented as a marketing ploy: a “glutted” coffee market left the industry pleading with Nestlé to somehow increase demand, sending the company in search of an ultra-convenient product to lure consumers. And that “snacking now accounts for nearly half of all ‘eating occasions’ ” in the United States, where companies scramble to introduce products that “can be consumed one-handed,” like Skippy’s peanut butter Squeeze Stix, ideal for those too pressed for time to use a knife. Roberts even manages to make U.S. farm policy interesting, by showing its domino effect on the whole world’s food production.
Ultimately, though, Roberts’s bleak conclusions in The End of Food may leave many readers lost in the supermarket, too scared to make a purchase. “It is clear,” he writes, “not only that the modern system of food production will be more and more prone to disruptions but also that there are no entities, public or private, with the capacity to prevent those disruptions.”
Hillary Rosner, who wrote the book review in the September-October issue, is a regular Audubon contributor.
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Why I Came West
By Rick Bass
Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $24
Rick Bass is tired. Though his writing still breathes with earthy richness and maneuvers with sinuous turns, Bass is exhausted from a life of advocacy. “I can’t go on, I must go on,” he writes toward the end of this, his 23rd book and a culmination of many of his other works. “The road never ends, but the heart for battle wears out.” You can’t blame Bass: He’s spent more than two decades fighting for wilderness protection in his beloved Montana valley, the Yaak, and his tone is, thus, tinged slightly with regret: “All I ever wanted to do was write short stories. I did not set out or desire to enter a territory where public employees and elected officials focused on me as the source of their fears, their ills, their woes.” Bass’s elegy to lost time, lost passions, and particularly lost wilderness cannot overshadow his masterful prose. As weary as he may feel, Bass still clearly finds joy in the woods, hiking silently in a grizzly’s unseen presence. And his descriptions of the Yaak—“Salamanders and ice; frogs and glaciers . . . twined together up here, a glorious thrumming creation”—still sound the clarion call for conservation. Bass can’t help the advocacy (there’s a “How You Can Help” section in the back); nor can we help but be inspired by him.—Alexa Schirtzinger
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Central Park in the Dark:
More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife
By Marie Winn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 Pages, $25
In Central Park in the Dark, Marie Winn and her band of fellow naturalists take readers into the world’s most famous urban park at night to investigate the nocturnal animals and insects hidden from those of us who value sleep. Winn and “the Central Park Mothers”—so-called because they attract, photograph, and identify moths—represent the best tradition of amateur naturalists, whose investigations are motivated by a sense of adventure and insatiable curiosity. The Mothers are not just mothers; they are also birders, batters, owlers, sluggers, ratters, and botanists who can identify bats and tell you the fly-out times for the park’s owls. Members rouse one another out of bed (although it isn’t clear that any of them actually sleep) for wee-small-hours adventures. “I was half asleep at 10:30 when the telephone rang. Jimmy seemed to be shouting—I had to hold the phone away from my ear: ‘Get right over here! We’ve got the most unbelievable moth!’ I threw some clothes over my nightgown. Where’s my pocketbook? Flashlight. Close-focus binoculars. I was still racing around the house grabbing things when the phone rang again. Jimmy, his voice at a normal level now: ‘Don’t bother coming. She’s gone.’ Aargh, as they say in the comic strips.” The book is, in part, about Winn, whose Red-Tails in Love chronicled the life of Pale Male, Central Park’s audacious celebrity red-tailed hawk. Never holding to a straight path, Winn’s tale is chockablock full of scientific, personal, and curious asides. She may even inspire you to forgo a night or two of REM sleep to explore the nocturnal world on your own.—Wayne Mones
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The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers
By Bryan Christy
Twelve, Hachette Book Group USA, 241 pages, $24.99
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Chip Bepler knew he couldn’t do much about habitat destruction or many of the other threats to wildlife. But he figured illegal animal trafficking was a menace worth tackling. Working from the agency’s overtaxed Miami office, Bepler staked his career on his quest to bag Michael Van Nostrand, this country’s kingpin reptile smuggler. Magazine writer and lawyer Bryan Christy narrates the chase, delivering a barreling tale replete with heroes and their nemeses. Christy uncoils the unseemly history and global reach of the illicit reptile trade while shedding light on the overburdened federal agents, prosecutors, and imperfect regulations charged with containing the black market dealings. Van Nostrand is particularly adept at exploiting these circumstances. Though he’s not above stuffing rare Timor pythons in his shorts before strolling through customs, Van Nostrand and his network of accomplices also employ far more elaborate schemes. In one, they exploit legal loopholes and launder paperwork to pass protected species, such as frilled dragons and Indian star tortoises, right under inspectors’ helpless noses. The real fault isn’t as clear-cut, however. Fanatical collectors and trendy-pet seekers, greedy store owners, and even competitive zookeepers sustain a market for exotic snakes and their brethren. “The animal business is a lint screen for human vices,” writes Christy. After reading The Lizard King, you may view pet shops in a new light.—Jessica Leber
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