REVIEW: The End of Food
Less nutritious and more toxic
A farmer-writer-raconteur documents the destruction of good food, but falters in showing the surging efforts of those who are working to do things right.

By Pamela Irving

Details:

The End of Food: How the food industry is destroying our food supply-and what you can do about it
Thomas F. Pawlick
Barricade Books, 200
ISBN 1-56980=302-8
256 pp
$16.95

Pawlick outlines examples, from the diminishing vitamin content in food, which is being replaced by non-food products such as vitamin supplements; and increased toxicity in foods with antibiotics, dioxins and GMOs.

August 9, 2007: The End of Food begins with an indestructible tomato, a tomato that cannot be smashed when thrown against a wall, ripened when set on a windowsill, or eaten in any form with any pleasure. This is a tomato as hard as a tennis ball—the perfect symbol of everything wrong with today’s industrial food system. These are tomatoes that are no longer real, but merely “shelf stable” products.

Real tomatoes, like most real foods, are succulent, juicy, nutrient-dense and splash open when bitten. The End of Food is like a real tomato, so take care when indulging. While you might get squirted with a bit of colorful language and rhetoric, you will enjoy the experience. If you are a foodie, farmer, agriculture writer or organizer, you will find tantalizing bytes of “food for thought.” If you are new to food-systems analysis, there is plenty here to persuade you of the evils of the industrial food system without leaving you completely hopeless.

Tom Pawlick is an agriculture journalist and journalism professor, original editor of Harrowsmith magazine, and present-day organic farmer in Ontario. He has the bona fides, but if you prefer that your reading material be dry and linear, you may find him a little rich and meandering. Pawlick writes with the swagger of a self-styled anarchist. He loves to tell tangential stories, and seems to relish the swipes he takes at the corporate agenda.

Underneath the bellicosity, though, he does his research, arming the reader with citations and resources. (He says Rodale Institute publications are excellent.) Pawlick relies heavily on studies done in Canada and the United Kingdom that are relevant to American readers and trends because, according to the cover notes, “food production lobbyists [in the United States] have fought hard against this kind of research.” There is no index, a major weakness which should be easily remedied in further print editions.

How bad can food get?

The first three chapters are devoted to the two main premises of his End of Food thesis—that nutritional content of food is declining and toxicity in food is increasing. In Chapter 4, “The X files,” Pawlick states his thesis outright:

“It would be daunting… to try to plot the hundreds of foods… and nutrients in them, mathematically on one graph. If we could, these trends—declining nutrition and increasing toxicity—would form an X and the point where the two trend lines intersect, the crux of that X would be a point of no return, the point where food has minimal nutritional value and serves chiefly as a toxic poison, the point, literally, of the End of Food. We are fast approaching such an intersection.” (p.79)

If you think this picture is too bleak, don't throw the book—like a bad tomato—against the wall just yet. Read on. In the same chapter, Pawlick provides a quick synopsis of the rise of industrial agriculture based on “efficiency,” and the concomitant decline of the family farm while delving briefly into the positive impact of organic farming practices. Variables involved in food production that can affect nutritional content are given emphasis, such as variety, when to plant, how to harvest, how to process, and storage methods. (p.96)

Tomatoes fit for machines

Using the tomato as both example and narrative object, Pawlick takes us on an audit trail from seed to sale and explores the role of industrialization in the diminution of food choices. He links the dwindling number of tomato varieties grown to corporate labor practices post-World War II. Large growers in California relied on a pool of cheap immigrant labor and grew varieties that responded well to being handpicked. In the 1960s, United Farm Workers of America organized farm workers to demand fair wages. The grower companies responded by researching and developing a mechanized harvester.

With mechanized harvesting, ripening must occur uniformly. Plant breeders researched tougher, harder varieties (p.99) that were easier to harvest mechanically without damage and traveled well during shipping. These new varieties are picked at the “mature green or breaker” phase—just when the red is starting to show and artificially ripened in ethylene-producing “ripening rooms.” All of these variables result in fewer overall varieties of tomatoes, more of them tasteless and less nutrient- dense.

Pick a food, any food, Pawlick argues, and you will find trends of industrialization that lead to decreased nutritional content and increased toxicity. There are many factors that lead to increased toxicity in industrialized foods, but pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, play a major role. He quotes Cynthia Barstow, author of The Eco-Foods Guide (p.107):

“..the use of conventional farm pesticides… increased from about 400 million pounds in the mid-1960s to nearly 850 million pounds around 1980, primarily because of widespread adoption of herbicides in crop production. Since that time usage has decreased somewhat, ranging from a low of 658 million pounds in 1987 to 806 million pounds in 1996.”

So I am half-way through the book and my palate is hungering for something more positive and tasty—when am I going to hear the good news? Not yet, it seems. In Chapter 5, “Collateral Damage,” I read about more undesirable impacts of industrial farming:

“…pollution, soil degradation, wildlife habitat destruction, waste of fresh water resources, loss of biodiversity and threats posed by introduced or “exotic” species including those produced via... gene manipulation.” (p.124)

And in Chapter 6, he jumps to Stalin’s collectivization of the rural farming class. Pawlick alleges that thousands of farmers were shot or arrested as enemies of the Bolshevik revolution’s objective to organize society on a mass production basis. He parallels Stalin’s purges with the similar – albeit less brutal – fate of North America’s family farms, subsumed by the industrial model. In sum, vertical integration, international trade agreements and lack of market choices have resulted in ”Dark Satanic Barns.”

Okay, enough of “How industry is destroying our food supply.” I fear that more delicate readers may despair before arriving at the chapter on solutions to the world of bad food Pawlick has described so well. The first and simplest “act of subversion,” I am happy to report, is to “Plant a garden.” (p.185). Save seed, make your own preserves, grind your own flour, dry and store herbs. If you can, branch out to community gardens, and if you can't grow enough of your own food yourself, then buy at CSAs and farmers markets.

Tilting at windmills?

But can home gardening and local buying alone overthrow the evil empire? Pawlick says that by its very nature, the industrial food system cannot be reformed to produce healthy food. Short-term maximum profits supersede food quality.

Pawlick believes that grassroots campaigns—against GMOs for example, and the incredible success of food communities like Slow Food—have influence on the local, national and international level.

Pawlick ends where he begins: with the tomato and with the Slow Food movement, launched in Italy, “home of the world’s best pasta, tomatoes and red wines…Food is international, universal, but at the same time ought to be intensely local and individual, like the human beings who produce it.” (p. 219-220)

With all the build-up about the destruction of food, I expected more dramatic solutions. The solutions section is disappointing and a bit of a damp squib. “How tos” and organizing tips would be most welcome, such as how to organize local groups or single-issue campaigns, set short-term and long-term strategic goals, or how to advocate effectively.

If The End of Food was really half about seeking solutions, half of it—not a slim quarter—should have been devoted to building a better food system. Even if he is short on answers, Pawlick sounds the call to action well when he says: “We need to take back control of our own food supply, our own meals, and our own humanity.” (p221)