There was a great essay in The New Yorker a few weeks back, written by Bee Wilson, titled The Last Bite: Is the World’s Food System Collapsing?.
For Malthus, famine was inevitable because the math of human existence did not add up: the means of subsistence grew only arithmetically (1, 2, 3), whereas population grew geometrically (2, 4, 8). By this analysis, food production could never catch up with fertility. Malthus was wrong, on both counts. In his treatise, Malthus couldn’t envisage any innovations for increasing yield beyond “dressing” the soil with cattle manure. In the decades after he wrote, farmers in England took advantage of new machinery, powerful fertilizers, and higher-yield seeds, and supply rose faster than demand. As the availability of food increased, and people became more prosperous, fertility fell.
Malthus could not have imagined that demand might increase catastrophically even where populations were static or falling. The problem is not just the number of mouths to feed; it’s the quantity of food that each mouth consumes when there are no natural constraints. As the world becomes richer, people eat too much, and too much of the wrong things—above all, meat.
As of 2006, there were eight hundred million people on the planet who were hungry, but they were outnumbered by the billion who were overweight.
Michael Pollan writes that the food business once lamented what it called the problem of the “fixed stomach”—it appeared that demand for food, unlike other products, was inelastic, the amount fixed by the dimensions of the stomach itself, the variety constrained by tradition and habit. In the past few decades, however, American and European stomachs have become as elastic as balloons, and, with the newly prosperous Chinese and Indians switching to Western diets, much of the rest of the world is following suit. “Today, Mexicans drink more Coca-Cola than milk,” Patel reports. Roberts tells us that in India “obesity is now growing faster than either the government or traditional culture can respond,” and the demand for gastric bypasses is soaring.
Driven by our bottomless stomachs, Roberts argues, the modern economy has reduced food to a “commodity” like any other, which must be generated in ever greater units at an ever lower cost, year by year, like sneakers or DVDs. But food isn’t like sneakers or DVDs. If we max out our credit cards buying Nikes, we can simply push them to the back of a closet. By contrast, our insatiable demand for food must be worn on our bodies, often in the form of diabetes as well as obesity.
Cheap food, in these books, is the enemy. Roberts complains that “the attributes of food that our economic system tends to value and to encourage”—like cheapness—“aren’t necessarily the attributes that work best for the people eating the food, or the culture in which that food is consumed, or the environment in which it is produced.”
So, yes, cheap food can be nasty, not to mention bad for farmers and the environment. Yet it has one great advantage that neither Patel nor Roberts fully grapples with: people can afford to buy it.
Given that the current food economy is so strongly driven by appetite, it does seem odd that so much of the desire is for such squalid and unsatisfying things. If we are going to squander the world’s resources, shouldn’t it at least be for the sake of rare and splendid edibles? Yet much of what is now eaten in the West is not food so much as, in Michael Pollan’s terms, stuff that’s merely “foodish.” From the nineteen-eighties onward, many traditional foods were removed from the shelves and in their place came packages of quasi-edible substances whose selling point was nutritional properties (No cholesterol! Vitamin enriched!) rather than taste