The End of Food

I first heard about Thomas F. Pawlick’s The End of Food, when my editor at Gremolata interviewed him last year. I had forgotten that interview when I finally got around to reading the book, and ended up not liking the book very much, mostly for reasons that had nothing to do with Pawlick’s message and more with his writing style. Having just re-read the interview again, Pawlick’s message is more on point.

Offering a Canadian take on the current dire food production issues we’re facing in North America, Pawlick has a unique perspective in that he is both a scientist and a farmer and has worked with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association. If anyone knows exactly where their food comes from, it’s him.

Starting with a tough rubbery tomato that Pawlick tosses at the fence in his yard only to have it bounce back like a tennis ball, he beings to research exactly why our food doesn’t seem like food anymore. The results are downright terrifying, particularly the statistics he gives indicating how nutritionally deficient our fruits and vegetables are compared to the same product grown twenty or fifty years ago. Modern agriculture is focussed on marketability, not taste or nutrition, and the process of growing just about any food is now highly mechanized and chemically-intensive.

Pawlick’s research shows how the nutritional value of produce has decreased while the levels of fat and sodium have gone up astronomically, making conventionally-grown produce potentially unhealthy. The bulk of the text explaining this process can verge on intimidating to the average reader, however, as Pawlick easily slips into “science guy” mode. This was one of my main complaints about the book, because while it’s meant for the layperson, the terms and chemical explanations can often be overwhelming.

The other aspect of the book that put me off slightly is Pawlick’s lack of recognition that he’s preaching to the converted. In the section where he offers solutions to the problem, he makes a couple of references to city-dwellers not knowing about either what the term “organic” means, or that there is an international seed crisis in regards to the large seed companies that sell to the home gardener; heritage seeds are passed over in favour of the same strains of plants that produce the tough, pest-resistant varieties favoured by industrial farming conglomerates, and entire strains of food plants are being lost. Now, perhaps the majority of people don’t know the answer to either of these questions, but most of the people who care about food production issues enough to read Pawlick’s book in the first place do. This makes his digs at city dwellers seem a bit condescending. Later he does the same thing:

Most city dwellers are unaware that, of the thousands of breeds of cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys that once populated farmsteads around the world, only a pathetic few are still sold commercially by large-scale producers.

Um, yeah, see, I knew that. And I bet a lot of other people who read Pawlick’s book do too. It’s a good point to make, because yes, probably many people who are not aware of food production concerns do not know about the “loss of breeds” issue, but there must be a way to word it that doesn’t make the author look like one of those crazed “back to the land” guys who hate everything to do with urbanity.

Pawlick’s suggestions for what we can all do to stop this growing travesty are pretty predictable as well. Grow a garden in your yard with heritage or saved seeds, frequent farmer’s markets, CSAs and/or buy organic produce. Unfortunately, although the book is written with a Canadian perspective, using Canadian statistics, Pawlick doesn’t employ any kind of essential Canadian practicality. As in, how do we grow gardens or buy from farmer’s markets in the middle of January when there is no local produce, organic or otherwise? With the exception of a few things that do well in hothouses, or that store well from the fall harvest, all of the produce available in Canada in the winter months is generally shipped in from California or Florida. Have you ever been to a farmer’s market in January? There’s some bread, maybe some cheese and meat, and a lot of empty tables. Unless you count the “farmers” who head down to the food terminal and act as re-sellers of imported produce themselves.

In summer months, absolutely, buy as much as you can from markets and CSAs or grow your own if you are able, and if you’ve got the space, make preserves or freeze stuff at its peak of freshness. But putting the onus on the end consumer to ensure a safe, healthy and tasty food supply is like so many other food production issues, from additives to packaging, where the individual ends up taking responsibility because the manufacturer refuses to create a quality product that respects the environment, the customer and the food itself.

The End of Food does a great job at outlining the details of the current crisis, but as long as the majority of the population buys their food at supermarkets, individuals with a pot of tomatoes on the patio are not going to solve the problem.