Book Review: The End of Food

A Call For the Rethinking Global Food Systems


There’s a kerfuffle over alfalfa, and it might affect your follicles.

Aside from the difficulty of saying that sentence five times fast, wrapping one’s head around the industrialization of the food system and its impact on human health and the environment is an immensely complex, daunting and perplexing task. But that’s exactly what journalist Paul Roberts did in The End of Food (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), a global overview on how agribusiness has managed to feed a rapidly growing world population — but with diminishing returns and on an unsustainable course.

The problem, argues Roberts — convincingly — is that we’ve tricked nature with chemicals and genetics and massive monoculture farming methods to produce greater crop yields that in fact feed most of the nearly 7 billion people who inhabit the earth today. While the cost of food is on the rise in 2011, largely because of increasing petroleum prices (which affect the costs of just about everything), money spent on food has been at historical lows for at least four decades.

Yet in achieving affordable and abundant food, argues Roberts, we also get large outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, we have the counterintuitive phenomenon of undernourished obese people and we have many unknowns in genetically modified foods.

In other words, there is reason to worry about how we don’t know what we don’t know. And what we do know is worrisome enough.

How might this affect hair health? The End of Food does not address this directly. But nutrition deficiencies can lead to poor hair texture and hair loss. One of the first effects of severe malnutrition, such as in the individual who has anorexia, is brittle and lost hair. The body focuses its limited nutrients on vital functions (heart, lungs, kidneys, etc.) in times of scarcity.

And that’s part of Roberts’ treatise, that we’re eating lots of calories, too many actually, but the necessary nutrients are being lost. Much of our agriculture — the grains that are fed to cows, pigs and chickens in an increasingly carnivorous world — is driven toward maximizing calories without regard for complete nutrition. Calories keep us alive, but modern agriculture is very good at producing sugar and fat, the singularly largest contributors to the obesity crisis (think Twinkies). The processed sugar, mostly from high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and fat from larger proportions of beef and pork, have a lot to do with the steadily increasing rates of obesity and diabetes. Neither of these makes for a very good quality of life.

Important to note: Hair loss can often accompany diabetes, as a side effect of the disease is suboptimal circulation to the scalp, which results in slower replacement of naturally lost hair.

Old and new alfalfa

The alfalfa story of 2011 goes essentially like this: Cows eat alfalfa, and farmers who grow organic alfalfa that is not a genetically modified organism (GMO, also referred to as a biotechnology crop) are key suppliers to the non-GMO dairy industry. But a problem that is detailed in The End of Food is transgenics, where GMO plants cross-pollinate with non-GMO plants of the same species. This might render that “natural, organic, non-GMO” crop GMO after all, despite the non-biotech farmer’s best intentions.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to allow GMO alfalfa to be planted anywhere, without geographical isolation, which would otherwise reduce the chances that cross-pollination with non-GMO crops would take place.

If cross-pollination were to occur, non-GMO farmers’ painstakingly grown crops would be rejected by their customers — dairy companies that label their products as free from GMOs. So a coalition of environmentalists, farmers and the nonprofit Center for Food Safety has filed a lawsuit against the USDA, asking the agency to reverse the ruling.

Proponents of GMO alfalfa argue that cutting the alfalfa before it blooms and later goes to seed, as is typically done (cows prefer the prebloom hay), will prevent cross-pollination with non-GMO alfalfa.

The counterargument is that depending on individual farmers to always catch all crops at that stage is far from failsafe. But it gets even more perverse. Monsanto Company, which legally owns the engineered GMO alfalfa seed (and GMO versions of several other crops, including corn), might be able to sue organic farmers for patent infringement if and when their crops, intended to be GMO-free, take on the genetic characteristics of the GMO plants. To be clear, if Monsanto crop pollen contaminates non-GMO crops, the farmers who suffer the contamination could end up owing royalties to Monsanto.

Note that Monsanto develops most of these GMO strains to adapt to its Roundup herbicide; because of genetic tweaking, the herbicide can kill weeds without harming the food crop. However, as detailed in The End of Food, there is evidence that, similar to strains of bacteria that survive penicillin to become superbugs, weeds are now evolving to survive Roundup.

Roberts warned of cross-pollination in the book. “The hundreds of thousands of farmers who make up the organic movement … are not persuaded that transgenic foods are safe … nor are they convinced that researchers fully understand the cascade of molecular events that occur inside a cell when a gene is manipulated, thus making it impossible to predict all potential health or environmental effects.”

“Mothers should decide about their kids’ sugar intake”

Other sections in The End of Food speak to very contentious issues in 2011 that are likely to continue for some time to come. The author writes about how corn is extensively grown in the United States, not for eating on the cob at old-fashioned barbecue picnics or even corn bread, but rather to supply the broader food industry with the aforementioned high-fructose corn syrup.

Roberts explains that health advocates are universally convinced that HFCS is a significant part of the obesity crisis, particularly where children are concerned. Yet efforts to restrict snacks and sugary beverage sales by removing them from school vending machines and by increasing soda taxes run up against a wall of resistance. Predictably, this is from the companies that have the most to lose if children drank water instead of colas and ate apples instead of snack cakes.

Those opponents of sugar-access restrictions do much of their work through the benignly named Center for Consumer Freedom (“Promoting Personal Responsibility and Protecting Consumer Choice”). The group consistently hangs the responsibility for unprecedented childhood obesity rates on physical inactivity, rejecting a “nanny state” in place of parents who should decide what their kids eat.

The abundance of calories tempting children at every turn has nothing to do with it, according to this organization. Not a thing.

Roberts provides the counterargument quite well: “Humans were designed for scarcity,” he says, offering great detail on how it does so biochemically, in the digestive system and in communicating things such as hunger and satiety to the brain. The problem is these biological functions evolved to deal with a world of much more limited food. This modern, industrialized food system, with calories in abundance at very little economic cost, is disastrous to our hunter-gatherer bodies.

Which takes us back to all that alfalfa and corn. Matters of patents and organics aside, we simply are allowing ourselves — and our children — too much access to too much food at a low price. But the calculation is very short term. The lifetime expenses of adult obesity are projected to cost the U.S. health care system $344 billion per year by 2018 and represent 21 percent of all health care spending, according to a statistical review of census and medical data collected in 2009 by Kenneth Thorpe, chairman of the department of health policy and management at Emory University in Atlanta.

Not mentioned in the book, but a natural question to arise in the hair loss community, is this: If obesity continues to arise among children, and the rate of type 2 diabetes also increases among younger people (even preadolescents are now being diagnosed with type 2, the so-called adult-onset diabetes), might greater rates of hair loss occur more often and result at earlier ages as well?

Hair loss might seem like a superficial concern to some. But when it correlates with other life-limiting health problems, it’s a serious matter.