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The End of Food?

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The Agrafood is a marketing publication communicating about products, companies, and people significant in the world of Korean food and food culture. It is effectively a glossy window on all aspects of Korean food and I’m sure it does an excellent job of informing people around the world. I look forward each month myself to receiving a few copies of the magazine to look through from beginning to end as when I am editing the articles in English I do not see any photographs. As I did my studies in sociology (cultural studies actually) and philosophy I am especially interested in articles concerned with ‘globalizing Korean food.’ I also take detailed notice of the health-promoting and even medicinal effects of Korean foods. When I read about these topics in the Agrafood, however, I consider the worldwide context of food production of which Korean food is but a part, if an increasingly influential one driven, as it is, by individuals, companies, government, and non-governmental organizations. On this understanding, I thought for my last article in the magazine that I would stand back and look at the big picture of world food production.*

The end food?

At the end of the section on my bookshelf of works about food is Paul Roberts’s The End of Food (2008). Given that this is my last piece on aspects of food culture for the magazine, the title seems uncannily appropriate. Roberts’s concern is with how, worldwide, we make, market, and transport our food that too often is no longer safe for the billions of consumers the system was built to serve. The emergence of large-scale and efficient food production may seem to have been a boon for mankind yet, Roberts argues, high-volume factories have created new risks for food-borne illnesses.

To quote Roberts: “The same supply chains that undergird our global supermarket make fresh produce and meat available in every hemisphere and every season have also created perfect opportunities for both familiar food-borne pathogens, such as E-coli and salmonella, as well as emerging varieties such as avian flu, the rapidly mutating virus that may well be the basis of the next global pandemic.”
Also high-yield crops generate grain and meat of declining nutritional value. And while on estimates more than a billion people out of six billion are overweight as many people are starving. In working out his diagnosis The End of Food encompasses the whole global system of food production and trading. The scope of his work is vast but Roberts is still able write about the overabundance and shortage of food around the world. From a ‘cultural’ standpoint, Robert’s writes dispassionately about human needs, natural resources, and the economics and politics that binds them. But his critical analysis is not a cultural one; rather it is economic. He writes: “. . . the crisis is economic in the sense that our food system can only truly be understood as an economic system, one that, like all economic systems, has winners and losers, suffers periodic and occasionally profound instability, and is plagued by the same inherent and irreducible gap between what we demand and what is actually supplied.”

The end of the golden age of food?

As a latter-day Doomsday soothsayer Roberts opines thus: “. . . we are reaching the end of what one day will be called the ‘golden age’ of food, a brief, near miraculous period during which the things we ate seems to grow more plentiful, more secure, more nutritious, and simply better with each passing year.” Roberts strains to make the case that system-wide collapse is inevitable. But just as the world will not end on December 21, 2012, as foretold in Roland Emmerich’s latest apocalyptic movie, so, too, the world food system will continue with its blinding contradictions.

The thesis of The End of Food may seem at odds with the contents of the Agrafood which rightly extols this and that Korean food and/or company and/or personality. But Roberts’s book is not a marketing tract; it is a sobering eye opener asking us to go beyond the local and national levels of food production and consumption inviting us to attend to the underbelly of the world food system in an age of so-believed ‘globalization.’

* Note: This is my last contribution to ‘Food Culture Notes,’ though I will be continuing as the English Editor for the magazine.

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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