on 11 June 2013
This is an important book which anyone interested in the well-being of the next generation should read and digest. It summarises the history of the way the world's food has been and is being produced, describes how modern production has become dependent on fossil fuel, discusses the impacts of diet changing towards meat and population growing, criticises speculators and futures markets, worries about monopolies encompassing the production chain from soil to plate, and recommends some `nice' ways we could at least ameliorate the effect of distribution failure, if not shortages. I use the word `nice' in the strategic sense. Unfortunately politicians are seldom nice, unless it suits their personal agenda to appear so.
That Paul McMahon, the author of Feeding Frenzy, has been to enormous lengths and depths in his research should not be a reason for taking all that he writes on trust; but then no reputable writer such as he would expect that. Unfortunately there are a number of slips in the text, such as, `A dairy cow in 1900 could produce 2,000 litres of milk a day; now, with enough feed, she can yield up to 10,000 litres.' (page 20) A remarkable cow. OK, this is a slip but, like the clock that struck 13, it casts a shade of doubt on other assertions; and there are plenty more in the blizzard of statistics where the literal meaning in unclear. If all else fails, a reader has to take an author literally. There are also cases of false comparison such as comparing food production in China, India and Southeast Asia with Iowa and Mato Grosso: while concentrating on manpower/fossil fuel the author doesn't mention edaphic and climatic differences (page 238).
In discussing Prisoner's Dilemma at the beginning of Chapter 6, McMahon misses the point that, when the future is uncertain, the best strategy is to grab as much as you can while you can. Only when the game is iterated does it pay to be forgiving and nice. He makes no recommendations as to how we are to `get through the next few decades' (page 234) when `some of the pressures will ease'. To write, on the same page, `... history shows that as societies get richer their populations grow more slowly and even start to contract.' is to turn away from the fact that every two seconds five more babies are born than people die, which accumulates to be the population of London EVERY forty days.
Nor does he face the environmental consequences of raising the price of food, which will cause many marginal lands to be brought under cultivation; and they are the last refuges of biodiversity which underpins all ecosystem stability.
In Chapter 9 McMahon gives a very good account of the failure of land-grabs through local incompetence, corruption and resistance; the only successes being where money is not an object and/or labour imported.
All in all, this is a most stimulating and much-needed book.
on 12 April 2013
I found this book to be an excellent and refreshing commentary on this hugely important subject. The author takes an insightful and balanced view throughout, placing Malthusian gloom next to historical fact. It gets beneath the bonnet of the financial markets, commodity trading and some fairly shady foreign land deals. Moreover it does it in a clear and palatable way. I won't look at the supermarket shelves the same way again. 5 stars!
on 5 August 2013
I did enjoy this book and recognise the immense amount of work which obviously went into its production, however I tend to agree with some of the cautions expressed by the previous reviewers. While most errors throughout the book are minor and factual in nature, there are also major conceptual flaws and omissions which mean any claim to expert knowledge should be taken with several pinches of salt. It is difficult to read on after being presented by the claim that "Water, like all matter, can neither be created nor destroyed."(p89). This is wrong on both counts, and wrong in a very fundamental way which I worry exposes some serious flaws in basic knowledge of chemistry and physics. For example, water is effectively 'destroyed' in electrolysis which produces a decomposition of 2H2O --> 2H2+O2, a process which the author claims knowledge of not a few pages prior. As for the production and destruction of matter, the author would do well to swat up on mass-energy equivalence in the laws of conservation of energy.
Having said this, there are simply too many fascinating facts and insights for this to not be read by anyone with an interest in food security and food politics. Well worth the read, but well worth reading with caution.
on 22 June 2013
I found this an extremely readable book on a complex and worrying question: will we be able to produce enough food to feed the nine billion people expected to be living on our planet by 2050? Paul McMahon attempts to answer it through harnessing a vast amount of research and analysing it closely. Thankfully, for those of us who want to believe a solution is possible, the writer leans towards the optimistic in his conclusions.
This is a most intelligently and persuasively written book. I recommend it strongly to anyone interested in food security and the future of our planet.
on 23 July 2013
Excellent book. If you're interested in the area of food security and the challenges of it in the 21st century, this is a must. Even if you're not, i'd call it a must, and you soon will be interested in these issues. It's a great introduction and overview of many different topics and debates that are often polarised and hard to disentangle. Would recommend it to anyone.