Now and then, somebody asks if there's a book that describes the last fifty years in agriculture and food. They're looking for something to use in a class, or just to get up to speed. Maybe it's dawned on you, "Hey! Everything I eat has been shipped from abroad, raised in a place with no laws to insure worker rights or safety, sprayed with killer chemicals, processed by major corporations, genetically altered, nutritionally added to, subtracted from, treated with preservatives and/or radiated. How did this happen?"
Unfortunately, there's no definitive text. For one thing, the subject of food is extremely complex. For another thing, major parts of the corporate scheme have been protected by patent laws and trade agreements.
Still, you want to inform yourself about this industry. Agricultural practices make an impact on the very future of life's possibility. Food habits make an impact on our spirits, our sense of community, our culture. Agriculture and food questions underpin the questions the world is hurling at the IMF and WTO. There is nothing in our lives that more directly affects our health and our future.
So, if you're willing to commit some time--like this summer--there are some good books to help you get a grip.
Start with Stolen Harvest by Vandana Shiva. Published in 2000, this book gives a good overview of many industries, detailing in a quick 127 pages how multinational corporations have changed the habits of consumers all over the globe. Shiva is from India, so along with intensive animal raising and GMO soybeans you'll learn about shrimp farms, mustard oil, and Basmati rice. As American consumers, we all use some of these foods and it's time we take responsibility for the global impact of our habits. From South End Press. ISBN 0-89608-607-0.
Now, move on to recently-updated World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset. For years, well-meaning people have developed aid programs based on these myths such as "Nature's to blame" and "Free trade is the answer." Twelve well-reasoned essays explain why the obvious answers to hunger aid are just plain wrong and how our fixes actually hurt the hungry and benefit the corporate-political alliance that took resources away in the first place. Surprised? Keep reading! There's a section on "What we can do." From Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3591-9.
After finishing Stolen Harvest and World Hunger, you may want to concentrate on one or two details of our food system. If the business aspect of food and agriculture intrigues you, look for Dan Morgan's 1979 classic Merchants of Grain published by Viking Press. Morgan's highly readable 500 pages fly by as he describes how the multinationals started as small grain traders and grew into the giants that dominate the markets today. Journalist Morgan interviewed many of the major players and recorded their lifestyles as well as the impact of their work so it's an enjoyable read as well as crucially important. And it presents a puzzle. Morgan's book was published in 1979, and he laid out all the threats. So why have we continued in policies that benefit the system that's destroying our future? Too old to have an ISBN number, this is worth a search.
Another American classic--or I should say THE other classic--on agriculture and food is The Corporate Reapers by A.V. Krebs. This 1992 book is so packed with information that you'll want to devote a couple of months, studying a few pages each day. At least that's the way I read it, finding myself so overwhelmed that I couldn't absorb it otherwise. Krebs writes a column in The Progressive Populist, by the way, and so updates his book every two weeks. From Essential Books. ISBN 0-9621259-3-8.
If you're especially interested in how government and industry can manipulate facts to protect each other, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber have written Mad Cow USA, a close look at the policies that allowed proliferation of mad cow disease in Great Britain. In Great Britain, scrapies in sheep morphs into BSE in cattle and then fatal Creutzfeld-Jakob brain disease in humans. British beef has again been declared safe. But during the 1999 deer hunting season, deer and elk in Colorado and Wyoming were found with another version of the disease. The book asks, "Could the same thing happen here?" Common Courage Press ISBN 1-56751-111-2.
In the last few years, the American patent system has been the darling of the press, and newshounds have feasted daily on the genome project, and genetic alterations that turn plants and animals into factories for human convenience. There are a lot of excellent books on this subject, but some are challenging. For general reading, I particularly like Vandana Shiva's 1997 work, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. More penetrating than Stolen Harvest, this book goes into the impact of corporations on indigenous societies, especially women and farmers. From South End Press, ISBN 0-89608-555.
Environmentalists will be glad that most of the books I've mentioned have an environmental aspect. In fact, the environmental impacts of agriculture have been covered better than the business history, consumer rights, history or social justice issues. It's hard to narrow down recommendations to one or two books.
I'll put Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers first on the list and forgive the authors for allowing Al Gore to write the Foreword. If you're curious about the declining American sperm count, and who isn't?, this book condemns the food industry for pollution of air and water with, among other things, endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-452-27414-1.
Regarding the value of ecological diversity, The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson set the marks although they're only superficially focussed on agriculture. A 1997 entry, The Forgotten Pollinators by Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan, comes up to the Carson-Wilson mark, in describing the life of some remarkable, fragile habitat-plant-animal relationships. In addition, there is an excellent "Call for a National Policy" that brings together the interests of foodies, farmers, policy makers and food producers. From Island Press ISBN 1-55963-353.
Start reading. Get familiar with the problems. Next column, we'll look at books that present solutions.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org