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Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization [Hardcover]

by Richard Manning
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 15, 2004 0865476225 978-0865476226 1st
In this provocative, wide-ranging book, Richard Manning offers a dramatically revisionist view of recent human evolution, beginning with the vast increase in brain size that set us apart from our primate relatives and brought an accompanying increase in our need for nourishment. For 290,000 years, we managed to meet that need as hunter-gatherers, a state in which Manning believes we were at our most human: at our smartest, strongest, most sensually alive. But our reliance on food made a secure supply deeply attractive, and eventually we embarked upon the agricultural experiment that has been the history of our past 10,000 years.

The evolutionary road is littered with failed experiments, however, and Manning suggests that agriculture as we have practiced it runs against both our grain and nature's. Drawing on the work of anthropologists, biologists, archaeologists, and philosophers, along with his own travels, he argues that not only our ecological ills-overpopulation, erosion, pollution-but our social and emotional malaise are rooted in the devil's bargain we made in our not-so-distant past. And he offers personal, achievable ways we might re-contour the path we have taken to resurrect what is most sustainable and sustaining in our own nature and the planet's.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this controversial and prodigiously researched condemnation of our current and past systems of growing grain, Manning (Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution) argues that the major forces that have shaped the world-disease, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, trade, wealth-are all a part of the culture of agriculture. He traces the beginnings of agriculture to the Middle East, where plants were abundant and easily domesticated in coastal areas; hunter-gathers, who became fishermen, formed settlements near river mouths. Manning skillfully details the historical spread of agriculture through the conquest of indigenous peoples and describes how this expansion led to overpopulation, famine and disease in Europe, Asia and Africa. Sugar agriculture was supported by slaves and farming by laborers who grew produce for the rich while the workers ate a high carbohydrate diet (potatoes, rice, sugar, bread) and ingested no protein. In the U.S., modern agriculture has evolved into an industrial system where agribusiness is subsidized to grow commodities like wheat, corn and rice, not to feed people but to store and trade. According to Manning, agricultural research focuses on just these few crops and is profit driven. Although he succeeds in drawing attention to critical problems caused by agriculture, such as water pollution and malnutrition, he is pessimistic about reform coming from political systems. He romantically advocates hunting animals for food and hopes that such citizen movements like urban green markets and organic farms can lead to better nutrition.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

A growing body of somewhat controversial scholarship ties the beginnings of war to the "culture of scarcity" that emerged with the invention, sometime in the Neolithic era and probably in the eastern Mediterranean, of agriculture. Before that, these theorists contend, humans lived as hunter-gatherers who were, far from the common vision of the half-starved caveman, quite comfortable and well-fed, because their diet was both varied and seasonal. The investment of time and energy to grow a few crops led, paradoxically, to both great excess and horrific want; when the crops failed, famine followed among people whose population had swelled beyond the small tribes of the earlier peoples. These theories are regularly bruited about at academic meetings, but rarely are they the subject of popular writing (Daniel Quinn's 1992 novel Ishmael constitutes an exception). Manning brings theory to life with well-crafted essays that cover such diverse subjects as the Irish potato famine and the controversy over bioengineered plants. Readable and well-researched, this book unsettles as it informs. Patricia Monaghan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: North Point Press; 1st edition (February 15, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865476225
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865476226
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.7 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,994,597 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
69 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deceptively easy-to-read book on a complex topic February 23, 2004
In many ways Manning has written a remarkable book. The basic thesis, very gently stated by the author, is that the advent of agriculture has caused the loss of what it means to be human by replacing our ancestral senses of the many flavors and varieties of nature with the dull security of industrial monoculture based overwhelmingly on just three crops. It has also heralded the breakdown of social egalitiarianism, led to vast numbers of malnourished poor worldwide, and is ultimately unsustainable on its current scale.
In making his argument, Manning wanders through numerous disciplines: cultural anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, climatology, cognitive science and ecology, even religion. He begins with an explanation of how agriculture developed and spread despite its apparent disadvantages to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (worse nutrition, less leisure-time) and then develops these disadvantages more fully, surveying the prevalence of famine in agricultural societies throughout history and moving through the detrimental social and ecological effects of industrial agriculture such as how it enabled the feeding of high concentrations of cheap labor.
`Against The Grain' hits a weak spot in looking at modern agricultural corporations, in particular ADM. At this point, he draws less from his apparent strengths as a writer and person - his awareness and appreciation of nature and his solid understanding of the historical breadth and scope of agriculture's effects - and loses his effectiveness as his underlying anger is displayed.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful assessment of the sorry state of agriculture. September 28, 2004
Walk into to any supermarket and you probably feel very good about all of the choices you have. After all, the average supermarket carries over 25000 items these days. But if you are like most people, the vast majority of the items you will wind up purchasing are highly processed and contain precious little in the way of nutritional value. Did you know that nearly 2/3 of the calories the average American consumes come from just three crops--corn, wheat and potatoes?

Author Richard Manning sure got my attention with this fascinating book "Against The Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization". Manning argues that for the vast majority of history human beings were "hunter-gatherers". That is, people would migrate to where the food was and partake of a vast assortment of foods, everything from fruits and vegetables, to nuts and legumes and fresh meat. This all began to change about 10000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. Over the centuries people came to rely on fewer and fewer crops for survival. Manning notes that the pattern was virtually identical all over the world. Soon human beings came to rely on just a handful of crops, all high in carbohydrates, for survival. In recent decades the rise of huge conglomerates like ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) has further exacerbated the problem. Corporate entities do not view crops as food. Rather, they view crops as commodities and it is for this reason that family farms have all but disappeared, people in poor nations go unfed despite massive crop surplusses and those in rich nations wind up eating a largely bland and less than nutritious diet.

For those of us like myself who are poorly informed on these issues this book is certainly an eye-opener.
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41 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Questioning Common Wisdom* June 28, 2004
I received this volume for review at the same time that Manning's article, Super Organics: Inside the New Science of Smart Breeding, appeared in the May 2004 issue of "Wired" magazine (1). In the article, Manning describes the ability of scientists to tag genetic elements which have been identified as yielding desirable traits. This innovation allows one to more effectively carry out conventional breeding on an accelerated time-table, giving more certainty as to outcome and none of the concerns of the possibility of the claim of creating "Franken Foods" which has plagued the genetic engineered crops. Given Manning's concerns regarding human footprints on the environment, one can almost hear a sigh of relief and feel the hope that this technology might foreshadow a kinder and gentler approach towards agricultural practices, globally, as well as herald the loosening of the economic grip which many believe the multinational agri-business firms hold on the world's food supply.
Manning is part of a growing cadre of non-academic public intellectuals whose presence is being felt, not just in conventional venues, but even more so on the Internet via web pages, blogs, email lists, and similar electronic venues. Many of these articles, books and electronic materials are researched with the same care and documentation found within the scholarly art. Others, including, "Against the Grain", are lightly and selectively researched and adopted, often lacking in thorough documentation, and anecdotally argued.
It takes little research to raise questions with the intellectually underpinnings of Manning's thesis once one rubs the romantic patina off the surface.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Not necessary to believe all he theorizes.
I thoroughly enjoyed Manning's look at how agriculture (not food production) has manipulated civilization to where it is today. Read more
Published 19 days ago by Tim Leifer
5.0 out of 5 stars Against the Grain
Manning is a comprehensive writer with a well-documented historical perspective on the anthropology of human farming. Goes beyond the common "green" books. Makes one think.
Published 1 month ago by Ric Farrell
5.0 out of 5 stars One of his best!
All of Manning's writings are both educational and full of theory. His viewpoints about agriculture have changed my outlook on many things. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Noel
5.0 out of 5 stars Food for thought
I loved the view from fifty thousand feet and eons of time. This book puts presents a high level perspective and megatons of food for thought.
Published 4 months ago by Charles F. Tutt
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book on this subject
If you're new to this subject you'll enjoy this book as the author writes quite well and has a great command of the subject, the data, and issues. Read more
Published 7 months ago by magellan
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read!
Like most books of a commentary nature, Richard Manning spends most of these pages describing how agriculture changed the world, and not with the all too common culture hype. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Jerry
2.0 out of 5 stars Worth a Critical Read, Indeed
This book is mostly a history of socio-economic effects that agriculture has had on the history of civilization. As that, it is in excellent book. Read more
Published 20 months ago by JDepew
5.0 out of 5 stars I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more!
Manning's insights are a corroboration of my own observations in the agricultural field. I have a degree in agriculture, and own a farm. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Brian Bowman
5.0 out of 5 stars A Close Look at a Vital Issue
Agriculture is one of humankind's most troublesome experiments, and it is now hopelessly in debt. It has borrowed soil, water, and energy that it can never repay, and never... Read more
Published on February 19, 2012 by Richard Reese (author of Sustainable or Bust)
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for everyone
I can't speak highly enough about this book and the content. This was the first book I read on the impacts of grains on our bodies after I was first diagnosed with Celiac Disease 5... Read more
Published on February 2, 2012 by Ursula
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