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Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization Paperback – January 13, 2005

4.3 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: North Point Press; 1st edition (February 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865477132
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865477131
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #184,323 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
Think of this book as a cross between "Guns, Germs & Steel" and "Fast Food Nation." What Manning outlines is an emerging view that challenges the agrarian mythos of civilization; that is, contrary to what we've all been taught, agriculture was not an "advance" per se, but a faustian bargain with managed catastrophe. Agriculture thrives on the disruption and destruction of natural processes. The ensuing chaos, while manageable in its nascent forms, is very hard to stuff back into the box once industrial agriculture takes root, so to speak.
Manning then moves on to discuss the social and health ramifications of putting all of our nutritional eggs into the compact grain basket. Corn has proven to be especially egregious in its full manifestations. There is also a very thorough treatment of the political strategies for foisting cheap and destructive grains on the developing world and on our own populace. We always hear about those famous "subsidies" for agriculture, and Manning takes us through exactly what that means.
As with most social criticism, this book is long on description and relatively short on prescription. Manning leaves most of the preaching implicit, with an occasional simple but revolutionary suggestion like, 'stop eating sugar and fat.' But he is clear that our salvation does not lie with more green revolutions from the top down. It will take a bottom-up food revolution, made up of organic farming, nutritional education, the rejection of soda beverages, local farmers markets, etc. Manning's book is a great contribution to the struggle.
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