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Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization
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69 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2004
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. Fortunately he leaves himself time to recover and does so in discussing the formation and driving force behind the modern industrial agricultural diet, arguing that its intention is more to promote efficient (and profitable) agriculture than good nutrition. He ends with a plan for reversing the worst of agriculture's effects through small steps - advocating the patronage of farm stands that are now prevalent in most urban centers (including my Chicago suburb), and giving us a glimpse of how he himself practices food sustainability.
Any book treating a subject as complex as the effects of agriculture on human society, even one with such a narrow focus as this one, could fill volumes of plodding data and cite vast numbers of bibliographical sources. Instead, Manning treats the subject nimbly, almost dancing through his arguments with a sense of precision and conciseness. He uses the term `gracile' in his book to denote speed and quickness while making a point about antelope, but the term could just as well apply to the book itself. Nevertheless, while I find many of his conclusions convincing, and the ideas themselves both engaging and thought-provoking, I found myself often wishing for more substantial backup for his assertions or a better system of citation. I have read a few books tangential to this material (particularly Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond which alludes to similar conclusions) and am familiar with many of the facts and events used by Richard Manning in developing his ideas, and still it seemed a little light. Someone reading this book without having read anything similar or related might well walk away unconvinced of his credibility or even his earnestness, and that would be a shame.
The book is deceptively easy to read. Despite Manning's obvious passion for the topic, he thankfully doesn't beat you over the head with his rhetoric. But I found that I needed to re-read some sections in order to catch the subleties of his argument (and as I write this I'm wondering when, with the stack of books I keep adding to, I'll have time to read it again). If you read 'Against The Grain' you may find you agree or disagree with Manning's conclusions, but regardless, you should feel that it was worthwhile.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
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. Manning not only exposes the serious flaws in our current system but also proposes reasonable fixes to a number of these problems. Perhaps when we become aware of all those "empty" calories we ingest each day we will begin to think more carefully about the foods we eat. "Against The Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization" is extremely well written and kept my attention throughout. I would recommend it to just about anyone eager to learn more about these extremely serious issues.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2004
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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42 of 54 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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. "Against the Grain" is one of these pieces, more eloquent than reasoned, and more thoughtful than grounded in substance, though giving the appearance of being researched in a scholarly manner. Manning, in his response to his own question, "Why Agriculture?" says, (the question) is so vital, lies so close to the core of our being that it probably cannot be asked or answered with complete honesty. Better to settle for calming explanations of the sort Stephen Jay Gould calls `just so stories'."
What Manning would have us believe is that the calming stories of agriculture are those of conventional wisdom which tell of human progress due largely to the ability of society to grow because of agriculture. "Against the Grain", he believes is a counter perspective which demonstrates that agriculture, in many ways, is hostile to both the quality of life for humans and, also, the very fabric of the planetary ecosystem.
The author finds it perplexing that hunter gatherers would want to give up the life of leisure, gamboling through the ecosystem, picking berries in season and killing a choice animal for meat as needed, or desired. He builds a case for sedentary life coming before agriculture, largely around water, rich with easily obtainable aquatic protein. This sedentary life allowed for the tilling of the soil and the planting of crops, the curse of God on Adam and Eve when expelled from the Garden. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground." Manning sees grains (wheat, corn, rice) as the cross that the planet must carry. Storable, tradable, commodities are controllable. Rulers can use them to subjugate farmers, build armies, and conquer free persons and their properties and enslave them. Sedentary populations under rulers could be commanded and humbled. Yesterday, it was the armies of the Greeks and Romans, and today, the giants of the international grain trade and their agribusiness partners.
Manning is a "hunter" who believes that humans are constructed to thrive on protein, red meat from the "kill"; and the cultivation of grains, a storable, fungible commodity is not only detrimental to human health but allows wealth in grains, like precious metals, to be concentrated in the hands of a few who then control the larger population.
The land, Nature's precious soils, are scared by the plow and insulted by rubbing agri-chemicals into the wounds while precious top soils pollute the waters, the source of life. Unsustainable agricultural practices are subsidized to produce unnecessary surpluses of primary grains, wheat, corn, and rice. Of course, land ownership also restricts hunters and their natural prey. Yet, Manning realizes that because of agriculture, populations have risen, perhaps, in his mind, not as healthy as hunter/gatherers. Manning suggests that human physiology has suffered because of the restrictive grain diets and the subjugation via economics and physical coercion once agriculture dominated the arena of food production.
Since we can't return to Manning's Eden of innocence and the idyllic life of the hunter/gather, what are realistic alternatives to continued abuse of the land for production of tradable grains controlled by multinationals? Manning suggests that we return to locally produced foods, animals raised humanely and vegetables produced on community support agriculture operations. Permaculture gets a passing nod as does the "Slow Food" movement which not only suggests that we take more time to appreciate what we eat but also how we obtain it. Do we live to eat or eat to live? Perhaps, Manning suggests, that we should stop to smell the roses, concern ourselves more with appreciating the world around us and less time trying to expedite our consumption of the necessary basics for our biological engines.
The reader identifies with the author's point of view which tends to draw one in while reducing the critical eye of a more academic analysis. Jared Diamond's, now almost classic, Guns, Germs and Steel, (2) represents the opposite end of the public intellectual spectrum. Rather than seeing Manning's work as providing new insights, historic perspectives, or cogent intellectual arguments for sustainability, one needs to yield to this volume as to one might to a historical novel.
1) Manning, Richard, Super Organics, Wired Magazine, May 2004, pp 176-180,215.
2) Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1997
*Abridged from a review in The Journal of Sustainable Agriculture (in press)
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
An important book that sheds light on human evolution, the evolution of agriculture, and therewith the evolution (and forcible extinction) of most life on the planet. The upshot of this evolutionary odyssey is clear: agriculture has never had anything to do with nutrition, culinary flavor or food security. On the contrary, it has had everything to do with the commodification of food and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small minority. Readable, quotable, and packed with information, this books is sure to please everyone - unless you are an unforgiving vegetarian. For Manning is clearly a hunter, or perhaps hunter-gatherer is a better term. As he says, "Food is about a great deal more than nutrition. It, along with sex, forms the pathway that connects our species to the future." Yet again: "We must hunt for food and sex. This is our obsession, our drive, the focus of our senses and our sensuality, so ingrained as to define our humanity. These drives are our essence." And yet, Manning does not suggest, or even believe it is possible, to revert to the lifestyle of our by-and-large neurosis-free hunger-gatherer forebears. We have already colonized too much of the planet to support our growing population; so how could six billion people survive as foraging hunters? The solution, as he and I both see it, is "something approaching permaculture" - that is, a perennial polyculture based on local production and consumption. Manning also praises the Slow Food Movement and farmers markets. All together a remarkable book.
Some related readings include: "Coming Home to Eat" by Gary Nabham and "The Food Revolution" by John Robbins on the subject of food. For great discussions on agriculture, see "The Fatal Harvest Reader" by Andrew Kimbrell and "A Green History of the World" by Clive Ponting. (Ponting, especially, should not be overlooked by anyone wanting to understand the failure of complex civilizations in general and large-scale agriculture in specific.) For more on human evolution, I recommend Diamond's "The Third Chimpanzee." On the fascinating subject of permaculture, see "Permaculture: A Designer's Manuel" by Bill Mollison or "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways" by David Holmgren.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the most stimulating, interesting books I have read in years. When I came across Manning's article ("The Oil We Eat") in the February, 2004 issue of Harper's it affected me profoundly, and I immediately went out and bought this book. Taking his cue from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and Alfred Crosby's Ecological Imperialism, Manning argues that we are effectively the tools of what a system of what he calls "catastrophic agriculture" as the other way around. From an evolutionary perspective this system has been very successful: we and the whole complex of our domesticated ecology have not only survived but have remade the world in our image. But to say the system has been successful is not at all the same as saying it is good for us as individuals or is sustainable in the long run. Whatever you think of his argument--this is much more an argumentative than an academic book--it may well radically change the way you think about the economy, the ecology, and our place in it. Manning's perspective is an important and valuable one, well worth thinking about.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
A book that takes up where the classic, "The Naked Ape", left off. This goes into the very beginnings of civilization and the fall out for some of the whys and consequences of it. Its premise is that our nature as hunter-gatherers is diametrically opposed with our agricultural/civilization way of life. Indeed civilization benefits only a small percentage of society. Mankind, as a whole, was far better off in being and soul as the hunter-gatherers. Well researched with an intuitive yet novel approach reminiscent of Desmond Morris's original. The kind of book that leaves you at its end with a better perspective of the world in which we live. A great book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2011
Format: Paperback
This is really an interesting book and someone who picks it up will feel very well informed and educated. This is excellent. The real issue however is the apparent rise of authors/journalists/amateur enthusiasts who are becoming the published "historians" of American culture. Again, the book is good for what it truly represents: 50% anecdotes, 25% personal history and 25% or often less real documented history. The real question is of course, when others are being cited, what is their status as to being actual researchers? Many of the citations in the text are from other authors who really are no different than the author, there are however others who are historians and scholars who are mentioned.

Nevertheless, I find that the strongest part of the 'narrative' is when the author speaks unabashedly from personal experience, it is the most interesting and the most honest in the context of what the author would like to truly say.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book looks at how agriculture has affected the history of civilization and argues several conclusions. First, agriculture is not the optimal way for humans to draw sustanence from the earth. Instead, a lifestyle of hunting fishing, and gathering is. Second, the advent and spread of agriculture brings with it the concepts of social organization and hierarchy, private property, division of labor, slavery, and diseases spread to man from animals. Third, agriculture in the industrial world has reached the point that farms produce more food than people can eat, and farm products are now tools of trade and barter. Last, in industrial countries, agriculture and associated industries have colluded to create national policies that encourage more and more agricultural output and consumption, even though nobody starves in said countries.

Being a book about the history of the world and how it has changed, the author examines several key issues relating to the subject. These include:

1. The transition from a purely hunter-gatherer society to a society where hunting/gathering was practiced along with agriculture.

2. The transition to a purely agricultural society

The author argues that each of these steps was probably helpful in the short run in terms of better diet and higher sustainable populations, but in the long run they were less efficient than what came before it. Specifically, they led to overpopulation and then famine as soils were depleted. This in turn forced communities to migrate and come into contact with other communities, thereby leading to war. Long term effects include the growth of government to regulate and manage agriculture, armies to guard farm land, and the division of society into different groups according to how each could best contribute to the agricultural process.

The arguments and conclusions provided in this book are very insightful and would be new to most lay readers. However, there are several drawbacks to this book. First, it is short of empirical evidence. Many of the arguments are made using idealized models. Second, the book argues mainly from the history of the West, the Middle East and Africa. There is little mention of how agriculture has evolved over time and space in Australasia, Oceania, and pre-Columbus Americas. These are crucial omissions as the geography and climate in these lands vary greatly from that found in Europe, the Middle East, and sub-saharan Africa. Third, the arguments made in this book tend to minimize the affects due to different geographies, climates, and the occurrence of natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, etc...

Overall, this book is very insightful and worth reading. The subject matter of this book is growing in importance in recent decades, and agricultural policy is becoming highlighted as a factor in international relations, especially between Western and non-Western countries. The book's arguments should be read carefully though, and there are doubtless better referenced texts on this subject.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
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 intended to repay -- burning up tomorrow to feed today. We know it, we keep doing it, and we have dark hallucinations about feeding billions more. Agriculture has become civilization's tar baby.

Richard Manning is among my favorite writers. He slings snappy lines like: "There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture. It does not exist." Or, "The domestication of wheat was humankind's greatest mistake." And he's the opposite of a raving nutjob. In his book, Against the Grain, he hoses off the thick crust of mythical balderdash and twaddle, and presents us with a clear-eyed history of agriculture, warts and all (especially the warts). Everyone everywhere should read it, and more than once.

Roughly 10,000 years ago, agriculture came into existence in several different locations, independently. These were lands having an abundant supply of wild foods. The residents had no need to roam for their chow, so they settled down and built permanent homes and villages. Over time, with the growing number of mouths, the food supply became strained, and this inspired a habit of seed planting. As usual, nobody foresaw the unintended consequences of a brilliant new trick, and an innocent mistake ended up going viral and ravaging the entire planet. Whoops!

Grains are potent foods, because they are rich in calories, and they can be stored for extended periods of time. Herds of domesticated animals and granaries packed with hoarded seeds came to be perceived as private property, which led to the concept of wealth, and its dark shadow, poverty. Wealth had a habit of snowballing, leading to elites having access to far more resources than the hordes of lowly grunts.

Countless legions of peasants and slaves spent their lives building colossal pyramids, temples, castles, cathedrals, and other monuments to the rich and powerful. "What we are today -- civilized, city-bound, overpopulated, literate, organized, wealthy, poor, diseased, conquered, and conquerors -- is all rooted in the domestication of plants and animals. The advent of farming re-formed humanity."

Like mold on an orange, agriculture had a tendency to spread all over. It tended not to "diffuse" from culture to culture, like cell phone technology. More often it spread by "displacement" -- swiping the lands of the indigenous people. Evidence suggests that Indo-European farming tribes spread across Europe in a 300-year blitzkrieg, eliminating the salmon-eating wild folks.

Paleontologists study old artifacts. Examining hunter-gatherer skeletons is brutally boring, because these people tended to be remarkably healthy. The bones of farming people are far more interesting. Grain eaters commonly suffered from tooth decay, bone deformities, malnutrition, osteomyelitis, periostitis, intestinal parasites, malaria, yaws, syphilis, leprosy, tuberculosis, anemia, rickets in children, osteomalacia in adults, retarded childhood growth, and short stature among adults.

Hunter-gatherers consumed a wide variety of foods, consequently they were well nourished. In farming villages, poverty was common, and the common diet majored in grain, the cheapest source of calories. The poor in England often lived on bread and water, period. They almost never tasted meat, and milk and cheese were rare luxuries. The Irish poor lived on oat porridge. Later, the poor of England and Ireland switched to potatoes, an even cheaper food.

In twentieth century America, government farm policies drove most small subsistence farms into extinction. Big farmers, with big farms and big machines, got big subsidy checks for growing commodity crops, like corn. We now produce vast quantities of extremely cheap grain. Some of the surplus is exported to other nations, some is made into livestock feed, some is converted into processed foods. The inspiration for writing his book came suddenly, when Manning returned from a trip abroad, and was astonished to observe vast herds of obese Americans. Oh my God! Why?

Through the wonders of food science technology, we are now able to extract the complex carbs in corn, and convert them into simple carbs -- sugar. Sugar is the calorie from hell, because it is rapidly metabolized by the body, like spraying gasoline on a fire. Mother Nature includes generous amounts of fiber in fruits and berries, and this slows the rate at which sugar is released to the body. But there is zero fiber in a cheap 40 ounce soda fountain soft drink, and an immense dose of corn sugar. It seems like most processed foods now contain added sugar.

Michael Pollan's fabulous books encourage readers to have serious doubts about industrial agriculture and processed foods. Manning probes deeper. He leaves us perceiving the entire history of agriculture in a new and vividly unflattering manner. It's an extremely important issue, and one that's long overdue for thorough critical analysis.

At this point in the game, we can't painlessly abandon agriculture, and return to sustainability, so we've placed most of our bets on impossible techno miracles (God forbid!). This century is going to provide many powerful lessons on the foolishness of living like stylish Madoffs on stolen resources. As the end of cheap energy deflates the global economy, the shrinking herd will eventually reach a point where we actually can abandon agriculture painlessly. It would be very satisfying to finally break out of our ancient habit of repeating the same old mistakes over and over. Will we kick the habit and joyfully celebrate the extinction of tilling? Hey, this is what big brains are for -- learning.

Not surprisingly, at the end of this book, Manning does not provide a cheap, quick, simple solution. He does not foresee a smooth, managed transition to a sustainable future -- it's going to be a mess. He recommends shifting toward foods from perennial plants, like fruits, nuts, and berries -- and replacing grain-fed meat with grass-fed. And, of course, nothing close to seven billion people can fit into a happy sustainable future. The healing process will be a vast undertaking: "Not back to the garden, back to the wild."

Richard Adrian Reese
Author of What Is Sustainable
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