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From the front lines of the food wars
on May 21, 2009
This book is a companion piece to the documentary Food Inc. It consists of 25 essays on topics ranging from agribusiness, to so-called "frankenfoods," to pesticides and hormones, to biofuels, to nutrition and global hunger. The essays are written by acknowledged experts including Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation (2006) and Michael Pollan, who wrote some of the best books I have read on food, including The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World (2001), The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006), and In Defense of Foods: An Eater's Manifesto (2008)--see my reviews at Amazon.
The topics are presented in a fairly balanced way with one essay followed by an essay termed "ANOTHER TAKE." For example Peter Pringle's piece "Food, Science, and the Challenge of World Hunger--Who Will Control the Future?" argues that genetically modified (GM) foods are not as dangerous as some think and they can, with proper precautions taken, help us feed a growing world population. However in the next essay, using the term "genetically engineered" (GE) foods, Ronnie Cummins argues that such foods are dangerous and threaten to take away from local farmers the ability to grow food and give that power solely to agribusiness.
In his essay, "Exploring the Corporate Powers behind the Way We Eat," Robert Kenner recounts his experience making Food Inc. emphasizing how closed and secretive are the big corporations that produce and process our food. They wouldn't let him and his camera crews into their plants and they made the people who would talk to him feel threatened. There was no counter to this, possibly because the agribusiness people wouldn't participate in the book just as they wouldn't cooperate in the making of the film. This is damning. Secrecy and closed-doors suggest that they have something to hide.
Nonetheless I have mixed feelings. There is no question that in an ideal world we would all have local access to organically grown and minimally processed foods--free range chickens and vegetables grown with natural fertilizers in a sustainable family farm environment where the animals are treated humanely. But we don't. Why? The usual answer is you can't produce food cheaply enough in that manner to feed a world of six and a half billion people. This book in effect argues that you can, and the real reason we don't is that the big corporations have a stranglehold on not just our governments but on the science and logistics required to deliver and present the food including labor, transportation, storage, and the markets. Small and local can't compete.
However, what is hardly mentioned in the book and seems almost taboo to say is that the underlying problem, which is only going to get worse, is the enormous demand for food put on our resources because we have too many people living on this planet. I can see a Wendell Berry kind of agrarian paradise possible after we cut our numbers by perhaps half (more would be better) with a larger percentage of the population choosing to become farmers.
Currently the Slow Foods, sustainable foods, organic foods, and the humane treatment to animals movements are mainly supported by society's well-to-do, its elites educationally and economically. The average person cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods, which is sometimes called "Whole Paycheck." Neither can your average urban or suburban dweller conveniently find his or her way to the local farmer's market, if there is one.
But the main problem in the United States is public ignorance. The average person has little understanding of nutrition and is bombarded by conflicting claims in the literature as the big corporations pay for studies that support their interests. On television and elsewhere there's an endless stream of ads promoting fast and cheap food, adulterated food, and food that entices and seduces with depictions of juicy, fatty, starchy essences. A secondary problem is the loss of the tradition of the home cooked meal. As Joel Salatin writes in his essay "Declare Your Independence": "Learn to Cook Again"(!). Much of the food that is bought at supermarkets and taken home to prepare is of the "throw it in the microwave" variety. With many if not most households having two bread winners or a single parent, who has the time and energy to prepare a complete home-cooked meal?
So ultimately the stranglehold that agribusiness has on our society is the result of an unhealthy lifestyle pursued by most people, a lifestyle that has removed us from the land and thrown us onto the concrete and asphalt jungles of our cities and suburbs, has taught us little to nothing about our real relationship with the natural environment and the foods that have sustained us for thousands of years. Instead we live in ignorance in an artificial and unsustainable world of mass produced, sanitized junk food, force fed to us as if by gigantic steam shovels. Or, to change the image, like our cattle, hogs and chickens we are kept at the trough and stuffed to the gills with an ever flowing stream of denatured concoctions of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, sugars and additives until perhaps someday we'll burst. Obesity and chronic disease reign supreme and all our days we will dwell in the house of the overfed and the under nourished.
I applaud editor Karl Weber and the others who contributed to this excellent book and hope it is widely read. And I wish the producers of the documentary a huge audience. Understanding and education come first. We as a society have to know there is a problem, and if this book and accompanying film reach a large number of people, that will be a giant step in the right direction.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"