Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization
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VINE VOICEon August 29, 2010
What did we lose when we went from roaming the earth in social bands searching for food to settling down in one place to cultivate crops and raise animals? We went from a community partaking of a varied diet that supported one another when the hunt was good to one where wealth and power belonged to those with the biggest grain storage bins, animals are treated abominably, and the majority of our calories come from grains. Grains become the ultimate commodity: easily stockpiled and providing dense carbohydrate energy but poor nutrition.

Manning: "This is not to say that hunter-gatherers did not experience need, hard times, even starvation just as all other animals do. We would be hard-pressed, however, to find communities of any social animal except modern humans in which an individual in a community has access to fifty, a hundred, a thousands times, or even twice as many resources as another. Yet such communities are the rule among post-agricultural humans."

I don't believe this book sets out to offer solutions to the problem of agriculture, but it does a fine job in journalist style of putting forth the various elements that led to the adoption of agriculture and the problems it is causing both humans and the planet. Manning covers such diverse subjects as the development of the human brain, famine, cannibalism, diseases of agriculture, food taboos and fads, and how grains came to dominate the American landscape.

When we look at agriculture today, we see a small number of industrial giants growing rich from the production of a few grains-wheat, corn, and rice-along with hay and the starchy potato. Science and industry concentrate their efforts on maximizing the potential of these commodities through genetic modification, fertilization, and improvements in cultivation and harvesting. Small farms are no longer self-determined producers benefiting their communities, but are serfs at the whim and mercy of commodity buyers-and they're disappearing.

Manning: "This is a book not just about agriculture but about the fundamental dehumanization that occurred with agriculture. It will argue that most of humanity struck a bitter bargain over the past ten thousand years, trading in a large measure of our sensual lives for the bit of security that comes with agriculture."

These tax-supported commodities aren't foods that feed people but grains that are grown in excess, traded, fed to livestock, put in every conceivable packaged product, and then dumped on underdeveloped nations putting local farmers out of business and causing malnourishment and obesity. The concentration of farm land into grain production led to such policies as adding ethanol to fuel and the development of USDA food pyramid. The food pyramid doesn't reflect nutritional need but the interests of food producers benefiting from the glut.

Manning writes: "I have come to think of agriculture not as farming, but as a dangerous and consuming beast of a social system." I have to agree. Farming to me is the practice of working with the land to produce food that nourishes people, food that can be directly eaten and not processed into something else. Farming is community. Agriculture is exploitation. Perhaps after reading this book you'll believe that also.
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on August 5, 2012
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. My biggest issue is with the underlying pretext of the book. At the beginning of the book, the thesis is somewhat poorly defined, and it makes the argument of the rest of the book a little bit hard to follow. It is not until near the end of the book that the author makes it clear that when he says that Agriculture has hijacked civilization, what he means by agriculture, is commercial industrial commodities agriculture. This is by no means an attack on growing food.
If you are looking for a pop-book that discusses the evolution of agriculture from pre-history to present, this is an excellent and fun read. If you are looking for a strong argument in favor of a Hunter-Gatherer life-style over an agrarian one, I think you'll have a hard time finding that anywhere. There is no going back to Eden, and the author notes that. There is no way that we as a species or our planet can go back to how it was before agriculture, but I think the author would argue, that there is a lot more good in imitating nature than the modern agricultural paradigm.
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on October 23, 2010
This book consists of two halves: a history of the world and a political polemic. For almost all of our existence as a species, humans have been hunters, fishers and gatherers. People have been eating parts of hundreds of plant species; if some were deficient in some nutrients, others compensated for this. Agriculture meant switching to the cultivation of a small number of annual grasses (wheat, barley, rice in Eurasia, maize in the Americas) for which the grain constitutes a large part of their biomass; they are weeds, grasses that thrive in disrupted environments, rapidly reproducing before grasses adapted for more stable environments squeeze them out. Cultivating them meant periodically disrupting the environment - hard agricultural labor. Relying on a few productive crops instead of hundreds available to the hunters-gatherers meant famine when the crops failed due to a disease (as in Ireland in the 1840s) or a pest. Cereals are not very nutritious food, and gruel is a much worse baby food than mother's milk; skeletons of farmers show that they were much sicker than hunters-gatherers (but there were many more of the former). Agriculture spread slowly through Europe in the Neolithic and Bronze Age; agricultural productivity increased in the Middle Ages through introduction of such technologies as the horse collar. Yet before mid-twentieth century, agricultural expansion was extensive: colonizing the Americas and Australasia (pushing away the natives) through Khrushchev's Virgin Lands campaign. By 1960, the world has almost run out of arable land, yet there were 3 billion people in it, and tens of millions more were born each year; Paul Ehrlich and other environmental alarmists were predicting famine. This did not happen because of the Green Revolution. Dwarf varieties of wheat and rice have a higher percentage of biomass stored in the grains than non-dwarf ones. Also, if you grow non-dwarf varieties of cereals with too much fertilizer, the plant would "lodge": the seeds would be too heavy for the stem to support, and the plant would topple; with dwarf varieties the maximum amount of fertilizer is much greater. Dwarf wheat, which took over 70% of all the planted area by the turn of the century (as well as dwarf rice and hybrid maize), allowed the 6 billions to be fed, but it required far more fertilizer than manure and crop rotation could provide. Artificial fertilizer production skyrocketed to the point where half of all nitrogen fixed on planet Earth comes from human-made artificial fertilizers and half from the rest of the biosphere. The new agriculture also relies heavily on irrigation and pesticides and therefore on outside energy and fossil fuels.

The second half of the book attacks many targets in modern agriculture and the food business, concentrating on the United States. Agribusiness companies such as Archer Daniel Midlands enjoy oligopsony when dealing with farmers (but do not take over the fields, since farmers exploit themselves much harder than the company would be allowed to exploit them). Government subsidies of farmers translate into profits for ADM, a dollar in profit for each $11 in subsidies; the ADM executive interviewed by Manning calls this situation socialism. The USDA is more concerned with getting rid of surplus commodities than with better nutrition of the populace; it periodically republishes its food pyramid depending on which commodities have a surplus. Sugar from Central America-grown sugar cane costs less than maize-derived high-fructose syrup, which in turn costs less than sugar from U.S.-grown sugar cane; thus a sugar tariff benefits not only domestic sugar growers, but also ADM. Most maize grown in the United States is not eaten directly by humans; it is either fed to domestic animals or processed; the fertilizer runs off into the Mississippi river and into the Gulf of Mexico, where it kills fish and shrimp; thus, high-quality protein is sacrificed for the sake of low-quality protein and fat (though Manning gives no numbers). As in Victorian England, the poor eat too much nutritionally poor fast food and sugar; unlike Victorian England, they are increasingly obese and diabetic. Manning argues for "counteragriculture": variety of crops, variety of food, locally grown food, minimizing ecological damage; he also praises hunting. He writes admiringly about some organic farmer who is getting high yields, and about Chez Panisse, an organic restaurant in Berkeley (the student co-op where I lived in 1995 had a cookbook from it, I think; some members of the co-op also grew another agricultural commodity, one of America's biggest cash crops, though they did it in an industrialized way).
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VINE VOICEon September 13, 2008
In this book, Richard Manning provides a powerful indictment of agriculture. As it has spread, agriculture has brought regular catastrophes such as droughts and famines, social inequality, and environmental destruction. He treats it as an unalloyed evil, which is not quite right.

As near as I can tell, Manning never mentions the obvious reason why humans switched to agriculture: it is much more productive per acre than hunter-foraging strategies. As a result, our ancestors could pack more humans into a given area. This greater density is good for passing on your genes, with more little copies of you able to thrive in a given area. More important, more people means stronger military capabilities, which means that agriculturalists could always defend themselves from their pastoral or nomadic foes, or even go on the offensive against them.

Of course, getting more biomass per acre is also terrible for the environment, and from this point on Manning gets the story right. The book provides a thorough, yet very readable, account of how agriculture destroys the planet. Yet it's short on solutions. Manning likes to eat local produce and game harvested from near his home in rural Montana. That's great if you happen to live in rural Montana but it's not at all clear what he would recommend for people from, say, Chicago. Certainly he doesn't want them to move to Montana.

If you want people to give up agriculture, you'll have to reduce the human population considerably. You'll also need to think about what happens to the non-agriculturalists if some countries persist in the agriculture-inequality-war nexus. Manning doesn't really attack those issues.
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on January 31, 2009
Against the Grain discusses the connections between agriculture and poverty in our species.

"The assumption is that nomads and hunter-gatherers, who usually traded with civilized folk, knew a good thing when they saw it and so simply adopted the farming technology. In other words, a bunch of guys who spent their time running around the woods, hunting and fishing and trading meat for sex, one day saw someone hoeing weeds and said to themselves, 'What a fine idea! Let's go do that instead.' Is it possible that the technology did not spread entirely by adoption, that hunter-gatherers were wiped out or displaced by an advancing agricultural imperialism? The record suggests that although some adoption did occur, by and large farming spread by genocide." p45

His description of the modern world is not any sunnier.

Against the Grain is much easier to read than Manning's Grassland which was thick with Pirsig-esque tangents. (I am very impressed with both works.)
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on March 18, 2014
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.
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on April 22, 2005
Rebeccasreads highly recommends AGAINST THE GRAIN as the one history book that will change the way you look at the food on your plate, the vittles in your fridge, the produce at the supermarket, & the vast fruited plains of grains.

Richard Manning ranges far & wide, from past to present & into the future. He opens heretofore sacrosanct doors to show us how we handled agriculture & how we're doing it now, & what it is doing to our food supply. As well as the "dead zones" we are creating.

You will travel from a world newly refurbished after the glaciers withdrew down the ages on every continent & see our way of life from a truly different point of view.

After reading AGAINST THE GRAIN you might just find yourself mourning for a different way of life, one closer to this planet we call home.

Outstanding!
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on February 5, 2010
A great book. It takes the reader to places and perspectives related to food and agriculture that are relevant and personal. Placed in a historical context, Manning exposes grains in ways rarely brought
to light. He addresses whether grains chose us or we chose them, the significance of agriculture to society and civilization, the dietary aspects of eating grains, and political/economic impacts on global grain use. He shares personal lifestyle information - but not too much - so that the reader feels a deeper connection to the world through his or her grain use..
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on February 2, 2012
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 years ago.

It just makes too much sense. Changing my diet has improved my health and put at least one of the autoimmune disorders I have into remission - Sjorgrens and improved my overall well-being.

If you want a basic foundation to understanding what the grain issue is, read this book!
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on November 27, 2013
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.
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