For quite some time I have been wanting to find a way to share my “good reads” about food, agriculture and communities. World Food Day has motivated me to reflect on the prescience of the timeless classics that I hold dear, as well as some newer books hot off the press.
On October 16, 1945, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization was founded in Québec City. Since 1981, October 16 has also been known as World Food Day. And every year, this day carries a particular theme. “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too” is the 2016 theme. During the past 35 years, themes have also echoed the environment, climate change, and issues of water, rural poverty, food security and more.
As the saying goes, if you do not know where you have been, how can you figure out where you are going? Another interesting saying regarding agriculture and food issues would be “what is old is new again…”
So here are my top 10 resources for examining the trajectory of key agriculture and food issues.
Let’s head back to the 1970s first — when there was a growing movement of people interested in food, agriculture and development. Some even wanted to head back to the land. In some ways, what is happening today in the urban food movement reminds me a bit of that time.
1. In 1973 economist E.F. Shumacher wrote a collection of essays in the first edition of the seminal book Small is beautiful — A study of economics as if people mattered. These essays range in theme from production issues, farm size through to discussion surrounding nuclear energy (back to the future on that front, eh!). Schumacher argues in this book that development needs to be sustainable and that bigger is not necessarily better. This is indeed a classic. And the phrase “small is beautiful” has become part of the vocabulary largely because of this work.
2. Next on my shelf is Food First — Beyond the Myth of Scarcity by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins. Called “toughly optimistic” by Ralph Nader, this 1977 book addressed key myths surrounding the issue of food production and hunger — delving into topics such as the Green Revolution, our ecosystem, food as a weapon and food aid for whom. In 2015 the authors published World Hunger: 10 Myths, a re-written version of the 1977 classic, Food First. Either book is well worth the read, answering key questions and shattering the industrial food model.
3. Next in line is the classic, eloquent and relaxed pace of The Unsettling of America — Culture and Agriculture by U.S.-based author and poet Wendell Berry. What a find it was to discover this rhythmic treatise on community, land and farming culture. Written in 1977, the vision and foreshadowing that Berry includes in these pages is timeless. If you have read it, re-read it… as one testimonial notes, “[w]hat’s left then, is the future — a future of declining agribusiness and a necessary return to good farming.”
4. Fast Food Nation — The Dark Side of the American Meal by Eric Schlosser was published in 2001, fast on the heels of mad cow disease and the Western world’s slow awakening that something was not right with our French fry mentality. Granted, Schlosser’s book is a popular fast-paced read packed with facts about how bad fast food is and what is in the burger you have in hand. By closely examining the practices of the meat packing industry, it has, I believe, set a whole generation on a quest for cleaner food, and hence, more questions about conventional farming. This book, whose large U.S. readership spurred five print editions, brought back the term “investigative journalism” and “muckracking” — and put the lie to brand loyalty, marketing and advertising icons like Ronald MacDonald.
Two books on my shelf are from 2007.
5. Stuffed and Starved by Raj Pattell covers the global turf of hunger, health, food production, land and food marketing. This 438-page tome covers a lot of ground and it begins with Patel emphasizing a major contradiction: at the same time that more than 800 million people are hungry, there are more than one billion people who are overweight. And that is only for starters. As the book promo notes: “Patel explains, from seed to store to plate, the steps to regain control of the global food economy, stop the exploitation of both farmers and consumers, and rebalance global sustenance.”
6. From there, my shelf brings me to a story of hope outlined in La Via Campesina — Globalization and the Power of Peasants by Annette Desmarais. This is an important read and outlines the roots of the planet’s first major peasant movement which now represents more than 148 organizations and farmers from 69 countries The little-told story of how a global peasant movement was created despite all of the challenges is recounted alongside the crucial issues of agriculture, food sovereignty and rural community both in the South and the North. This book chronicles “[a] movement that embraces a new understanding of solidarity among farmers, peasants, farm workers, Indigenous peoples, and rural women.”
Fast-forward to 2015 and 2016 — and there are four more books I have on my list of must-reads.
7. In late 2015, GRAIN published The Great Climate Robbery: How the Food System Drives Climate Change and What We Can Do About It. This is a sequel to this internationally recognized nonprofit’s book, The Great Food Robbery: How corporations control food, grab land and destroy the climate. These books tell of how the corporate-controlled industrial food system causes climate change and what actions can be taken by people around the globe to reverse the damage.
8. Just out is Street Farm — Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier by Michael Ableman. This publication chronicles the creation of Sole Food Street Farms in Vancouver. I am looking forward to learning more about this Canadian mobile urban farm, the largest in North America, and how it helps nurture food production, but also community and social needs. What an amazing experiment!
9. And from France and published in March of this year comes another hands-on example of what is possible, in one couple’s experiment with “producing the most amount of food possible in the most ecologically harmonious way possible, and in cultivating a model of food production fit for a post-carbon, post-oil future.” Check out Miraculous Abundance: One Quarter Acre, Two French Farmers, and Enough Food to Feed the World by Perrine Hervé-Gruyer and Charles Hervé-Gruyer.
10. And finally, a book about the Global Seed Vault, by scientist and biodiversity advocate Cary Fowler. Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault tells of the largest and most diverse seed collection ever created, located in a remote area of Norway and carved out of stone. Through text and photos, this book helps us visualize an important story.
Classic or current — there’s plenty of reading to keep us going until World Food Day 2017.
Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column “At the farm gate” discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.
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