It should not surprise you that when I read, I primarily read non-fiction books, usually about science and/or history. Recently I have read three books on various aspects of our food supply and farming systems that have taught me things I didn’t know and motivated me to consider changing my own eating habits. The rest of my life intruded about on my Common Science research and writing time this week, so I will lead off this series on food with a brief review of these three books and an outline of issues I intend to cover in upcoming columns.
The first book was “The End of Food: The Coming Crisis in the World Food Industry”, by Paul Roberts. Mr. Roberts covers both history and trends in the global food supply in an engaging and data driven way. There are some books I read, such as this, that I believe my wife must be happy when I am finished as I am often calling out to her and asking her to stop what she is doing to let me read her a paragraph or two. The book focuses on resource constraints in the food system such as soil productivity and the rate at which livestock can grow. Mr. Roberts, having also published “The End of Oil”, also focuses on the intimate connections of energy and agriculture.
Then I moved on to “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer in which he discussed the history and nutritional benefits/drawbacks of eating animals, some food cultural issues such as why do we eat cows but not dogs, and then reviews the industrial farming system for livestock. Although Mr. Foer’s book is non-fiction, reading his descriptions of industrial farming operations – some that he has to break into illegally under cover of darkness to observe – brought back for me the same horror that I felt upon reading Upton’s Sinclair’s “The Jungle” ,a fictionalized account of the meat packing industry from the early 20th century. Mr. Sinclair’s book won international fame and resulted in new legislation and regulation. Mr. Foer’s book, being publish in today’s information-saturated world has, sadly, faded into the background.
As I write this column I am two thirds of the way through Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto”. The manifesto itself boils down to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. If Mr. Pollan sounds familiar he is also the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. He begins the book with a detailed indictment of “nutritionism”, the concept that the value of a food can be reduced to individual chemical components rather than the food in its entirety. Reading Mr. Pollan’s account of the changes in the U.S. food supply from World War II until today – the lifetimes of my parent’s and my generations – is like having someone remove a veil from in front of my eyes. Dramatic and harmful changes in our food supply have been occurring right in front of us, entering our homes in colorful packages and quite literally killing us. Somehow we have mostly managed to ignore these. As a teaser, let me give you a statistic from Mr. Pollan’s book that initially stunned me but, upon some reflection, was patently obvious. Despite the fact that humans have eaten thousands of different plants and animals for millions of years, today in the U.S. two thirds of our calories come from just four plants: corn, wheat, soy, and rice. I’m looking forward to finishing the book this week.
Over the next few weeks I plan to address the science and technology issues surrounding eating, metabolizing and growing our food. We’ll see some interesting overlaps with population, energy supply and health. I hope you enjoy it.
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