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I'm going to take a one-week break from dealing with the news (even though a lot happened in the food world this week, especially with the farm bill in the Senate) to review a book I just read, Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis by Christopher Cook.

Everyone - consumers, producers, packagers, marketers, and retailers - is implicated and involved in a system far bigger than the mere economic sum of our purchases. Consequently, reversing our current agribusiness madness requires much more than toppling or rehabilitating "bad" corporations, more than switching our business from big companies to small ones, more than just creating new markets for the products we cherish. The solution must ensure equal access to wholesome, affordable food, ecological stewardship, and the survival of farmers. Whether or not we become activists, we, as citizens and consumers, must begin to view ourselves as part of a broader push for serious overhaul of the food system as a whole.

- Christopher Cook, Diet for a Dead Planet

The quote above, from the concluding chapter of Diet for a Dead Planet really resonated with me. It comes amidst sections of the book that deal with the economic and societal impact abroad of U.S. commodity dumping and the WTO and the dilemma here at home that organics and other healthy foods are primarily only available to the upper and middle classes.

Although the last chapter deals with solutions to problems in our food system, the majority of this book showcases Cook's talents as an investigative journalist (he's written for Mother Jones, Harper's, and The Nation) by describing the myriad problems with our food system.

I began reading this book as a skeptic, but ultimately it won me over. One reason why my overall reaction is positive is that Cook addresses topics that I haven't seen written about by anyone else in any other popular book about food I've read yet.

For example, he brings up the fees food companies pay traditional grocery stores just to get their products on the shelves! I'd learned about this in business school, but hadn't seen it mentioned once while researching food. Cook really brought it into a new light by explaining how it limits which products are introduced to consumers - and who can afford to introduce new products via grocery stores. A small, local mom 'n pop operation may not have the cash to pay just to put their product on the shelf, especially if that product is brand new and carries no guarantee of successful first year sales. General Mills on the other hand... you get the point. [Note: Compass Rose pointed out below that Marion Nestle covered this topic in 2 of her books. My mistake!]

Another topic not addressed elsewhere was the history of agriculture & agricultural economics starting with the very founding of our country. I've been looking high and low for books that could give me a greater understanding of how we got to where we are today, and I am grateful to Cook for including details that are excluded in other, similar books.

The other major factor influencing my "thumbs up" review is the fantastic job Cook does as an investigative journalist. When he brings up CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations, aka factory farms) and meat processing plants, he quotes numerous first person sources to tell the full story. Here's what I mean:

"When we first got here, we were killing five thousand pigs in ten hours," says Maria, a fifty-four-year-old recruit from El Paso who worked at PSF for more than one year packing and lifting thirty pound boxes of pigs feet. "Now the belt is at full blast with less people working on the line. We were doing pretty well when it was ten hours. Now they are trying to kill us by killing 7,100 in eight hours."

Emma, a packing-line work from El Paso, says she was denied bathroom trips [at a meat processing plant] even when she had morning sickness. Her supervisor told her to vomit in the garbage can next to the assembly line, she claims.

The only critique I can offer is that occasionally Cook cites facts that do not seem to back up his arguments terribly well. It's not a frequent occurrence but I did notice it once or twice as I read through the VERY numerous facts, statistics, quotes, and other points backing up his overall argument.

Also, when he addresses subsidies, I like that he brings up the effect they have on the world economy and how they help enormous agribusiness corporations far more than they help farmers, BUT because subsidies are a topic so easily misunderstood, I wish he clarified more exactly what he would recommend as a solution.

I realize that exposing the problems in our system is the point of the book (rather than laying out a complete solution) but too many people would read a description of the harm done by subsidies and decide that the solution must be ditching the subsidies altogether. Or, alternatively, they might advocate subsidizing healthier crops. Unfortunately, the subsidy issue is FAR from being that straightforward.

The book touches on several topics that are covered by other popular books - for example, descriptions of labor conditions at meat packing plants (that will no doubt create more than a few vegetarians) similar to those in Fast Food Nation and a less-than-flattering picture of the effects of the Earl Butz era that still hurt us today similar to The Omnivore's Dilemma. [Note: I just received an email suggesting that I mention here that Dead Planet came out first, before the Pollan book... so the Earl Butz story was quite original when Cook wrote this.] On the whole, however, Diet for a Dead Planet offers something new and different to the debate and I would definitely recommend it.

Originally posted to OrangeClouds115 on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 10:32 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for the review ... (15+ / 0-)

    this has been on my (too long) list to read ... you've reconfirmed its place but you're suggesting that I need to have my pencils sharpened to examine his evidence/statistics.

  •  ? (6+ / 0-)

    By chance did he address the issue of the loss of plant biodiversity?

    It occurs to me that this is a long term issue that is flying under the radar screen.

    When is the last time you ate a tomato that didn't have thick skin? How many varieties are we losing?

    We humans can't seem to address the issues that are farther out than our own lifetimes.

  •  The way stores which supposedly sell food are (7+ / 0-)

    filled with vast tracts of products which would  are almost devoid of nutrition, if not actually deleterious to the health, mirrors the practice of agriculture in this country.

  •  7100 pigs in 8 hours? (5+ / 0-)

    How do you shut off your humanity to kill that many animals in that amount of time? That much slaughter has to have an effect on a person.

    A meat packing plant job used to be unionized with good pay and benefits, now they exploit human labor from other countries and there is no one to speak for these workers.  Sick.

    When the government fears the people, that is liberty. When the people fear the government, that is tyranny. - Jefferson

    by CTLiberal on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 10:52:38 AM PST

    •  I certainly agree (7+ / 0-)

      and the most irony about it (to me) is that lately fast food companies often audit the slaughterhouses where they get their meat to make sure it's humane to the animals. Nevermind the people.

    •  it's worse than that, CT Lib... (3+ / 0-)

      A January 26, 2006, The New York Times article entitled Rights Group Condemns Meatpackers on Job Safety begins, "For the first time, Human Rights Watch has issued a report that harshly criticizes a single industry in the United States, concluding that working conditions among the nation’s meatpackers and slaughterhouses are so bad that they violate basic human rights."

      I became vegan in an instant after watching a movie called Peaceable Kingdom that showed slaughterhouse footage. But the suffering of the animals, as awful as it was, didn't appall me as much as the dehumanization of the humans involved.  That's when I realized how fundamentally evil the meat industries are.

      Animal rights theorists say that the real enemy is an ethic of domination that says it's okay to oppress and exploit those whom you perceive to be lower caste than yourself - be they women, people of color, children or non-human animals. When I first heard this view, I thought it was quite radical; now it only makes sense.  

      And, btw, the pigs don't just die - they die, one at a time, in horrible fear and violence, after having lived their entire lives in pain and suffering. And pigs supposedly are more intelligent even than dogs - equal to a 3 year old child...

      Hillary

      Hillary Rettig is author of The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way (Lantern Books, 2006), www.lifelongactivist.com

      by lifelongactivist on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 11:46:10 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting side note -- (10+ / 0-)

    some grad students I know did a project looking at "point of purchase" displays in supermarkets -- i.e. end-of-aisle displays, special shelving, etc. They found that in supermarkets in lower-income areas, the stores usually would specifically try to sell junk food and non-discounted products with signs like "Show Your Family How Much You Love Them!" In other words, trying to guilt-trip people into buying crap food that they can't afford.

    You're dead on about the positioning of products in the grocery store -- companies pay big bucks to be at either adult-eye-level or child-eye-level, for obvious reasons.

  •  Don't forget the "desert" in the (4+ / 0-)

    Caribbean.

  •  Couple of Random Thoughts (8+ / 0-)

    First, regarding fees/payments for shelf space in supermarkets.  As someone who's worked on a bunch of antitrust-related merger cases over the years (both in terms of private-party litigation as well as FTC investigations), I can say from experience that this is indeed a major issue that tends to get comparatively little attention in the non-specialized media.  The fees/payments often come in for examination as a secondary measure in the retail industry based upon Herfindahl-Hirschman Index ("HHI") -- when there is a presumptive anti-competitive effect of a merger in a concentrated market, a look at these payments may be an instructive example of increased barriers to entry.

    In the food system, then, this could exist not only on the producer side (to prevent new competitors from achieving shelf space or attreactive product placement) but also among the stores themselves (more power to enforce higher payments, thus increasing profitability without any benefit flowing to the consumer).

    Second, like it or not, we do now exist in a global food production and distribution network, and our "domestic" policies (as reflected in the farm bill currently before the Senate) will necessarily have a massive ripple effect on farmers and agricultural systems worldwide.  As I imagine Cook notes, it's not merely multinational agribusinesses who take advantage of our policies here in the U.S.  Nations throughout the developing world that are relatively poor in terms of extractive resources (such as petroleum or minerals) may have a natural comparative advantage in certain foodstuffs that are utterly wiped out by subsidies in the U.S. and EU (which is in some respects even guiltier in this regard).

    We cannot claim to be good global citizens without taking this into account, as we otherwise risk permanently damaging sustainable agricultural systems elsewhere simply because we're trying to do the "right thing" at home.  Although it's not a completely sero-sum game, there are aspects of food policy that do inevitably create some winners and losers.  The key ought to be to make it such that the losers are the ones best able to cope with the consequences, which may mean some form of government assistance from wealthier nations.  As Cook seems to note (or rather, fails to note), it's not clear what exactly to do about subsidies on a going-forward basis.

    All in all, these are complicated issues, and any serious examination of them would appear to be worthwhile, even if there aren't easy conclusions to be drawn.

    •  but ... (9+ / 0-)

      local food is so good.

      example: the buffalo "stock" i've been supping on all day: beautiful, rich, deep brown and supplemented with not a single thing other than the buffalo (raised some 40-60 miles from me) i cooked to obtain it - and not needing a single thing more, as it's rich and tasty enough as it is.

      example: the eggs from chickens i'm personally acquainted with and their deep, almost orange yolks, and the wonderful way they cook up - and half the price of eggs from the store. and i can recycle the cartons by returning them to my chicken contact.

      example: the goat cheese i get from a goat dairy about 30-40 miles north of me. rich, tasty, wholly "organic" and unsupplemented by anything other than perhaps some cracked black pepper or onion or whatever the goatherder feels like when she's making it up.

      example: the pecans i munch on for snacks from a place maybe 60 miles from me - sweet, tender, lovely tidbits.

      example: the local sorghum i use when i make buckwheat bread or, if i'm feeling like a treat, in my oatmeal. it's lovely stuff!

      example: the farmer's cheese and yummy dressing from the Italian community which has lived some 60 miles south of me for some 100 years now - how they ended up in the middle of the Choctaw Nation is a mystery to me, but who cares? their products are fabulous!

      i won't even get into local strawberries and peaches and watermelons and catelopes and etc. when the season's right.

      local truly tastes better.

      that doesn't mean i buy exclusively locally. i just got some dynamite avocados from Mexico, for example. made a wonderful guacamole yesterday (using a local salsa ;-D) and, oh, was it good.

      but for sheer taste alone, local beats the pants off anything else - and you know what went into the making of it.

      Undecided --- Got a problem with that????

      by Runs With Scissors on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 11:39:13 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  well Cook brings up some great (4+ / 0-)

      examples, such as the rice market in a central American country (I forget which). It was 100% domestic rice pre-NAFTA. Post-NAFTA, 1% domestic. 99% cheap imports. Probably from the US. It was an absolute catastrophe. They solved it by making a law that processors in that country must buy domestic before turning to imports.

      Another point made was that in some places they scrap growing staples to grow crops for export to countries like the US... but the local people STILL don't win. If buying from them meant their quality of life might improve, that'd be a case for not buying locally in those situations. However, Cook says that it's companies like Del Monte that make the money and the locals stay poor. I suppose that means we oughta buy fair trade for things we can't get locally. But if we can get something near home, I think we should. It's about the oil as well as about the economics.

      •  I Feel Like I'm on the Defensive Here (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        OrangeClouds115, Neon Vincent

        though that's perfectly all right, since my point is primarily to emphasize that the effects of globalized food production and distribution are really very complex and leave no easy answers.

        I've monitored cases where the international food system has led to allegations of gross human rights violations in Latin America and Africa by companies such as Chiquita, Del Monte or Nestlé.  I've also seen cases where farmers' groups in other nations have brought suits to contend that companies (inlcuding some of the same one mentioned here) are hiding behind tarriffs to prevent their output from being imported into the U.S.

        I think -- and I hope -- that we can all agree that indigenous agriculture ought not to be disrupted for export markets, substituting an unsustainable monoculture.  We should also be careful about not overly demonizing the U.S. here, as other nations in the EU or Japan (with rice & seafood) play an equally large role.

        And as we've seen in discussions about food miles and carbon impacts, local production is usually better for overall sustainability, except when it's not.

  •  Yikes! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    OrangeClouds115, Neon Vincent

    another book to add to the need-to-ought-to-read pile! Just coming up for air here, near the end of my busy season.  I haven't even given a second's thought to the Kingsolver book yet, and here's another. In fact I was going to ask you whether it (the Kingsolver) is worthy, but your comments seem to indicate that it is.

    Soon it will be January, and I'll be able to read again. Thanks for the review.

    The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

    by sidnora on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 12:38:41 PM PST

  •  FYI re slotting fees (3+ / 0-)

    are discussed in both Food Politics and What to Eat as having an influence on what we eat and why.

  •  Great Review (4+ / 0-)

    If you ever feel up to the task, I would like to read about strategies for families who must shop for and prepare meals during a Dead Planet depression.

    The US is going to be in a tough position next year. We won't be able to afford the grain we grow, because the dollar will continue to devalue.

    __________________
    Fascism ought to more properly be called Corporatism since it is the merger of state and corporate power. - Mussolini

    by Pluto on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 12:54:25 PM PST

    •  Look for reprints of rationing cookbooks (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      OrangeClouds115, Pluto, Neon Vincent

      and "nostalgia" books about surviving the Great Depression. Amazon, Alibris, B&N, Powell's, all should have at least used copies. Marguerite Patten is one author to look for (British WWII rationing; the recipes aren't pretty, but they're economical and are meant to use up everything you have. They are also nutritious; she and the team from the Ministry of Food really took care in planning meals). Here's what I got by looking up depression+cookbook on Amazon.

      Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.-Woody Allen

      by Lychee on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 10:16:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Lovelock comments on the looming food crisis (4+ / 0-)

    Dr. James Lovelock coined the concept of the earth and Gaia's breath. He recently offered an extremely pessimistic view of where we are headed. In essence, the earth will return to the equilibrium that humans have destroyed. However, it may require millions of years and getting rid of the earth's major irritant - us.

    He also discusses the food and water crisis. Here's a snippet.

    "For water, the answer is pretty straightforward: desalination plants, which can turn ocean water into drinking water. Food supply is tougher: Heat and drought will devastate many of today's food-growing regions. It will also push people north, where they will cluster in cities. In these areas, there will be no room for backyard gardens. As a result, Lovelock believes, we will have to synthesize food -- to grow it in vats from tissue cultures of meats and vegetables. It sounds far out and deeply unappetizing, but from a technological standpoint, it wouldn't be hard to do."

    You can read the whole frightening prognosis here:
    http://www.rollingstone.com/...

  •  Another reading suggestion... (4+ / 0-)

    Another topic not addressed elsewhere was the history of agriculture & agricultural economics starting with the very founding of our country. I've been looking high and low for books that could give me a greater understanding of how we got to where we are today, and I am grateful to Cook for including details that are excluded in other, similar books.

    "Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back", by Ann Vileisis is along those lines.

    Here's a link to the book's website.

    I've made a few 'false starts' in trying to read this book, something else always seems to get in my way whenever I try to start it - but I'm definitely going to try to read it again this week.  I don't know if you've heard of it or seen it yet, but from what I have read of it so far it looks really good.

    Ask children where food comes from, and they’ll probably answer: "the supermarket." Ask most adults, and their replies may not be much different. Where our foods are raised and what happens to them between farm and supermarket shelf have become mysteries. How did we become so disconnected from the sources of our breads, beef, cheeses, cereal, apples, and countless other foods that nourish us every day?

    Ann Vileisis's answer is a sensory-rich journey through the history of making dinner. Kitchen Literacy takes us from an eighteenth-century garden to today's sleek supermarket aisles, and eventually to farmer's markets that are now enjoying a resurgence. Vileisis chronicles profound changes in how American cooks have considered their foods over two centuries and delivers a powerful statement: what we don't know could hurt us.

    As the distance between farm and table grew, we went from knowing particular places and specific stories behind our foods' origins to instead relying on advertisers' claims. The woman who raised, plucked, and cooked her own chicken knew its entire life history while today most of us have no idea whether hormones were fed to our poultry. Industrialized eating is undeniably convenient, but it has also created health and environmental problems, including food-borne pathogens, toxic pesticides, and pollution from factory farms.

  •  For an understanding of (4+ / 0-)

    how we got here, you can't beat Wendell Berry's writing. There is a wonderful interview here, which touches on the past, present and future.

    I'll look for this book in the library. Thanks.

    Virginia Wilderness Bill passes House! Thanks for the help, kossacks!

    by emmasnacker on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 06:48:55 PM PST

  •  I may not have been paying attention (2+ / 0-)

    But has anyone mentioned "Eat Your Heart Out" by Jim Hightower? From 1975.

    Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.-Woody Allen

    by Lychee on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 10:19:25 PM PST

    •  that's a new one to me (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Hardhat Democrat, Lychee

      can you tell me more? I love Jim Hightower!

      •  Covers essentially the same issues (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        OrangeClouds115

        other books cover today; the problems with our food system have been going on for a loooong time....

        The full title is Eat Your Heart Out: How Food Profiteers Victimize the Consumer. I'm not sure if it's available new, but you can certainly get it used or find it in a library. He covers the consolidation of farms, failure of family farms, the gradual phasing out of actual food in our food, Earl Butz, palm oil, lower meat prices, you name it. I was surprised at how much of what we're dealing with now was around 32 years ago.

        Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.-Woody Allen

        by Lychee on Mon Dec 17, 2007 at 08:48:42 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  ok just ordered it online nt (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lychee
      •  Enjoy it (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        OrangeClouds115

        It's got some very funny parts (but what Hightower book doesn't). He also does a thorough (at least to me) rundown of what it's like for farmers when the big guys move in.

        Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.-Woody Allen

        by Lychee on Mon Dec 17, 2007 at 10:16:43 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

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