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.