Lesser known books that will change the way you think about our food system
With these books about the food system you’ll figure out how we got to this mess and learn some ideas for how we will get out.
I’m a voracious reader and easily plow through at least a book or two a week, but I have a shortlist of those that have left an impression on me. Dan Barber’s The Third Plate was my first soirée into books that have shaken my perception of our food system, and this post is dedicated to a few books that are sleeper gems - books with radical revelations into our food system that deserve more attention.
The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters by Sean B. Carroll
How does life work? How does nature produce the right numbers of zebras and lions on the African savanna, or fish in the ocean? How do our bodies produce the right numbers of cells in our organs and bloodstream? In The Serengeti Rules, award-winning biologist and author Sean B. Carroll tells the stories of the pioneering scientists who sought the answers to these profoundly important questions. Everything is regulated in the natural world - rules regulate the amount of every molecule in our bodies and rules that moderate the numbers of every animal and plant in the wild. Even though these rules regulate life at such different scales, they are remarkably similar in every aspect of the world - there is a common underlying logic of life. Carroll connects our deepening knowledge of the rules and logic of the human body that have spurred the advent of revolutionary life-saving medicines and makes the compelling case that it is now time to use the Serengeti Rules to heal our ailing planet.
Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them by Dan Saladino
Dozens of important foods are threatened with extinction. Of the hundreds of thousands of wheat varieties that farmers once cultivated, for example, only a handful are now farmed on a large scale. All in the name of globalization and colonization, we’ve created plants that are more transportable, hardier for weather conditions, and more pest resistant…whose seeds are owned by just a handful of companies. Saladino lays out a few of these dire statistics, noting that roughly 50 percent of the world’s cheese is dependent on starter cultures from one company. One quarter of the beers drunk in the world are produced by one company. Global pork production is based primarily on the genes of one breed of pigs. “This is a political decision,” he says. “Governments are often worried and scared, rightly so, of food shortages and lack of food. But that’s a very short-term way of thinking. Monocultures don’t exist in nature. There’s a reason diversity exists.”
Despite this, he’s wildly optimistic. “We get the system we pay for,” he says. And by the end of his book, readers will believe it’s possible and plausible that we can become experts in our own local biodiversity and have that knowledge impact our decisions when it comes to what we eat.
The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of our Planet by Charles Mann
If asked for a solution to overpopulation, food production, hunger, soil erosion, resource depletion, energy production etc., odds are most answers will build on the intellectual legacy of two men most have never heard of: ecologist William Vogt, father of the environmental movement (“The Prophet”), and Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning plant breeder Norman Borlaug, instigator of the agricultural Green Revolution (“The Wizard”). The Prophets, Mann explains, believe our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards use research to wrangle the world in service to humans to produce modern high-yield crops saving millions from starvation. Innovate! Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces—food, water, energy, climate change—grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With civilization on the line, the author's insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about an increasingly crowded Earth.
Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything – and Endangered the World by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman
Palm oil has become ubiquitous in highly processed diets, with hidden abuses to land, indigenous populations, and wildlife, while further fueling climate disasters. Planet Palm investigates the harmful social and environmental impacts of the palm oil industry and uncovers the palm oil revolution, its dependence on stolen land and slave labor, and the ways it has destroyed environments, causing the near extinction of many species. Author Jocelyn C. Zuckerman is unsparing in her revelations, from the ecological damage to the adverse health effects of palm oil and its use in cheap, high-calorie foods. “It’s common to blame sugar for the world’s weight problems, but in the last half-century, refined vegetable oils have added far more calories to the global diet than has any other food group,” she writes. The book is not entirely grim: Zuckerman offers practical suggestions for proactively weaning ourselves off of palm oil and how to spot it in many daily use products.
Beyond Honey by Tierney Monahan
Beyond Honey showcases the indispensable role of bees. Tierney Monahan explains that not only do they provide economic and environmental benefits, but beekeeping, she shows, can also be used for social good as a healing tool to help veterans or incarcerated populations. Beyond Honey’s stories provide a glimpse into the lives of beekeepers and how they impact the world.
Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It by Tom Philpott
Journalist Tom Philpott critically analyzes the centralized food system in the United States and argues that it is doomed for disaster. Philpott argues that a small handful of seed and pesticide corporations, investment funds, and magnates are prioritizing themselves over the nation’s well-being and provides well-researched data to back up his claims. Providing readers insight into the experiences of activists, farmers, and scientists, this is a great read for those starting to learn about the state of the country’s food system and for those who are already deeply involved.
The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities by Didi Pershouse
“When we stand in the center and look at the whole, we can understand issues that once perplexed us. Healing the old rifts between science and religion, between humans and nature, between old wisdom and new discoveries, is a matter of becoming more and more aware of our common source. True health care, as we move forward, will trust the intelligence of the whole.” This book is a fascinating blend of home healthcare and earthcare. Pershous covers everything from how money and medicine have joined forces to understanding the microbiome of the soil. Her main premise reveals an important distinction: “The problem is not that we can’t live without fossil fuels. The problem is that we have forgotten how.”
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
In “Braiding Sweetgrass”, Kimmerer weaves personal stories into lessons to incorporate an ancient worldview into science. As a member of the Citizen Potowatomi Nation, Kimmerer provides Indigenous perspectives on the value of gratitude and the role of the sacred in ecology. For centuries, scientists have strived to secularize science, and perform “objective” analysis of the way the world works. Her opinion is that the scientific method, rooted in western ideology, is not necessarily at odds with the ancient, deeply personal and ritualized relationships that Indigenous cultures have cultivated with the natural world. In fact, when combined, science can be enhanced.
The Unsettling of America Culture & Agriculture by Wendell Berry
Since its original publication in 1977, The Unsettling of America has been recognized as a classic. In it, Wendell Berry argues that good farming is both a cultural development and spiritual discipline. However, today's agribusiness takes farming out of its cultural context and away from families. As a nation we are more estranged from the land - from the intimate knowledge, love, and care of it. Sadly, as Berry notes in this edition, his arguments and observations are even more relevant than ever. We continue to suffer loss of community, the devaluation of human work, and the destruction of nature under an economics dedicated to the mechanistic pursuit of products and profits. Although "this book has not had the happy fate of being proved wrong," Berry writes, there are good people working "to make something comely and enduring of our life on this earth." Wendell Berry, a prolific author, is one of those people, writing and working, as ever, with passion, eloquence, and conviction.
What your food ate: How to heal our land and reclaim our health by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé
Modern agricultural practices have degraded soils, leading the plants grown in those soils to lack key vitamins and minerals needed in the human diet. The journey described in What Your Food Ate from deep inside the soil to deep inside your body, following the path of vital micronutrients is profound. This carefully reasoned study, supported by source material that spills from the back of the back over to the book’s website, isn’t flattering to big chemical fertilizer companies and other money-motivated players in our food system. The body knows what it needs. So does the planet, but both have been thwarted. “We’ve taken such a trip away from that, and all of it motivated by money, it seems. And the fact that we are suffering as much as we do is just not apparent, because it gets to be blamed on other things.”
“My greatest hope for this book,” says Anne, “would be that it could help people see the importance of going beyond just ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could all have organic food,’ and really, truly see why the health of the soil is so important to the land. And so important to us because of how those conditions ripple right through us.”
Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi
Food is one of our many pleasures in life. Our response to sweet, salty, bitter, or sour is deeply personal, combining our unique biological characteristics, preferences, and emotional connections. Bread, Wine, Chocolate illuminates not only what it means to recognize the importance of the foods we love, but also what it means to lose them. Sethi reveals how the foods we love are endangered by genetic erosion — a chronic decline of diversity in what we grow and eat. In America today, food often looks and tastes the same, whether at a local farmers market or at a barn raising potluck. Even though 95% of the world’s calories now come from only thirty species, supermarkets are stuffed with endless options that vary only in a few flavor and packaging differences.
Sethi shares interviews with scientists, farmers, chefs, vintners, beer brewers, coffee roasters and others with firsthand knowledge of our food, revealing the many interconnected reasons for this loss, and its consequences for our health, traditions, and culture.
Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig by Mark Essig
The evolution of the relationship between pigs and humans is long and winding. Essig transverses the period of the appearance of Sus scrofa, the Eurasian wild boar, to the present day hog answering age-long questions about why pigs are associated with disgust, why many reject pork, but also why certain cultures adore and celebrate the pig.
The book jacket summarizes Essig’s work perfectly: pork has been a crucial staple of the human diet since ancient times. Yet the very qualities that make pigs so essential—their intelligence, hardiness, and omnivorousness—have also led people throughout history to demonize them as craven, opportunistic, and unclean. Today’s inhumane system of factory farming, Essig explains, is only the latest instance of people taking pigs for granted—and the most recent evidence of how both species suffer when our symbiotic relationship falls out of balance.
FARM (And Other F Words): The Rise and Fall of the Small Family Farm by Sarah K. Mock
Why do we love the idea of small family farms? Mock proposes it’s because we’ve been told the stories about family farms from an early age through nursery rhymes and picture books. Does that bucolic ideal exist? Mock provides an agriculture insider’s critique of the romantic agrarian utopia of the small family farm. She lays bare the shortcomings of that narrative — not all is as virtuous as it seems. In this thought-provoking book, Mock challenges the many conceptions about farming and farmers and questions the viability of the current systems.
Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions by Michael Moss
Everyone knows how hard it can be to maintain a healthy diet. But what if many of our food decisions are beyond our control? Is it possible that food is addictive, like drugs or alcohol? And to what extent does the food industry know, or care, about these vulnerabilities? In Hooked, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Moss sets out to answer these questions — and to find the true danger in our food. Moss uses the latest research on addiction to uncover what the scientific and medical communities — as well as food manufacturers — already know: that food, in some cases, is even more addictive than alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs.
Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman
Grocery stores in America have changed from neighborhood corner markets to multimillion-dollar chains that sell convenience — along with thousands of products — to satisfy the demand of the country's hungry consumers. What caused this transformation? And what will grocery stores be like in the future? In Grocery, Ruhlman riffs on America’s relationship with its food and investigates the overlooked source of so much of it—the grocery store. In a culture obsessed with food—how it looks, what it tastes like, where it comes from, what is healthy—there are often more questions than answers. Ruhlman proposes that the best practices for consuming wisely could be hiding in plain sight—in the aisles of the local supermarket.
Of course, I strongly recommend many of the top regenerative agriculture books and anything by Wendell Berry, Daniel Quinn, or James Rebanks.
What books have changed your perspective on our food system?
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Thank you for including my book on your list - so glad that you enjoyed it!