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Book Review- Fatal Harvest: the Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture edited by Andrew Kimbrell

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 FATAL HARVEST: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture

 

Edited by Andrew Kimbrell

Island Press, 2002, 384 pages. $75.00 hardcover, $45.00 softcover

Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

 

With thousands of new products crowding the grocery aisle, it's hard for Americans to believe that our food supply is endangered. But it is. “Biological riches are the most dependable kind of wealth,” Daniel Ehrenfeld writes in this gorgeous epic tome consisting of essays as diverse but complementary as the biological diversity it promotes. “Money, if it ever appears, is easily lost. A good name takes effort to maintain … Art and architecture are destroyed by war ... Health vanishes ... One would think the value of natural and cultural diversity would be obvious to each new generation. Not ours.”According to a study by the Rural Advancement Foundation cited in this book, 97 percent of the vegetable varieties available in 1,900 are now extinct. In the US alone, over 7,000 varieties of apples were grown during the 1900s. Most of the new food products Americans see, meanwhile, consist of just four foods: corn, wheat, rice and potatoes. Just nine crops account for 75 percent of the plants humans eat these days.

Why care? Because, activist Helena Norberg-Hodges explains, a new cereal lasts only five or six years before pest problems become so great it can no longer be grown. “Neither Cargill nor WR Grace can constantly create new resistances out of thin air, even with the help of genetic engineering,” she says. Resistance is guaranteed only one way—by consciously increasing local biodiversity. She says farmers in the Peruvian Andes grow 40 different varieties of potato in a one-acre plot—far more than would occur naturally. On Chiloe Island off the coast of Chile, there are enough strains of potato to eat a different kind each day of the year.

This book does an excellent job of describing the mindset and interconnections involved in global food production. The section stating and countering corporate lies is particularly useful. The book falls apart, however, when describing solutions.

By now, many potential readers eat so-called organic food. But that is not enough. Eating is indeed a political act, as renowned chef Alice Waters reminds us, and we should certainly buy produce at the local farmers' market. It's also a good idea to grow urban gardens in vacant lots so that the poor also have access to good—real—food.

But what about Alice Waters' dream of eliminating fast food from school lunches? Nor did I read about Slow Food, the eco-gastronomic nonprofit that promotes endangered food by teaching people to love food just for the taste and pleasure of it. Truth is, you cannot love good food and not be an environmentalist.

The saddest thing about this book is its utter unwieldiness. Even the paperback version weighs more than five pounds. It is so big that I found it awkward to read while sitting in a chair—never mind trying to lug it to the beach or on an airplane. ‘Tis a pity, because it could transform lives.


Ellie Winninghoff has written for publications as diverse as Forbes and motherjones.com. She is on the board of Slow Food Seattle.

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