by Robert Paarlberg
The subtitle promises “straight talk” about the state of modern agriculture and consumption. This book is unusual in that it makes many forceful arguments while seldom devolving into polemic. The author is a descendent of midwestern farmers and knows from that perspective of which he speaks. He is here to defend farmers and technology, and to decry food processors and modern animal husbandry. You don’t usually get all that in one package. I found myself enjoying being challenged on some of my daily guiding principals, such as buying organic – as per Paarlberg, it’s at best a waste of my money, and at worse bad for the big picture long term. In short, organic requires more land and labor inputs. That’s bad for the environment. I’ve long known that the special drive I make to the farmer’s market, plus all the special drives that each individual vendor makes to get there, are not doing the climate any good. Since I’m going to the supermarket eventually anyway, cause you can’t live on samosas and greens alone all week long, it’s most efficient for me to stock up on all the vegetables I can handle there at Hannaford’s, where they’ve already traveled their food miles in huge bulk quantities, thus making the environmental cost of each individual bunch of carrots piffle.
But I’m not giving it up, no siree! I loves me my overpriced organic, local food. I just FEEL that I like knowing the food came from nearby, and that if anything were amiss with its production, I would be very likely to find out about it. And yes, I enjoy the bucolic scenery when I drive around, and I have to support the farms in order for that to continue to exist. Or should I put “farms” in quotation marks – good quote from Paarlberg: farms in New England are “usually just one step up from gardening and can’t count as exposure to modern commercial agriculture.” Understood. I know ‘farm’ around here and ‘farm’ in the Midwest are two different animals.
Speaking of animals, while Paarlberg is full of good things to say about modern farming, he draws the line at how we treat our animals. It was very good to hear him speak up for animal welfare, and not just stay to one side of the fence on all things modern in agriculture.
I really love his message about pointing our ire where it belongs, at the junk food producers, not the food producers. “Food products laden with sugar, salt, and fat are now deliberately formulated to ensure eaters will crave them; then they are promoted as innocent fun and placed within easy reach.” I love that phrase “promoted as innocent fun.” That’s the thing, I’m fully susceptible to that kind of message, sophisticate though I may be (ahem). Hmm, says my subconscious, the subconscious that will come up with any excuse to down something delicious… seems like EVERYbody snacks don’t they… EVERYbody buys ice cream… cmon, buy some ice cream. It’s a food staple! Get vanilla, how wholesome can you get! It’s INNOCENT FUN!
The previous food book I read, How to Eat, encouraged the same message as Paarlberg does here – all that stuff in the ‘middle aisles’ of the supermarket is NOT food, and don’t let them fool you, because that is what they are trying to do. You know what food is.
My least favorite chapter was the one about GMO’s, because here it felt like Paarlberg really deviated from the “straight talk” I felt he was delivering elsewhere. While almost all the other parts of the book felt balanced, Paarlberg has absolutely no room for misgivings in any way, shape, or form about GMO’s. They’re harmless. Always have been, always will be. As if there were really no other side to this issue to consider at all?
I end up awarding this book 3.5 stars rather than 4 – above just “AOK” but not quite deserving my “fan” status – for that reason.
I also end by noting I am eating meat only about once a week these days, and not cooking it at home. Tonight I made a kind of mushroom stew over whole wheat noodles. Last night with the same noodles I made this really delectable eggplant parm – no breading or frying, but plenty of cheese. Yes, dairy is still in my life. And the mushroom stew had beef “Better than Bouillon” starter. I’m no vegan, but I’ve become extremely vegetable- and whole-grain-forward. I’ll probably go back to cooking some of my cow/pig/bird favorites one of these days, but perhaps the meat-eating trend for me will continue generally downward for some time. ( )