Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food and a Green New Deal

Ronnie Cummins

Grassroots Rising is an activist’s handbook for change. Its ambitions are big – it seeks to lay out a road map for how we save ourselves and our planet from our certain future. The principle value in it is ‘regeneration’ and the food system sits at the centre of author Ronnie Cummins’ plan. The ‘Rules’ of engagement are mapped in the first chapter: think positive; connect the dots and understand people’s primary concerns; organise holistically, not around a silo of concern; aim at systemic change; act locally but see the wider picture; be an example yourself. It’s a sound vison – and ‘We the global grassroots, must rise up’, writes Cummins.

By way of an introduction to his argument, Cummins takes his readers carefully through the issues of the climate emergency and lays out in detail what needs to be done to mitigate it. While the situation is indeed dire and getting worse, Cummins also argues that we can in fact, fairly easily, turn global warming and climate change around within 30 years, but that it will require comprehensive change on an economic, environmental, political and social level. Food, farming, land use and renewable energy will be front and centre in how we do this, with regenerative farming and carbon sequestration key. This ‘gives us our best and last chance not only to survive and restabilize the climate but to thrive—with healthier food, fiber, animals, people, and local economies as our reward.’

More broadly in Grassroots Rising is a call for ‘bold, multi-issue radical populist approaches’ to addressing the climate emergency, along with a paradigm shift in consumer values. Initiatives like the ‘Green New Deal’ in the US, provide one example of how change might happen. But on the ground, in the everyday, citizens as consumers have an important role to play. Discussing at length the problem of our ‘degenerative’ food system dominated by inhumane treatment of animals, damaging environmental practices and food that is causing an epidemic of non-communicable diseases, Cummins calls for a new divestment movement focused on the global industrial food system. It’s time to eat real food, and such a change could make a world of difference in the problems that we face.

Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities and Our PlanetOne Bite at a Time

Dr Mark Hyman

Hyman, like Cummins in Grassroots Rising, sees the food system as the nexus of all our most difficult problems. Looking at things from a doctor’s perspective, he calls for the ‘power of our forks’ and he looks closely at the impact of what and how we eat on the myriad of problems that we face.

Diet is a significant focal point for Hyman and his ideas align strongly with the concept of ‘positive health’ – a belief that ‘The state of vitality in human beings is connected directly to the food we eat.’ Hyman sees the interconnectedness of this and how it generates health. He is committed to the idea that food is medicine.

Food Fix is a comprehensive journey through the ailments generated by our industrialised food system. Hyman starts, understandably, with processed food and a damning analysis of its impact on health. Big Food and Big Ag have insinuated themselves into food and agriculture policy, through lobbyists and money, and worked to manipulate and distort what constitutes nutrition. As a result, a global epidemic of non-communicable diseases is assaulting health services around the world.

But it’s not just the ill health of the global populace that is impacted by this, it is a systemic attack also on ‘human and intellectual capital’ and the ecology of our environment. Hyman writes saliently about how processed food has created a ‘food apartheid’ in which disease is a by-product of poverty and injustice. Eating well, is increasingly the domain of the well-off and the terrible irony of this is that farm and food workers are among the most poorly paid, struggling to afford anything more than the food of the lowest nutritional value.

Throughout the book, Hyman points to solutions, what we need to do and how we need to change to make our situation better. His final chapters focus on agriculture – the importance of soil health, why preserving biodiversity of plants and animals is so important, and where water is coming from. Regenerative agriculture provides one valuable answer to our problems. But also, Hyman reminds us, ‘Most important, don’t forget to eat well, thank your farmers and ranchers and remember that fixing the food system is a choice you can make every day.’

Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft 

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s research on cultured meat is wide reaching and there is more philosophy in it than you would expect – this is not a scientific analysis of how cultured meat is made. It is instead a treatise of sorts, on meat and what means to us and why the promise of meat without harm to animals is so compelling to many.

Wurgaft is thoughtful and erudite in his consideration of meat, starting with an examination of what has been asserted in evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology, regarding our ‘carnivory’. What has meat’s role been in the development of homo sapiens and why do we love it so much? He moves on to explore human nature and the human psyche crossing interdisciplinary boundaries from art to science to economics – it’s a deep read, beautifully written in lively and engaging language.

The book opens that day in 2013, when the first attempt at cultured meat was presented to the world with much fanfare – a piece of lab-grown hamburger made of bovine muscle cells, costing $300,000. This startling cost reflects more than just the power of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, it is a measure of cultured meat’s ‘promise’ as Wurgaft puts it, a promise that shifts the nature of the dialectic around it. He further reminds us that ‘the Old English ceap, meaning “cattle,” gives us the modern [word] cheap’, revealing the disturbing distance between the ‘cheap’ proliferation of feed-lot cattle and the cost of change.

The value of cultured meat is hotly debated and Wurgaft’s extensive journey through the culture of cultured meat is fascinating, He garners insights of an expansive nature, meeting with artists, scientists, Silicon Valley capitalists, farmers and others in a quest for what cultured meat means for our future. He writes in response to that cultured hamburger, ‘This meat’s utter weirdness cannot be overstated. Meat that never had parents. Meat that never died (in the sense that a whole animal dies) and, in the eyes of some critics who define their meat narrowly, never properly lived. Meat that could utterly transform the way we think of animals, the way we relate to farmland, the way we use water, the way we think about population and our fragile ecosystem’s carrying capacity of both human and nonhuman animal bodies. A new kind of flesh for a planet of omnivorous hominids who eat more meat with each passing generation.’ It is indeed food for thought.

Dancing with Bees: A Journey Back to Nature

Brigit Strawbridge Howard

Reading Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s Dancing with Bees feels like having a conversation with a friend who loves nature and whose irresistible passion for the natural world is infectious. You come away from the conversation finding that you have learnt so much, without feeling the slightest bit like you have been lectured. For such an educational piece, there is nothing textbook-like about it; it’s much more like a story book, with all the information on bees and other fauna and flora delivered in Howard’s flowing, easy-going writing style, and beautifully illustrated with personal scenes in her garden and allotment.

Dancing with Bees is packed with practical tips on what we can do to help the bees (and other insects) that we share our habitats with – and there might be some surprises in store here. For example, the increasingly popular ‘bee hotels’ available for purchase to provide nesting sites for different bee species need a little bit of housekeeping, if they are to help rather than hinder their guests. ‘If you make a conscious effort to attract bees to nest in your garden, I believe you have a duty of care to those bees. You certainly don’t want your well-meaning efforts to inadvertently cause them more problems than they already have to contend with,’ explains one of the many experts Howard chats to in her book.

Importantly, the book not only increases your knowledge, but also your awareness of the plight of many bee species due to human activities and why they need our help, and also encourages us to simply notice these small but mighty creatures, to take joy in their presence, and to appreciate their company. And your appreciation for these important, amazing insects is certain to soar long before you reach the final page of this book. ‘Next time you see a bee, don’t forget to thank it,’ Howard reminds us.

The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World

Amanda Little

Environmental journalist Amanda Little begins her book in a pot pie factory in Salt Lake City that is producing an all-in-one meal she describes as the ‘food equivalent of a first aid kit’, for a future of interrupted food supplies. Given that 40% of the US are obese and two thirds are overweight she wonders if this is really necessary? Yet with looming environmental and political threats, not to mention the coronavirus pandemic which this book pre-dates, Little asks the question, “How screwed are we exactly?” when it comes to food security.

Little argues that as climate change plays out people will experience it most acutely through the availability of food, and with an increasing global population, we’re all going to have to adapt. To find out how this might be possible, she sets off on a mission around the world. The solution, she believes, lies in looking to ‘third way’ agriculture, which lies between the binary options of a return to pre-industrial practices, which she sees as inaccessible for vast swathes of the population, and industrial, high yield farming that comes at a high ecological cost. Instead, this alternative solution is a synthesis of both, using advanced technology and research as well as ‘wisdom of the ages’.

Along her travels she visits the US’s biggest vertical farm and meets farmers in Kenya adopting GM crops who are trying to move away from the past and feed a growing population. She visits Blue River Technology who make robotic weeders, that can dramatically reduce the chemical inputs, and travels to Israel, where a smarter water network has significantly reduced water waste to help the drought-stricken country become 95% self-sufficient in food. She also addresses the hotly debated issue of meat eating, visiting a Californian lab that is growing cellular meat, as well as the possibility of ‘ancient wisdom’, where older varieties of crops may hold the answer to future food resilience.

The book is long, yet it raises some important questions that challenge the ideology of the traditional sustainable food movement, along with a healthy dose of scepticism towards some of the technological solutions. There is, however, little mention of our consumption patterns, which are in part driving these environmental threats. If our diets were more sustainable, surely we could reduce the reliance on controversial technologies such as GM and lab grown meat and focus on producing food in harmony with nature, rather than against it?

And don’t miss…

Sacred Cow: The Case for (Better) Meat

Diana Rodgers, RB, and Robb Wolf

As the debate on eating meat continues with vigour, Diana Rodgers and Robb Wolf step into the fray with a thoughtful and comprehensive argument as to why we need ruminants and the meat they provide. Rodgers, a nutritionist, and Wolf, a biochemist, tackle the wide range of questions and assertions on cattle and meat consumption: ‘Don’t cattle take up too much land and water?’, ‘Why eat animals when we can survive on only plants?’, ‘How do cattle sequester carbon?’ and other things we need to know before weighing on whether eating meat is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The book is called ‘Sacred Cow’ because the meaning of that phrase refers to something that is assumed to be unassailable and above criticism – Rodgers and Wolf try to map the complications of our assumptions about eating meat and unpick them, making a case for its nutritional, environmental and ethical value.

Also, keep an eye out for the forthcoming movie, ‘Sacred Cow’.


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