In time for the holidays we thought we would share our top 5 recommendations of classic sustainably minded books that you simply must read if you want to understand core food system issues.

The final list is the result of much debate amongst our team, and we’re sure to have missed many, so please leave your own recommendations in the comments. But in the end, all the books featured here provide an essential education for any would be food pioneer.

An Agricultural Testament (1940)

Albert Howard

A seminal book that led to the growth of an organic farming movement. During a time when modern, chemical-based, industrialised agriculture was beginning to alter food production, Sir Albert Howard advocated a more natural approach, with a focus on the management of soil fertility. By examining the history of agriculture, Howard observed that those in India with the healthiest crops and animals, were those who eschewed chemical fertilisers for natural manure. Our Director Patrick Holden writes, ‘As far as I’m concerned, all the big ideas, which have formed the development of the sustainable agricultural movement are in this book. 73 years later, it’s still as relevant as the day it was written.’

Silent Spring (1962)

Rachel Carson

Published over 50 years ago, Carson’s siren call still has continued relevance for our situation today. Focused on the rising use of pesticides like DDT, Carson considered the impact of introducing such poisons to the ecosystems of the earth. Silent Spring galvanized a new era of environmental awareness and engagement, by questioning the arrogance of humanity to try and dominate the earth’s natural systems through chemistry and technology. The narrative of Silent Sprint and the future it asks us to imagine is still with us, gently tamed by regulation but still wreaking devastation across the globe.

Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered (1973)

E.F. Schumacher

Not exactly a book on sustainable food, but in its critique of Western capitalism, it lays out an ethos that lies at the heart of the Sustainable Food Movement. Schumacher puts humanity at the centre of his economic theory and argues that ‘Man is small, and therefore, small is beautiful.’ He questions whether consumption should be the be all and end all of capitalist existence, as well as whether the GDP is an appropriate measure of a population’s ‘well-being.’ His argument for the decentralisation of business prioritises locality and resists globalisation. Schumacher also radically rethinks economics’ relationship to the environment, questioning the treatment of our natural resources as income rather than capital that we need to hang on to. As much philosophy and politics as economics, Small is Beautiful, demands we think differently about our priorities in this global economic system.

The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and Dreamers (1976)

John Seymour

At the heart of Seymour’s guide to making everything – from creating a garden to making cheese to building a compost toilet – is a questioning of the nature of progress. Are we really making a better world with all the ‘stuff’ that supposedly helps us do everything better and faster? Seymour denies that self-sufficiency is in anyway going back, but rather sees it as going forward with more care and responsibility. He champions ‘hard, varied work in the open air’ and the value of living, literally, off the land. He takes husbandry of livestock and the land seriously, reminds us of the beauty of the hand-made and banishes waste from his home and holding.

The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977)

Wendell Berry

One of the early critiques of industrialised farming, Wendell Berry hits the nail on the head when he writes ‘For the true measure of agriculture is not the sophistication of its equipment, the size of its income or even the statistics of its productivity but the good health of the land.’ Berry, a writer, academic and farmer, is passionately compelling in his verse. His attack on ‘agri-business’ is unrelenting and like Schumacher in Small is Beautiful, capitalism is the culprit. Its need to push everything towards the highest possible profit margin, is at the centre of what Berry sees as a cultural as well as agricultural break down.

Photography by Stijn Nieuwendijk

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