Are you looking for a summer read? Check out these recently published books on a range of sustainable food and farming issues. Take a look and let us know what you think!

A Precautionary Tale: How one small town banned pesticides, preserved its food heritage, and inspired a movement

Philip Ackerman-Leist

At first read, A Precautionary Tale seems like the isolated story of a small-town struggle to maintain traditional organic farming in the face of large-scale pesticide dependent agriculture. However, this story of life in Mals, a town located in northern Italy on the border with Switzerland and Austria, represents a battle taking place across the world, and demonstrates the potential for direct democracy and community mobilisation to preserve food heritage and encourage a pesticide-free future in the face of industrial agricultural interests.

Through the eyes of numerous characters including a forward-thinking mayor, writer Philip Ackerman-Leist takes the reader on a journey across this Alpine landscape, home to some of the best organic farming practices in Europe. The tale begins by introducing Günther Wallnöfer, a traditional organic dairy farmer practicing rotational grazing and producing high quality hay with a mix of grasses, legumes and broad-leafed herbs. Despite his years of expertise in this type of farming, what Gunther could not control was the encroachment of pesticides onto his land from the vast swathe of large apple orchards making their way up the slopes of the valley. Residents like Günther were disturbed by the toxic sprays which threatened their organic certification, as well as their own health and that of their livestock.

The wider narrative of the book identifies some of the major problems facing agriculture today. “There’s something about the history of farming,” explains Urban Gluderer, another organic farmer in Mals: “As soon as we start doing something well, we often start doing it so well that things turn out badly.” The history of apple production is one such example of this – the efficiency of ‘Big Apple’ in Mals resulted in the near-death of traditional agriculture in the region, destroying the lives of many farming communities. The divide between productivity and sustainability seems to be an ever-increasing chasm, one which pertains not only to apple production in the northern hemisphere, but global livestock and arable farming, as well as fishing in the world’s oceans.

A Foodies’ Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the political economy of what we eat

Eric Holz-Giménez

Ever wonder how our food system got so messed-up? Eric Holz-Giménez lays it all out for you in A Foodies Guide to Capitalism. It’s a comprehensive look at the evolution of our current food system and what capitalism did to make it so problematic.

Holz-Giménez breaks down the theory of capitalism to explain in (fairly) simple detail, why our food system doesn’t uphold its fundamental prerogative to feed us effectively. It’s transformation of food into a commodity product disconnects it from its use value and creates a food system which is, “structurally designed for profit rather than need, speculation rather than equity, and extraction rather than resilience.”

Holz-Giménez calls for a moral economy to replace the capitalist economy – one that is governed by communities which currently, “sit precariously on the blurry divide between the market economy and the moral economy, employing different forms of production and consumption in ways that provide a degree of autonomy from capital.” This is the way forward and agroecology steps in to contest the principles of capitalism by privileging sound environmental practice and resilience. Holz-Giménez sees the peasant, smallholder and farmer as the new actors, no longer side-lined by corporations, middle-men and retailers. But he recognises that, “The food system is not broken; rather, it is working precisely as a capitalist food system is supposed to work. That is the first thing that we need to realise, if we want to change it.”

The book covers a broad range of issues affecting the food system – as well as explaining the principles of the food system as they relate to capitalism, it also looks closely at land and property, gender, race and class, privilege and power. Its ultimate argument is the need to change everything. We can regulate and reform capitalism all we want, but at the end of the day, we need to leave it behind in the search for a new equitable, fair, healthy and environmentally sound food system.

Call of the Reed Warbler: A new agriculture, a new earth

Charles Massy

Charles Massy interweaves personal stories with a call for change in his book about the need for regenerative agriculture. This “ecologically and socially enhancing” form of agriculture can reverse the harmful carbon-emitting signature of industrial food production that has come to dominate Western society, according to Massy.

Drawing on both his experiences and that of other farmers in Australian agriculture, he sees an optimistic future, one in which we “listen to the land”, bringing old and new practices together in a shift away from the industrial path and towards a resilient and more sustainable world.

What Massy calls the “mechanical mind” has dominated Western society with its focus on technological solutions, resulting in agriculture that has failed to work with nature, and rather has relied on chemical inputs that degrade the soil, deplete natural capital and harm our health.

Listening to the land is something many of us fail to do. In a country like Australia, where the natural environment can be highly challenging, with a prevalence of droughts, floods and fire, believing nature can be dominated and controlled will surely result in our downfall.

To shift away from this mindset requires a collective willingness to change our approach to how we farm, and indeed, how we interact with nature and the environment. This is challenging due to how deep-rooted the current way of thinking is; yet if anyone can inspire such change, it is Massy. His book shows just what is possible. Through his own story of turning from chemical farming towards an ecological and innovative system of health and harmony with nature, anyone seeking hope for the future will find it here.

Kiss the Ground: How the food you eat can reverse climate change, heal your body & ultimately save our world 

Josh Tickell

Josh Tickell, journalist, activist and filmmaker, writes on the importance of the world’s soils and explores, in a captivating and thought-provoking manner, the potential for a diet which supports good soil practice as a means of reversing global warming. His book, Kiss the Ground aims to encourage consumers to support systems of regenerative agriculture, which in turn eliminate poisonous substances such as non-organic, chemical fertilisers and pesticides which harm our bodies, other creatures and ultimately our world.

Call it what you will, regenerative agriculture, agroecology, biosequestration or drawdown, Tickell reveals that the United Nations (and most of the world) are blind to the simple solution to reducing carbon emissions – healthy soils. The irony, as he explains, is that bringing carbon into the soil helps solve multiple global problems, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increasing soil fertility which helps farmers to grow more and allows the oceans to release the CO2 that threatens to acidify the phytoplankton that produce so much of the oxygen we breath. It may sound complex, but Tickell manages to make the science beneath our feet – including the billions of microbes and fungi that live in the soil and the phytoplankton so negatively affected by ocean acidification – both comprehensible and fascinating.

The problem, he goes on to explain, is that what we eat (in the US and much of the developed world) comes predominantly from a large and complex agricultural system. Despite much of the book being focused on the US, the macro story of Kiss the Ground is one of global significance. And the good news, he says, is that there is a way to solve climate change, as well as the hunger, obesity and environmental damage caused by our current methods of food production. Tickell argues that through soil regeneration we can both increase yields and grow more nutritious food, feeding considerably more people better. A valuable take-home message if ever there was one.

Land Justice: Reimagining Land, Food and the Commons in the United States

Edited by Justine M. Williams and Eric Holz-Giménez

 Land justice – the right to access land by the communities that are rightfully due them – is a growing issue in the contemporary food movement. With a long history of land grabs wrought from colonialization, the rights of indigenous peoples and other marginalised communities that have had their land taken from them, is coming into focus.

It is largely America’s native tribes – Lakota, Sioux, Cherokee, Navajo and many, many others – that have been subjected to land grabs over several centuries. The mass removal of these tribes from their lands – the ‘trail of tears’ – was one of the most effective tactics of white colonialism in the US. The title of the book’s preface is The Land is Contested recognising that the US has been built on the removal of the rights of indigenous North Americans and the introduction of capitalism as the nation’s backbone, facilitated through more than 200 years of slavery.

Only 100 individuals own more than 34 million acres of farmland in the US, making up 1.5% of all US land – that’s a remarkable statistic. It constitutes a “financial aristocracy” in agriculture, made up of people who are far too wealthy to get their hands in the dirt – they are media moguls, investment bankers and other top tier businessmen. Land justice goes hand-in-hand with the food sovereignty movement – they are aligned around the principles of right and justice. While it is an uphill battle against capitalised mega-farms that are gobbling up more and more land, the hope lies in “…new farms – small, and often barely viable – [springing] up like weeds, breaking through the asphalt of a dysfunctional food system, supplying local markets and bringing better diets to under­served communities…These farmers are building a new culture of civic agriculture.”

And don’t miss…

The Secret Life of Cows

Rosamund Young

Rosamund Young’s charming and insightful book The Secret Life of Cows, recognises that cows, as well as other animals, have far more awareness and know-how than they are given credit for. At a time when intensive, factory farming predominates, and most cows are now recognised by an electronic number not a name, Rosamund’s insights are of even greater significance.

Based on her observations over forty years of farming 390 acres in the North Cotswolds with her brother Richard Young – the SFT’s Policy Director – Rosamund reveals that cows have visual memories which they can associate with unpleasant experiences, and are acutely sensitive to vibrations, sounds, sights and smells. The book includes a list of 20 things you should know about cows, including that they babysit for each other, invent games, take umbrage, nurse grudges and can love music. Most of these traits tend to go unnoticed, yet this unique book provides a view into a secret world which is easily recognisable if we care to look.

Rosamund’s book was recently re-published by Faber and Faber following praise from the author Alan Bennett in his diary column in the London Review of Books, in which he stated that The Secret Life of Cows “alters the way one looks at the world.”

Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the global food system

Edited by Danielle Nierenberg

Nourished Planet puts sustainable regenerative farming at the forefront of the food system, making a compelling argument that it is the only way to nourish both people and planet. The food security that localised food systems can provide further guarantees more equitable access to “sufficient, safe and nutritious” food.

Covering all the critical areas of dysfunction in our current food system, Nourished Planet offers a road map for how we should eat and produce food in the 21st century. Filled with practical suggestions and information on how to eat well, it is a handbook as well as a treatise. Its narrative is punctuated by interviews from important figures in the food movement, giving nuance and insight into the key issues impacting our global food system and pointing us in the right direction toward more conscious eating.

Photograph: Igh75

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