Book Club: Understanding Our Modern Food System

I aspire to be an avid reader. I like everything from autobiographies and spy novels to science fiction and fantasy. But lately I find myself reading a lot of historical nonfiction. I seem to gravitate to big thinking authors like Mark Kurlansky, Bill Bryson, and Andrew Lawler. These and other authors have helped shape my understanding of our modern food system. But more importantly, they have helped give me ideas of how we can continue to improve on our modern food system. So here are my top recommendations to (begin to) understand 10,000 years of agriculture.

ggs.jpgUnderstanding the Origins of Agriculture

Read: Guns, Germs, and Steel – by Jared Diamond

Diamond sets the stage for an immense conversation. He hypothesized that the arc of human history was dramatically shifted by geographic, environmental, biological, and other factors, resulting in the worldwide dominance of the leading industrial powers during the past 500 years. The book won a 1997 Pulitzer Prize and quickly became a New York Times bestseller.

The book covers a lot of topics, but with regards to our modern food system we can start to understand that the spread of humans followed the spread of agriculture. Agriculture crops have typically only been spread around the globe at similar latitudes as where they were first domesticated. Wheat, barley, oats, sheep, and goats were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. Europe’s proximity to the Fertile Crescent and similar climate allowed those crops and livestock to be easily adapted. As farmers produced more food, human populations exploded. This set the stage for Europeans to cross the Atlantic and explore the world. It was then these same staple crops that were introduced in North America to help feed and fuel the growing populations that would become the United States.

The United States had a similar climate to Europe in that crops and livestock were easily adapted. The United State’s geography was also more horizontal than vertical. Crops and livestock could spread across the same latitudes easily and did not have to adapt to the colder climates of the north (Canada) or the hotter climates of the south (Mexico and Central America). The geography of the globe helped (for good or evil) predetermine some of the winners and losers in food production and later uneven economic development around the world.

edible.jpgUnderstand Food as a Tool that Shaped our Culture

Read: An Edible History of Humanity – by Tom Standage

Food is more than just sustenance. Food has been a kind of technology, changing the course of human progress by helping to build empires, promote industrialization, and decide the outcomes of wars. Standage weaves an epic timeline that encompasses kings and queens and how food helped craft our empires. Food was the driver for many technological inventions. For modern examples we look at the refrigerator or microwave but historically we look at the wheat mill or even something as simple as the fork.

Once civilizations were founded on the back of agriculture, complex societies emerged. Food storage systems evolved and food distribution systems were put into place. This allowed farmers to specialize and then trade. But whoever controlled the food controlled the wealth and power, so history has shown countless struggles. Food has even been used as a weapon. For example, the scorched earth policy as Russians retreated from the Napoleonic invasion left no food available for the invading army. The invasion ultimately failed. Food is a powerful weapon.

Much of the technology in the 20th century has revolved around the food system. The farm labor force has shrunk to all time lows with less that 2% of Americans actually involved in food production. Large scale machinery like combine harvesters have allowed labor to be minimized. The converse of that has been the increase in energy consumption. Farm work is more mechanized, but it requires a lot of energy. In addition to this, biotechnology and plant genetics have led to higher and higher yields. Technologies like the Haber Bosch process have allowed for increased yields from better nutrients.

kitchen.jpgUnderstand Our Relationship with Food

Read: Kitchen Literacy – by Ann Vileisis

Our modern relationship with food is defined by our not being involved in food production, but being intimately connected to to food. After all, we still eat three times a day. Vileisis‘ book tells of how we became disconnected from the sources of our food. Many of the issues discussed today are the same issues that were talked about a century ago.

People want to feel good about where their food comes from so they often allow a picture on the side of the packaging to dictate their knowledge of what the food is and how it was produced. Largely, our image of food and our understanding of food is created by marketers who use words like all natural, organic, cage-free, etc. to makes us feel good about our purchases. But few people understand what those terms mean and fewer people still understand how the food was produced.

The book inspires hope in becoming more connected to food. It isn’t really practical for all Americans to become wheat farmers so that we can harvest wheat, mill our own flour, and then bake our own bread. But we can all become closer to food by understanding how it was produced. We can visit farms and farmers markets. We can cook more. We have our own backyard gardens. By maintaining this connection to the land we can have a say in what our food system should look like in years to come.

What books have you read on agriculture or the food system? Leave us a comment with what book or books we should read next!

-Will 

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