Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book Review: Feeding People is Easy

This is a quick read (maybe a few hours), but it is pretty packed with ideas. In some ways, Colin Tudge seemed to oversimplify some political and social issues, but in all, this is a valuable book if you want to start thinking about how it's possible to make changes in our current agricultural system.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Colin Tudge, a British scientist, lays out a plan for 'fixing' our current food economy. He explores the question "WHY? Why are we failing so miserably at feeding ourselves properly?" In a world of extremes, where millions of children go blind from, and die of, starvation--and millions more children are obese and developing diseases related to that obesity--how do we go about fixing the problems we face? Not only that, how do we develop an agricultural system that will sustain our species not only for our children, but indefinitely?

He puts to paper some key ideas that make absolute sense. He emphasizes more than once that 'taking on' the power structure simply won't work. A couple of chapters are devoted to the history of the corporation and why our global economy currently runs on the wheels of governments and corporations whose prime goal is to keep the cash flowing. Reform simply will not work, he claims, when there is so much to change and when the 'powers-that-be' perceive there is too much to lose. Flabbergasted by the apparent lack of concern for our obviously faulty agricultural system, and realizing that many of the world's injustices are tied to this failing system, he says that if we can get agriculture right, everything else will start to fall into place.

He eschews the idea of a revolution on the principle that the outcome can be totally unpredictable. Instead of reform or revolution, he describes a renaissance. In this renaissance of "Enlightened Agriculture", many groups with like minded ideas of preserving the planet, avoiding cruelty to humans and animals, and creating a sustainable life for everyone on the planet will come together and just start LIVING that life. They will be part of a "Worldwide Food Club" of growers, bakers, cooks, craftspeople, and consumers, all who 'give a damn' about quality food and life. If enough people catch on and opt out of mass merchandising and junk food, the status quo may be forced to adjust accordingly.

Tudge spends some time describing what constitutes nutrition for human beings, and how we have plenty of farmland to keep everyone in the world fed according to those basic nutritional tenets. He goes further than just making sure we are 'efficiently' and 'adequately' fed. He admits that for humans, nutrition is about much more than just being sustained--we love our food, we care about variety and texture and taste. He claims that part of the beauty of his plan is that we can get back to traditional cooking, and real food, and that we will never feel deprived. Everyone needs to know how to cook, at least in the most basic ways. Every country needs to get back to having a food culture that revolves around what can be grown, what is in season. Self-reliance is the most important thing for each country of the world if we are to fix our food problems(not necessarily self-sufficience, because some trading, within the guidelines of common sense, will go a long way to enhance life).

He discusses the current organic movement and says that many of its practices can be a model for how we need to farm. However, the monocultures that exist today, even in organic farming, need to be replaced with many mini-farms, similar to the family farms thatexisted in our past; farms run by good farmers and that produce a huge variety of foods and a small amount of livestock. He welcomes technology to the extent that it enhances agriculture without overtaking it or without harming the environment.

Tudge imagines an agrarian economy, where 20 to 50 percent of the population are farmers. These farmers will help ensure that our food supply is stable, and the rest of the population will have various livelihoods much like they already do, while supporting the farms. Just this 'simple' idea, to me, brings up a host of challenges and problems, for it would force a lot of our current economy to restructure. Tudge admits this is true and discusses some of those challenges. He suggests the idea of The College for Enlightened Agriculture, filled with sociologists, scientists, moral philosophers, and yes, politicians, who will work through the issues and find ways to make sure we don't make the same mistakes in the future. He claims that his ideas follow capitalism in its purest form, and he believes that capitalism could have worked beautifully if corporations had been kept in check, but I admit I was a little unclear on how everything could fit together when so much of the world still firmly believes in the 'bottom line' and making as much cash as possible. His vision is somewhat utopian in that he believes so many people will appreciate getting by comfortably without needing to get filthy rich. I personally feel this way--I've never been driven by greed or money--but I am skeptical when I'm surrounded by so many who are. Still, the idea that a new agrarian society could work, and that we could just ease right into it with enough people wanting that change, is extremely appealing.

It sounds like a revolutionary new world order to me, but Tudge seems certain that it's attainable with few 'growing pains'. In fact, he says that not only is this new approach to agriculture possible, it's absolutely necessary, or we are all dead. Most people today are becoming very aware that the way we currently approach agriculture is completely unsustainable. He welcomes technology to the extent that it enhances agriculture without overtaking it or without harming the environment.

What things can each person do right now? Find those farmer's markets and support them. Learn the lost art of cooking. Treat food like it's important. Start learning about groups that, in Tudge's words "give a damn", like those who support fair trade, organic farming, non-cruelty to livestock. Live life happily and as an example, and spread the word that we don't have to continue eating junk and perpetuating a world of injustice. If enough people make their own changes, and start networking together, we can make the necessary changes without an uproarious revolution. Possible? Maybe. Reading books like this one is a start.

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