A cri de coeur against the excesses of industrial agriculture in a time in which bigger is usually anything but better.
Walker, a farmer and international development worker, opens with a telling anecdote of traveling across the Kalahari Desert with a San Bushman who located a clutch of ostrich eggs and, choosing one to eat, left the rest to hatch, “something almost unfathomable to a Westerner.” That’s because, by the author’s account, Westerners have passed through the phase of gathering and then the great leap forward of settled agriculture to a “third relationship to food,” the bargain of the title that says that I get lots of cheap food from you in turn for not asking you too many questions about how that food was produced. Where food shortages had been the norm and a driver of history, now food surpluses have become common and, where not common, much desired standards to attain. The result? Walker offers a familiar litany of examples, such as tomatoes that don’t taste like tomatoes and potatoes whose nutrients have been stripped away, the better to make the tubers “a cheap medium to deliver fats (oils, butter, sour cream) and sugars (ketchup).” There are some useful data on hand here, such as the author’s observation that a “refined” food is one where just those nutrients have been removed and an “enriched” food is one where those nutrients have been added back in. It’s quantity and not quality that drives such a system, the desire for profit over considerations of environmental and human health that yields such things as corn-based biofuels. Readers of Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, or of Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan, will have a good handle on these matters already, and it’s a touch obvious to note that “America’s track record of recognizing and then stewarding finite resources has not been good.”
A well-intentioned book that doesn’t bring much new to the table.