THE VANISHING LAND by Robert West Howard


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A history of American use and misuse of the land, full of admirable intentions and feisty opinions--but also maladroit writing and amateurish scholarship. Howard, a long-time writer on matters agricultural and historical, is justly appalled at both the speed with which the ground is being yanked out from under us and the ""plastic curtain"" of commercial processing, packaging, and distribution that neatly insulates the consumer from this crisis. He traces the origins of the present situation (topsoil loss, water depletion, etc.) back to the profligate abuse of land for single cash crops that was at least one part of the colonial heritage. The self-sufficient family farm is Howard's agricultural ideal; he presents the great 19th-century technological breakthroughs--in farm machinery, fertilization, transportation, and food processing--as the harbingers of the modern farmer's bondage to ""middlemen"" and stunningly expensive ""techno-serfdom."" As for the Department of Agriculture, he sees most of its history since 1862 as a saga of abandoned mandates and self-perpetuating bureaucracies--apart from the lunacy of sponsoring both high-yield crop research and reduced-production incentives. But in Howard's handling of these materials, naive analogies and wildly telescoped inferences abound. The history of the Grange and other farmers' movements is structured around the notion that such organizations should have been modeled on rural barn-raising or threshing bees; the runaway speed of early land-pillaging is laid to scientific ignorance resulting from the tyranny of Bible-thumping preachers. Technical concepts are frequently muddled (desalinization of sea water somehow gets treated under the rubric of water conservation) and bloopers involving food chemistry are legion (""salt"" for ""sodium,"" ""glucose"" for ""gluten,"" ""epidermis"" for ""endosperm""). The last few pages, where Howard lets loose with a few impracticable but pungently provocative suggestions (trade in the USDA for a Department of the Land, replace the present jumble of international grain trafficking with centralized global management under the FAO), are worth most of what comes before.

Pub Date: April 15th, 1985
Publisher: Villard/Random House