Here are some informative books and movies about the environmental effects of food and farming. Check them out and enjoy! As I read more books and watch more movies, I’ll add to the lists so be sure to check back every once in a while.
Movies: Most of these movies you can find and watch online somewhere. If you get tired of my descriptions, click the movie title to see a trailer!
Food, Inc. This is the classic introductory movie to conventional agriculture and factory farming, their harms on our health, community, and environment. This film also looks at agribusiness: its economic and legal power and corruption as well as its link with cheap, highly processed, unhealthy food. I would be wary of how Food, Inc. tends to simplify and dramatize issues as some movies do. Like I said, it’s an introduction, but doing a lot of your own research and reading will give you a better idea of the details and complexities of our food system.
Food Fight This movie gives a short, simplified introduction to the history of conventional agriculture. The film focuses on the movement to get away from a globalized food system of agribusiness giants to one of fresh, healthy, whole foods. Much of the criticisms of conventional farming are nothing new and can be found in other documentaries like Food, Inc. That said, I really enjoyed the second half of the movie when I learned more about different people and programs which are a part of the fresh food movement: Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, the Edible Schoolyard, Will Allen and Growing Power, etc.
Fresh This documentary looks a little bit at the current conventional food system, but focuses more on farms that are doing things differently and more sustainably. The documentary features farmers like Will Allen (of Growing Power) and Joel Salatin (of Polyface farms), examining the ways in which they produce healthy, low-impact food. The film also takes an interesting look at a grocery store owner who buys from local co-operatives, delving briefly into the larger issue of food distribution. In this way, the film looks at people involved in different parts of the food system and contrasts conventional and more sustainable agriculture.
The Future of Food This documentary looks at genetically modified crops: the companies that produce them, the patent on life, and everything else that comes with our current use of GMOs. The film takes a strongly anti-GMO stance. The various people interviewed provide interesting perspectives on GMOs that I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t like the film’s failure to acknowledge the positive possibilities of GMOs. However, I still came away with a better understanding of the details of the controversy, grounded in concrete historical and scientific evidence.
King Corn I wrote a post about this movie a while ago, so you can find a more detailed description of it there. Essentially, this film is about “two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation” (from the movie’s website). In watching this movie, we can better understand how corn makes its way into most of our processed foods and how it has become the center of US agribusiness.
Botany of Desire This documentary is based on Michael Pollan’s book (below). The documentary expores Pollan’s idea that plants, with their beauty, flavor, or other desirable qualities, have taken control of humans and encouraged us to cultivate them and spread them around the world. I had an earlier post about this idea and if you don’t have time for the whole movie I would recommend Pollan’s TED talk about it.
Books: There are so many books on food and farming out there, especially as people are becoming more interested in these issues and debates. The following are just the books which I have read. I’m always reading about this stuff, so make sure to check back!
NEW! Food, Inc. by Peter Pringle Far more thorough and open-minded than the unrelated movie of the same name, this book “presents the most comprehensive and lucid account yet of the history, science, and politics of food made with genetic engineering,” as professor Robert M. Goodman points out. There is a lot of of sensationalism on each side of the biotechnology debate but in this book, unlike most other writing on the topic, Pringle does a great job of acknowledging valid arguments made by both proponents and opponents to genetic engineering. Pringle uncovers these arguments by looking at specific landmark events, such as: the evolution of patents that protect plant varieties and scientific processes, the quest to develop rice rich in Vitamin A, and a highly controversial study which claimed that genetically modified Bt corn pollen was killing monarch butterflies. At many points the author goes back hundreds of years to provide a fascinating context for modern issues, examining historical figures such as Gregor Mendel, Nikolai Vavilov, and Norman Borlaug. Pringle acknowledges the potential of GM crops, but also cites “the arrogance of corporate control and the failure of government regulations” as factors hindering this potential. This is really a must-read if you want to be able to take part in the GM debate. You will learn a great deal about what goes on in the lab at the microscopic level, what goes on in the farm fields, and what goes on in the biotech companies themselves.
NEW! The Jungle by Upton Sinclair Written in 1906, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a classic in the history of food regulation, safety, and politics. The book details the disgusting, unhealthy, immoral conditions of Chicago meat packing plants. In order to inform his writing on the matter, Sinclair worked in these plants for several weeks and saw the conditions first-hand. The book’s imagery and descriptions are powerful and clearly convey the injustice of the industry, addressing issues of food safety, workers rights, monopolization of food processing, and cruelty towards animals. Largely in response to Sinclair and other muckrakers as well as the public outcry they created, the government under Teddy Roosevelt passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, creating what would become the Food and Drug Administration. Additionally, the government passed the Meat Inspection Act which aimed to ensure the public supply of meat was clean and safe. Even though technology and regulation have improved, slaughtering and processing are still often immoral. Though at times Sinclair’s language seems thick and antiquated, this does not detract from the influence of The Jungle on federal food policy and the beginning of public concern on this topic.
NEW! Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver In this book, Kingsolver and her family try to live off only locally grown food for one year. It is essentially a documentation of their journey throughout the seasons of the year, organized month by month with chapter names like “Gratitude: May.” Along with this process comes meditations on the joys of being connected to your own food. These thoughts come when awaiting the emergence of the first asparagus shoots in spring, raising and slaughtering heritage turkeys, or foraging for morels. These are simply cool experiences to read about. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a fun and informative read if you want to learn about gardening, canning, cooking, and other homesteading stuff through a sort of romantic lens of culture and community. There are definitely some chunks of wisdom to be found. Kingsolver knows a lot about growing and preparing food but unfortunately not as much about the larger food system. The writer runs into trouble when she tries to extrapolate her “year of food life” to larger, practical uses and advocate for local and organic foods as the sole solution to our nation’s agri-environmental problems. Her thoughts on broad food industry issues are in my opinion over-simplistic, romanticized, and essentially useless. If you’re looking for critical thought on food and farming issues, there are much better books to read. However, this is a great book to read if you are looking to consider food from a more cultural, personal side. This book is valuable in that it encourages a close connection to food, which can in turn lead to more careful consumer choices.
NEW! Farm Together Now by Amy Franceschini and Daniel Tucker This book is made up of twenty interviews with innovative farmers from across the country. The cover fittingly reads: “a portrait of people, places, and ideas for a new food movement.” The wide variety of operations presented show the many directions that people are taking in order to improve our food system, for example: urban farms that fight food insecurity, a nonprofit organization that conserves traditional plant varieties, a learning center that educates youth and trains farmers, and co-operations of conventional farmers that work together to change the established industry from the inside. The book is more story- and person-based than informational, which has its advantages and drawbacks. Rather than an in-depth explanation and analysis of one person’s ideas, I came across many fascinating but brief snapshots of several efforts. I was inspired by the stories and found myself wanting to read and research more about them. The authors also have a great blog and website here.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan This is the classic food and farming book as it introduces us to the workings of our modern food system. Check out my earlier post here for a more detailed description of the book. Pollan has tons of books on a range of topics that I have yet to read, so check out those too.
Food Rules by Michael Pollan With this book, Pollan gives his opinions of what food is healthiest for us. The book is written in the form of simple rules with short descriptions (often less than a page). Pollan offers little nuggets of food wisdom in an attempt to move away from complicated nutritional assessments or fad diets. Pollan tells us not to “eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” e.g. something highly processed like Go-gurt. Another chapter instructs the reader to “eat your colors” as the phytochemicals responsible for a range of colors in different foods are healthy and antioxidant. Overall, this is a fun and wise book that I recommend.
Just Food by James E. McWilliams I just finished this book and it is one of my favorite farming books that I’ve read so far. Because farming is so complex in its different approaches and environmental effects, no book can really capture it all. But this book reminds us of how complicated the topic is and steers us away from the idea that locavorism and organic agriculture will solve all our problems. McWilliams argues that these ideas are extremist, closed-minded, and in some ways ungrounded. They attempt to simplify and boil down an issue that can’t be solved with a single solution. Over the course of the book, McWilliams covers a range of important and talked about agricultural controversies such as GMOs, fish farming, and animal agriculture. Forming well-founded opinions on each of these ideas and exposing us to a range of scientific evidence, McWilliams has created a well-researched, debunking, eye-opening book that I highly recommend.
Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook I wrote a post about this book earlier so you can read all about it there. I like this book because it focuses on a single food and examines its history, every step of its cultivation and distribution, and every controversy tied up in its production- from flavor and nutrition to the treatment of migrant workers. Estabrook takes a journalistic approach in his quest to uncover the tomato, consulting several farmers, workers, lawyers, scientists, and organization leaders. You’ll never believe everything that goes into bring the fruit to your plate.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer You can check out my earlier post on this book here for a good summary. Foer, who usually writes novels, examines the issues that arise in eating animals- fish, chickens, pigs, and cows. In his criticism of the consumption of animal products, Foer takes into account the cruelties and environmental harm of meat production, the health and nutrition around limiting meat consumption, and the culture behind what we eat.
Other books I am currently reading or am interested in reading include Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, The Good Food Revolution by Will Allen and Charles Wilson, The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan, Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter, Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel, Food Fight by Daniel Imhoff, and a huge number of books by Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan, and Wendell Berry.