You might cleverly deduce from the subtitle of Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future that this is a doom-and-gloom book. I did not, and I regret my oversight. The author does a great job showing that relying on just a handful of the most productive crops is a recipe for disaster as pests and diseases can wipe out entire species. But he does so in the most apocalyptic manner, which weakens the argument, I think. For instance, he could just say that United Fruit planned the Guatemalan railroads to be as useful as possible to transport bananas, rather than as useless as possible to the people of Guatemala. The latter may be a consequence of the former, let’s not exaggerate.
In the same vein, it’s clear we need seed banks, and scientists that are not on the payroll of agribusiness companies. But more inspiring stories (about the survival of the Leningrad seed collection during the WWII siege, for instance) and fewer doomsday descriptions would carry the message forward just as effectively.
As a descendant of the Stroh family, of beer-making fame, Frances Stroh could expect a privileged childhood followed by a comfortable adulthood financed by a hefty trust fund. Instead, as she tells in Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, she got a rich but difficult childhood growing up with an alcoholic and tyrannical father, followed by little money as the once-flourishing family business shrank drastically, victim of changing times and not-so-great business decisions. The first part of the story reminds us that children desperately need parents who are present rather than rich, and we feel very sorry for the author. The second part shows how entitled heirs can be, expecting “their” share of the money to somehow fall in their laps without having to do anything about it. No more pity, or perhaps only pity for how ill-prepared she was.
Do you hate Bill Gates? Then you will love The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century, which often reads like a 300-page diatribe against him personally and his charitable foundation.
Why the author would choose this form of expression is unclear. Basically he hates everything about food programs. He hates the fact that the percentage of very poor people in the world has fallen (because the absolute number has increased — which is sad, but does not negate progress, right?) He hates that many people involved in antipoverty programs (including his nemesis, Bill Gates) are optimistic that the situation will continue improve. He thinks that we should all stop all optimism, right away. He knows, just knows that harvests will fail and we will all starve and he and Malthus predicted it: there are just too many humans on too small a planet. He hates that philanthropists choose to fund school before everyone knows that we should, instead, feed babies and toddlers (he has a point but perhaps it’s better to fund schools than say, wars). He can’t even start to consider the benefits of GMO crops because women in sub-Saharan Africa are still having too many babies (Should we pause all efforts while they decide that 2.2 is a good number? That would be insane.) He also deplores that the same antipoverty mavens noted above (and in particular the very bad Bill Gates, did I mention he hates him?) are able to applaud when countries headed by dictators make some progress fighting poverty.
It’s very tiring to read a book filled with such hate of everything. Too bad, since there are many valid points in the book, in particular the problem of doing good only when good can be publicly recognized and admired.
Written by an agronomist turned journalist, The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World starts with Malthus’s ill-fated prediction that humanity would have starved a century ago and takes us through the green revolution and the limits we may be reaching today to feed the earth’s population without destroying the very earth we depend on.
Many of the stories are frightening but they are balanced by others that show that relatively small changes, none of which involve going back to gruel, can feed all of us for a long time to come. For instance, the author talks about experiments in integrated aquaculture that include fish, oysters and other shellfish, together with sea cucumbers and kelp to filter the waste produced by the other animals. And, perhaps more practically, about process changes in Ukraine wheat farms that allow grain elevators to triple their daily processing capacity. All this from someone who can casually recall attending a weed science class in college with a professor who thought DDT was the best chemical ever invented.