Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Food in a Just World?


I bought this book because it was recommended by Marion Nestle, a food writer and nutrition expert whom I respect. I hoped it would inform me about industrial food production and the impact of food production on climate change — topics that have interested me for a long time. The overall description of the book made me expect some well-thought-out ideas on many of the problems with big agriculture in our society. Specifically, Nestle wrote:

”Food in a Just World is an up-to-the-minute introduction to issues of class, race, and gender—and species—in what we eat, as well as to how larger issues of economics and capitalism affect workers in the meat industry.  Whether you eat meat or not, the book convincingly argues that these issues demand serious attention.” (source)

Reading this book has been a very disappointing experience. The authors, Tracey Harris and Terry Gibbs, seem to me to be partly crackpots and partly extremists about many critical issues. Their writing is full of leftist buzzwords like “intersectionality” — “decolonization” — “cultural embeddedness” — “paradigm shift” — “neoliberalism”  (to name only a few). The book also has problems with organization and repetitiveness. I’m very suspicious of the credibility of the experts they quote. The fact that the book is centered on Canada and Canadian issues as well as global ones is disconcerting, but I don’t find fault with that. However the authors dwell on the fact that the land originally belonged to tribal people, whose food-ways were obliterated, and this doesn’t really contribute to finding a solution to current problems.

The authors’ vision of an ideal world seems very dubious: I doubt if the idyllic nature of their utopia would result in a global ability to provide even minimal nutrition for the current world population. Their vision might seem good for farm animals, but I think it would cause mass starvation of many species, especially humans. While such utopias always sound rosy, this one resembles others in that there’s no plausible way for the world to achieve it; that is, the authors have lots of idealism but no practical suggestions. Even if it could happen (if human nature and greed changed immediately) there’s no way shown that it would be timely enough to avert the clearly impending disaster of climate change.

The analysis of what’s wrong in general is unarguable, and they kept me reading the book. The threats of climate change, emerging animal-engendered diseases, widespread hunger in all parts of the world, potential mass famines, and many other examples of how food justice is lacking in our society and global society are all convincing. Here are some specific examples that I find useful:

“Inhabitants of North America and Western Europe make up 12 percent of the world’s population, but they represent 60 percent of individual consumer spending (World Watch Institute 2016). Consumer-citizens in those regions consume on average ‘3 times as much grain, fish, and fresh water; 6 times as much meat; 10 times as much energy and timber … as the resident of a poor country’” (p. 121)

“Small-scale peasant agriculture still provides 70% of the food that’s eaten in Africa.” (p. 65) 

“More than three-quarters (77%) of global soy is fed to livestock for meat and dairy production. Most of the rest is used for biofuels, industry or vegetable oils. Just 7% of soy is used directly for human food products such as tofu, soy milk, edamame beans, and tempeh. The idea that foods often promoted as substitutes for meat and dairy – such as tofu and soy milk – are driving deforestation is a common misconception.” (p. 68)

A few of the authors’ solutions to creating a just system for providing adequate worldwide nutrition include: ending capitalism; ending big corporate agriculture such as mass livestock and poultry raising and industrial food processing; ending the destruction of rainforests to provide areas for growing crops; making agriculture generally less disastrous for the environment; improving education about nutrition; providing everyone with food that’s appropriate to their ethnicity including convincing everyone to become a vegan; treating food workers better; treating animals as if they were workers; and a few other ideas. None of these ideas are exactly bad, but also none of them are remotely practical or likely to end climate change and its major impact on humanity.

The authors, in sum, are good at describing problems, flaky in analyzing the problems, and unconvincing in presenting solutions either short-term or long-term. The repetitive, polemical nature of the book and its constant reliance on quotations instead of a consistent narrative also make it hard to read.

UPDATE: This morning I read a well-thought-out article about the impact of producing meat, and in the context of my review, I wanted to pass it on. Although I do not think that it’s practical to end meat production entirely, I find many good things in this article: AI Won’t Fix Animal Agriculture.

Review © 2024 mae sander


Iris Flavia said...

I wonder why we are so persistent to read such books? I once read a book by a so-called scientist stating animals cannot think. It was a waste of time.
Thank you for the warning (a Lion can think, I am sure of that, if you see that book, don´t take it!).

eileeninmd said...

Thanks for your review, it does not sound like a book I would like.
Take care, enjoy your day!

Divers and Sundry said...

Those consumer spending figures! Unregulated capitalism is only good for those who are at the top of the pile already. Ending capitalism ain't gonna happen, though, since those are the very people in charge of things. More regulation with teeth for enforcement might be doable.

Rostrose said...

I certainly believe that a global rethink when it comes to nutrition would be important, but unfortunately almost everything you hear about it is far too far removed from reality...
All the best from Austria, Traude

Valerie-Jael said...

Hi Mae, sorry that the book was not quite what you hoped! I am not find of the leftist jargon either. The and markets and economy are not just, and I can't imagine it will change much in the near future, which is sad and bad! Time to sleep here, so I wish you a good 🌙 night!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I'm sorry that this book was such a disappointment.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your review of that book. Giving up capitalism isn't going to happen without a revolution (or tRump winning office). I also enjoyed the UNDark page you shared. It made far more sense than the book you reviewed. I have seen chickens kept ion tiny cages so their breasts can grow to over 3 lbs. Sad to see what they are put through.