By way of background, I read this book after finishing a series of food related books that had, by this point, essentially changed how I view the food I eat, enlightened me about the true status of our farming and food industries and the (lack of) regulations that protect us, and most importantly, how I want to feed my growing daughter. Specifically, in the year prior to reading Organic Manifesto, I had already read (in the following order)
• In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
• Food Matters, Mark Bittman
• Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
Each of these books were eye opening and intriguing in their own right, and I hope to add some thoughts about them in other posts. But none of them really provided an extensive examination about the merits of organic farming over conventional farming and that is what I hoped to gain by reading Organic Manifesto. I was already familiar with and greatly admired the Rodale Family as a general matter through my subscription to Organic Gardening magazine and another book that I own (but not have finishedd yet), Our Roots Grow Deep: The Story of Rodale, the history of J. I. Rodale, published by Rodale Inc. As a result, my expectations of a thorough analysis and pep talk from one of organic farming’s leading individuals were high.
Before reading this book, I was already very familiar with organic farming methods from my own personal backyard gardening experience and from the research I had done over the past few years as a consumer of organic foods. But I still learned a few things from this book notwithstanding its short length, particularly about the historical use of fertilizers and how the use of chemicals and pesticides is tied to the end of World War II. In fact, I think the author could have said a lot more and provided additional factual support for the benefits of organic farming, if not more background about the relevant regulatory agencies and labeling standards, but if the point of this book was to be a primer for the average consumer, then the goal was surely met. Personally, I like lots of facts, arguments and analyses and I felt that this book fell short of what I wanted and was expecting. Maybe the author will deliver in another book since I believe she has probably left a number of organic champions like myself wanting more.
But more than the factual nuggets that are gained from this book, I think its strengths lie largely in the way the author makes some of her arguments and sets forth her points of view. For instance, on page 81 the author notably points out that “conventionally” grown food is presently considered the norm, even though such food is grown with pesticides or other chemicals, unlike organic produce. The author’s point in this passage is that conventional, in its normal usage, typically conjures up images of historical practices or generally accepted standards….yet when you look back at food production and farming, particularly when it preceded the relatively new age of chemical farming, that is anything but the case. In other words, we are only a few generations removed from the pesticide intensive farming practices that result in our “conventional” produce and foods today. How brilliant is that? I never thought about it that way. And she’s absolutely right. Can you imagine going to the supermarket and seeing labels advertising corn that was “grown lovingly with pesticides” or “chemically farmed”—which is arguably synonymous with “conventional”, at least as that term is used in grocery stores today? I can assure you it would give you more pause than just throwing some “conventionally grown” corn into a bag. Since reading this passage, I can honestly say that I now get angry when I see those “conventional” signs and feel like someone is trying to pull the wool over our collective eyes. While I try to buy organic as much as possible, sometimes there just isn’t any alternative so there is still conventional produce being eaten in our house from time to time. My complacency for purchasing conventional produce has waned since reading this book, particularly as a result of this passage and the way the author makes this point.
Maria Rodale makes several poignant observations throughout the book. On page 91 she writes that we are failing as a society by not using a whole systems approach to understand our world and the problems that exist in it. This is something that I have also thought about for a long time; the interconnectedness of so many things around us that we often forget to acknowledge or try to understand. She also seems down to earth and mainstream when she advocates for having things like organic Twinkies (page 170). By acknowledging that even the junk food can be perfectly OK if it is grown and made in a better way, ideally using organic ingredients, she gives the impression that she understands that as a society most of us are not going to give up junk food anytime soon so let’s find another more positive way to incorporate it into our lives. Often times I think people who champion for organic foods are perceived as elitist, and I wonder why that is the case. Maybe it is because the foods are often so much more expensive. But I just can’t see how wanting to eat foods that are grown in a manner that is healthier for us and our planet is akin to snobbery—isn’t that something we should all want?
The next big push in the organic movement should be to drive prices down so that they are more accessible to all of us, even those who would still buy the organic Twinkies over the organic apples. The author briefly notes that the reason “chemical foods” are so much cheaper is due to the subsidies these industries get—I wish the book had more information about that. Ultimately it will be consumers and the voting public that will need to demand that the current subsidy structure change, but without an understanding of how it all really works, change will be slow to come. I wish the author had written more in this regard. Overall she does a good job at the end of providing some brief action points for the reader to consider. Unfortunately, I am not sure how much this message will get out—that seems to be the main problem: getting the average consumer to change his or her buying habits and how they view food. Considering that I am someone who already knows quite a bit about this issue and buy organic as often as I can, I wonder who the intended audience was and who it ultimately will turn out to be.
All of the books mentioned in this post, including Organic Manifesto, are feeding my apparently insatiable desire to learn more about our food industry, the way mainstream society eats, why the way we currently eat is not environmentally sustainable nor healthy and why it is imperative that we all change the way we think about food and its production. To that end, there are more books in the queue to help me better understand the role of farming in all of this. Two books slated for review on this site (hopefully in the not too distant future) will be The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry and A Long Deep Furrow: Three Centures of Farming in New England by Howard S. Russell.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Have you read any of the books mentioned in this review? If so, what were your thoughts, particularly about Organic Manifesto? As always, book recommendations are much appreciated!
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