Book Review

The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture.
By Andrew Kimbrell (ed.) Island Press, 2002.

Reviewed by Teri VanHall
Michigan State University
April, 2008

To "consume" means to destroy, as editor Andrew Kimbrell points out in his introduction of The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture.  The title aptly describes the focus on the failures of "Big Ag" to factor in the total costs of mass food production as presently practiced.  In this series of essays on the human health, ecological, economic, political, and future costs of our current model of industrial agriculture, leading scholars of the subject urge us to rethink our roles as "consumers", and to instead become conscious "creators" of a new, sustainable food systems paradigm.

The book opens with introductory essays on seven of the major myths commonly used to defend industrial agriculture - many of them the same myths advocacy groups such as The Institute for Food and Development Policy1 (better known as "Food First"), and Rodale's Cornucopia Project2, have been dispelling since the 1980's.  The principal myths are as follows:

1) Industrial Agriculture will feed the world (it hasn't yet and can't due to resource depletion and limitations); 

2) it is safe, healthy, and nutritious (endocrine disrupters, neurotoxins, cancer, diabetes, obesity, allergies are all linked to big ag food products);

3) it is cheap (it's subsidized and true costs are externalized); 

4) it is efficient (it wastes non-renewable resources, including people);

5) it offers more choices (it reduces biodiversity);

6) it benefits the environment and wildlife (it harms both extensively);

and 7) biotechnology will save the day, the planet, and the human race (it presents untold possibilities of grave danger to people and the planet).

Each of the myths are countered with research data exposing the fallacies of the industrial propaganda.  While the essays are largely successful in debunking the corporate hogwash with compelling arguments, some statements are not clearly cited.  Despite the extensive reference section, the unsourced statements leave the reader wondering who the intended audience is.  Nonetheless, every food-eater should be familiar with these arguments if he or she wishes to make informed and deliberate choices.  

Part Two discusses the differences between agrarian and industrial world-views.  Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson each contrast the driving values and effects of globalized and regional economies, while Helena Norberg-Hodge and David Ehrenfeld examine biodiversity and monoculture.   Joan Iverson Nassauer and Jerry Mander take a look at eco-logic vs. machine logic, and the results of using technology to either carefully enhance or recklessly subjugate ecological systems.  Ron Kroese's essay "Industrial Agriculture's War Against Nature" is vaguely reminiscent of Vandana Shiva's essay  "Globalization and the War Against Farmers and the Land" in The Essential Agrarian Reader, both of which enumerate the many ways industrial agriculture wages symbolic and literal war on biological systems, rather than responsibly managing them3.  Finally, Hugh Iltis discusses population growth and "the immaculate misconception" that growing more food with non-renewable resources can sufficiently address the issue of biological carrying capacity.  Taken together, this section introduces many of the major concepts associated with agrarian and industrial philosophies.

Part Three centers on the toxic effects of the industrial philosophy, ranging from environmental and human health hazards of artificial fertility and pesticides, to food irradiation, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  The essays in this section also show the serious damage and further risks industrial agriculture poses to soil and water quality, wildlife, biodiversity, and the critical role of pollinators in food production.  Perhaps the most disturbing theme here is the underlying erosion of democracy evident in both GMO right-to-know issues - GMO ingredients are not currently required to be labeled in the US - and in the legalized corporate externalization of production costs to communities worldwide. 

Rightly so, Part Four begins with an emphasis on dismantling corporate monopolies of local, national, and global politics, justice systems, intellectual property rights and the patenting of life with biotechnology.  This section begs the question, how long will we pledge allegiance, to the dollar, and to the globalized economy of extortion, and to the corporations, for which they stand, one world, under fascist rule, with serfdom and injustice for all?  Luckily agrarians such as those whose work is collected here have been asking the same questions for decades.  Proposed answers include common sense models of organic agriculture, integrated food systems, community food security, and consumer education, among others.  In a fairly-traded nutshell, these authors urge, that if we are to witness the creation of a sustainable food system, then come all ye faithful farmers, rabble-rousers, Socratic gadflies, to the table of the new paradigm: bang your forks and raise a wild ruckus, while there is still time.

The final sections of the book include notes on the contributors, all of whom have extensive backgrounds in food systems issues and organizations; an impressive list of selected references and readings; and a wealth of information on non-governmental organizations working in the various fields - not labs, pun intended - relevant to the future of food production.  Overall, this is an engaging, informative, thought-provoking read.  I give it two green-thumbs-up, and if I were a genetically modified, irradiated mutant, I'd give it three.

[1] Lappe, Frances Moore, Joseph Collins, and Peter Rosset. World Hunger: Twelve Myths. New York: Grove Press, 1998.

[2] Cornucopia Project, Rodale Press. Empty Breadbasket? The Coming Challenge to America's Food Supply and What We Can Do About It. Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1981.

[3] Wirzba, Norman (ed). The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003.