The "Food Debate": Introductory Reading

UPDATE: I made a minor update to the text below, based on a comment by someone over at Facebook. (A useful comment!) Since handing over the manuscript for the meat book, I've been reading up on what got neglected while researching that book: Contemporary food politics. The big irony of my work is that reporters often call me for comment on stories related to my work, but they're rarely interested in the historical angle. Which means that most of the time, I'm commenting on current news rather than past events.

Which is another way of saying that I wear two hats: Historian and observer-of-the-current scene. Which is why (hey, that makes three sentences in a row starting with the same word...) I'm spending my time reading up on said contemporary food politics.

And (oh, relief! Something other than "which") last night it occurred to me that some of you might be interested in boning up on the subject yourself. Problem is that it's difficult to find material that's not heavily weighted toward one "side" or the other. (*1) And even harder to find books whose authors take care to be accurate about what they're reporting.

But in recent weeks I've read three books that I recommend for those who are looking to understand the basics of the "food debate."

First is Food Politics, by Robert Paarlberg. (NB: If you decide to read it, make sure you pick up Paarlberg's book, and not a book by the same title but written by Marion Nestle.) (*2)  Paarlberg has been involved in the science and politics of food for decades and knows his stuff. The object of this book is quite simple: to provide readers with a basic overview of the main issues in global food politics. (This book is also a prime case of what I mean about reviewers on Amazon --- see note *1 below.)

Second is Tomorrow's Table, by Pamela Ronald and R. W. Adamchak. The two are husband and wife, both employed at the University of California-Davis. She's a geneticist; he run the university's organic farming operation. The structure of the book is a bit dorky, and it wasn't proofread, which means there are zillions of annoying typos. (*3) But if you can get past that, this is a superb introduction to the debate about the politics of food genetics. Highly recommended. Again, I urge you to read the reviews at Amazon to see what I mean about the one-star reviews. Never mind that she's a highly qualified scientist, and a vegetarian . . . . Hilarious.

Third is Just Food, by James McWilliams. He's a historian at Texas State University who's written, among other things, the single best history of early American food (A Revolution In Eating). But along the way, no surprise, he became interested in contemporary food politics, and he brings a historian's perspective (meaning he takes The Long View of the Big Picture and is obsessed with accuracy) to this new book of his. (And, no surprise, reviewers at Amazon take him to task because, ya know, he doesn't support "their" view and because he debunks many of the most prized views of the "pro-food" crowd.)

So --- there you have it. If you're interested in learning more about the food debate, three great places to start.


*1: One of my current sources of amusement is reading Amazon reviews of books related to food politics. The one-star reviews routinely start with something along the lines of "This book is useless because the author is biased." By which the reviewer means: "The author doesn't support my side of the debate."

*2: Update: It's not that I don't recommend Nestle's book, but I don't recommend it for folks who are trying to bone up on the basics. Nestle's book is important to read, but she has a tendency to play fast/loose with facts and she has an specific agenda. So it's a good one to read after you've had a chance to read other, more factual, more "neutral" works about food politics.

*3: Proofreading of a manuscript is the responsibility of an author, whether he/she does the work him/herself, or hires someone to do it. In the case of this book, the authors apparently didn't bother at all. Urgh!