books business environment food sustainability

Book review – Diet for a Dead Planet, by Christopher D Cook don’t seem to understand the term sustainability, it seems to have lost its power as a word. It’s become something you can fix to things for greenie points, like the ‘eco’ prefix or ‘organic’. When something is unsustainable, it doesn’t alarm us. We read that something is unsustainable, and we equate it with something being environmentally ‘unfriendly’. The title of Christopher Cook’s book on unsustainable agriculture cuts straight across that – this is a matter of life and death.

In this wide-ranging survey of American agriculture, Cook addresses food contamination, industrial scale farms, use of fertilizers, and the scandal of subsidies. Each topic is dealt with in its historical context, which I found interesting. It’s easy to see giant US farms as the enemy, but to see how and why they have come about puts rather a different perspective on things. The US is in many ways a victim of its own fertility. It is, or was, a hugely productive land, a real land of plenty. So much so, it produces enough food to feed its own population twice over. It’s that surplus that has been the bane of US agricultural policy for decades.

The problem is that every year there is a glut of grain, of pork, of soy. The market just cannot absorb the amount of food produced. Prices drop so low that farmers go out of business. To stay competitive, they must grow even more the following year, so they pack more pigs into their sheds, unload even more fertilizer on their fields, and the next harvest produces an even larger surplus. You end up with a vicious cycle that means giant farms win, and only then because they can claim subsidies. You also end up with that surplus being dumped overseas, as Food Aid, or for sale at less than the cost of production, wreaking havoc with farming in developing countries.

It is this cycle that is at the heart of Cook’s diatribe against industrial farming. Feeding dead animals to lifestock, the pollution from factory pig farms, the exploitation of immigrant labour, all these things are rooted in the vicious circle of overproduction and surplus.

Diet for a Dead Planet is subtitled ‘Big business and the coming food crisis’. It was published in 2004. Four years on, the crisis is with us, and the later chapters on fixing the problem are all the more important. Solutions include switching the subsidy ethos away from big farms, which they currently favour, and towards supporting organic and small scale farming. Tougher new inspection programmes are needed in slaughterhouses. The urban poor need better food, by extending welfare voucher schemes to farmers markets, or supporting city farms. Ferilizer use needs to be scaled back, and food miles too.

Moat of all, we need to really grasp what ‘unsustainable’ means: “It’s not so simple as big farm versus small farm,” writes Cook, pesticides versus organics, natural versus genetically modified. The food we eat is the product of a whole system that is in the process of destroying itself – poisoning our air and water, grinding topsoil into useless dust, and putting farmers out to pasture. If we are to have a truly healthy cornucopia that sustains society, the entire system of making, distributing, and marketing food must be sustainable.”

Christopher Cook talks about the book:

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