Best Food and Agriculture Books of 2012


By Maywa Montenegro

Civil Eats • Dec. 27, 2012

The Diversified Farming Systems Center at UC Berkeley is a new initiative gathering students and faculty from across campus to study agriculture and food systems. How can the way we grow, process, transport, and distribute our food be made more equitable and more sustainable? In a time when ‘feeding the world’ is often pitted against ‘saving nature,’ can an agriculture based on biodiversity, coupled with a restructured food economy create synergies between farming, food justice and the environment? These are the kinds of research questions that we, as members of the DFS Center, think about, talk about — and, of course, read about.

The year 2012 kept us plenty busy with a reams of new titles about food and agriculture, both sustainable and non-. To help us whittle down the list, I recently asked the DFS community to tell me what their favorite titles of 2012 were and why. The following list compiles our recommendations, in addition to picks from the likes of Marion Nestle, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and others. Enjoy!

1. Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, by Timothy Pachirat. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2011.

A powerful indictment of the industrialized meat production system by an anthropologist who worked in a slaughterhouse for a few months. Pachirat not only captures the gore and sweat of the abbatoir but pointedly asks: is it ethical for people to continue consuming meat on such a vast scale if they don’t take responsibility for their effects on animals? – Alastair Iles, UC Berkeley professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

2. Behind the Kitchen Door, by Saru Jayaraman. ILR Press, 2013.

Diners today increasingly seek restaurants with organic, fair-trade, and local on the menu. Few, however, are aware of the labor that drives the restaurant industry and makes ‘eating out’ possible. Saru Jayaraman, founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and director of the new UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center, highlights the roles of the 10 million people – many immigrants, many people of color – who work across the nation in kitchens, dining rooms, and delivery trucks, bringing their tenacity to the American dining experience. Whether you eat haute cuisine or fast food, Jayaraman makes clear, the well-being of restaurant workers is your concern, as it affects public health and safety, the strength of local economies, and life in our communities.-Recommended by Maywa Montenegro, UC Berkeley graduate student in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Read an interview with Saru Jayaraman on Civil Eats.

3. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, by Barry Estabrook. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012.

This book is a superbly readable commodity chain analysis of the tomato, and it also deftly catalogs the story of the slavery and injustices faced by tomato farm workers and the formation of the Immokalee Coalition.  –Kathy De Master, UC Berkeley professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

4. Weighing in: obesity, food justice, and the limits of capitalism, by Julie Guthman. University of California Press, 2011.

Weighing In takes on the “obesity epidemic,” examining fatness and its relationship to public health outcomes. Guthman focuses the lens of obesity on the broader food system to understand why we produce cheap, over-processed food, as well as why we eat it. Taking issue with the currently touted remedy to obesity – promoting food that is local, organic, and farm fresh – she argues that such an approach can also reinforce class and race inequalities and neglect other possible explanations, such as environmental toxins, for the rise in obesity.-Recommended by Annie Shattuck, UC Berkeley Geography graduate student.

5. The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, by Tracie MacMillan.

The author doesn’t just document food workers experiences, she works alongside them. – Jeanette Pantoja, UC Berkeley Alumni and Community Worker for California Rural Legal Assistance.

Read an interview with Tracie MacMillan on Civil Eats.

6. Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat, by Harvey Levenstein. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

There may be no greater source of anxiety for Americans today than the question of what to eat and drink. Are eggs the perfect protein, or are they cholesterol bombs? Is red wine good for my heart or bad for my liver? Here with rare and welcome advice is food historian Harvey Levenstein: Stop worrying! Levenstein depicts the people and interests who have created and exploited food worries, causing an extraordinary number of Americans to allow fear to trump pleasure in dictating their consumption habits. From scientists who first warned about deadly germs and poisons in foods to modern-day companies that strategically market their products to combat the food fear of the moment, Levenstein’s story is one that highlights the socially constructed fears of what we eat, even as we seek pleasure in the partaking.-Recommended by Patrick Baur, UC Berkeley graduate student in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

7. Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, by Christian Parenti. Nation Books; First Trade Paper Edition edition, 2012.

“[An] impressive new book… If Naomi Klein, Mike Davis, and James Howard Kunstler had teamed up to write a book, the result would read something like Tropic of Chaos… It illustrates the strengths of merging climate projections with left historical analysis of the poverty and conflicts that define much of the Global South. The result is an important map key to the (possibly near) future, if not strictly a climate book. Viewing climate change as an amplifier of existing inequality and disorder, Tropic not only asks the right questions — an argument could be made that it deals with the only questions currently worth asking. ” (via Foreign Policy in Focus)-Recommended by Alejo Kraus-Polk, Cornell University Alumni and Researcher with the Lexicon of Sustainability Project.

8. The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth, by Fred Pearce. Beacon Press, 2012.

Whether fearing future food shortages or eager to profit from them, the world’s wealthiest and most acquisitive countries, corporations, and individuals have been buying and leasing vast tracts of land around the world. The scale is astounding: parcels the size of small countries are being gobbled up across the plains of Africa, the paddy fields of Southeast Asia, the jungles of South America, and the prairies of Eastern Europe. Veteran science writer Fred Pearce spent a year circling the globe to find out who was doing the buying, whose land was being taken over, and what the effect of these massive land deals seems to be.-Recommended by Alejo Kraus-Polk, Cornell University Alumni and Researcher with the Lexicon of Sustainability Project.

9. Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America, by Wenonah Hauter. The New Press, 2012

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, also runs an organic family farm that provides healthy vegetables to over 500 families as part of a Washington DC-area CSA program. Despite this commitment to the local food movement, Hauter believes that localism is not sufficient to solve America’s food crisis and the public health debacle it has created. In Foodopoly, she takes aim at the deeper problem: the massive consolidation and corporate control of food production, which prevents farmers from raising diverse crops and limits the choices that people can possibly make in the grocery store. In the end, Hauter illustrates how solving the food crisis will require a complete structural shift, a grassroots movement to reshape our agricultural system from seed to table—a change that is about politics, not just personal choice.-Recommended by Alejo Kraus-Polk, Cornell University Alumni and Researcher with the Lexicon of Sustainability Project.

10. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World, by Sandor Ellix Katz. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012.

“What exactly is fermentation? And how does it work? Those were the questions that fascinated Sandor Ellix Katz for years. Katz calls himself a ‘fermentation revivalist’ and has spent the past decade teaching workshops around the country on the ancient practice of fermenting food. Katz collects many of his recipes and techniques in a new book, The Art of Fermentation.” (via NPR)-Recommended by Adam Calo, UC Berkeley graduate student in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Read an interview with Sandor Katz on Civil Eats.

OTHER NEW NOTABLE BOOKS (compiled from a variety of blogs, magazines, and newspapers)

Food Systems and Globalization

Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food, by Fred Kaufman. Wiley, 2012.

In Bet the Farm, Fred Kaufman connects the dots between food commodity markets and world hunger.  Kaufman is a wonderfully entertaining writer, able to make the most arcane details of such matters as wheat futures crystal clear.  Readers will be alternately amused and appalled by his accounts of relief agencies and the interventions of rich nations.  This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about feeding the hungry in today’s globalized food marketplace.  It’s on the reading list for my NYU classes. –Marion Nestle

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. Beacon Press, 2012.

How did white bread, once an icon of American progress, become “white trash”? “Is this stuff even food?” In this lively history of dietary crusaders, bakers, and social reformers, Bobrow-Strain prods the humble, puffy loaf and finds much about who we are and what we want our society to look like. Today, as alternative ag movements champion foods deemed to be more ethically, nutritionally, and environmentally ‘correct,’ the pale and fluffy industrial loaves are about as far from the whole-grain, organic, artisanal ideal as one can get. Still, the beliefs of early 21st food experts – that getting people to eat certain foods could restore the nation’s decaying physical, moral, and social fabric – will sound surprisingly familiar.

This terrific book does for the humble loaf what Mark Kurlansky does for cod. — Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved

From the Academic Press

California Cuisine and Just Food, by Sally Fairfax, et al. MIT Press, 2012.

California Cuisine and Just Food takes a deep and comprehensive look at past and present efforts to bring tastier, healthier, locally grown, and ethically produced food to San Francisco Bay Area eaters, poor as well as rich.  The story is inspiring.  The authors of this collectively written account, cautious academics as they must be, describe the development of the Bay Area food scene as a “district” rather than as a social movement.  But I have no such compunctions.  It looks like a social movement to me.  This book is about how the Bay Area food movement evolved to what it is today: a vibrant community of highly diverse groups working on highly diverse ways to produce better quality food and promote a more just, healthful, and sustainable food system—for everyone along the entire system of what it takes to produce, transport, sell, prepare, serve, and consume food. – from the foreword, by Marion Nestle

Food and Culture, Third Edition, by Counihan C. and Van Esterik P, eds.  Routledge, 2012.

Food and Culture is the indispensable resource for anyone delving into food studies for the first time.  The editors have conveniently gathered readings from classic texts to the latest writings on cutting-edge issues in this field.  Although in its third edition, the book has so much new material that it reads as fresh and should appeal and be useful to students and others from a wide range of disciplines. – Marion Nestle

Editor’s note: Check out this 634-page book’s table of contents – quite a collection of voices and subjects, from Levi-Strauss on “The Culinary Triangle” to Sidney Mintz on “Time, Sugar, and Sweetness.”

The New Agrarians

Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World, by Joel Salatin.Center Street Press, 2012.

Salatin, profiled in the Academy Award nominated documentary Food, Inc. and the bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, understands what food should be: Wholesome, seasonal, raised naturally, procured locally, prepared lovingly, and eaten with a profound reverence for the circle of life.

Chances are slim you’ll agree with everything in this wonderfully cranky book. But I’m almost certain you’ll agree that Joel Salatin has earned the right to his convictions, and that they shine a powerful light on some of the paths out of the predicament we find ourselves in as a world. – Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter, by David Buchanan. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012.

In Taste, Memory Buchanan narrates his own personal rediscovery of in situ conservation, alongside stories of slightly obsessive urban gardeners, preservationists, environmentalists, farmers, and passionate cooks, and other leaders in the movement to defend agricultural biodiversity.  The book begins and ends with a simple premise: that a healthy food system depends on matching diverse plants and animals to the demands of land and climate. In this sense of place lies the true meaning of local food.

Taste, Memory may well be the most beautiful book ever written aboutfood biodiversity and how it has ‘landed’ on earth, in our mouths and in our hearts. Once you have read and digested David’s book, you will never again regard this two-word phrase as an abstraction, but as a vital element of our common food heritage, one that continues to nourish and enrich our lives. – from the foreword by Gary Paul Nabhan

Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works, by Atina Diffley. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Turn Here Sweet Corn is an unexpected page-turner.  Atina Diffley’s compelling account of her life as a Minnesota organic farmer is deeply moving not only from a personal standpoint but also from the political.  Diffley reveals the evident difficulties of small-scale organic farming but is inspirational about its value to people and the planet.”  The book comes with an insert of glorious photographs illustrating the history she recounts.  The political?  The Diffley’s fought to keep an oil company from running a pipeline through their property—and won. – Marion Nestle

Food Movements, Urban and Rural

Change Comes to Dinner:  How Vertical Farmers, Urban Growers, and Other Innovators are Revolutionizing How America Eats, by Katherine Gustafson. St. Martins, 2012.

Katherine Gustafson is a troubadour for sustainable food, inviting us to jump into her rental car as she maps the inspiring alternative food system emerging across the United States. And here’s a pleasant surprise: we don’t spend any time in the privileged bubbles of Brooklyn or Berkeley; Gustafson’s expansive and hopeful portrait puts the rest of America back in the picture. Change Comes To Dinner shows us the outline of a sane food system: now it’s up to us to fill it in.” – Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine

Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Bee Keepers, Wine Makers, and Brewers Who Built New York, by Robin Shulman. Crown Publishers, 2012.

Eat the City is about the men and women who came to New York City–now and in the past–and planted gardens, harvested honey, made cheese, and brewed beer and made New York what it is today.  Robin Shulman uses their stories to bring this rich history to life and to reflect on the forces that brought immigrants and their food traditions to this city.   Not all of these stories have happy endings, but they inform, move, and inspire. – Marion Nestle


As the above list reveals, the scope of excellent food and agricultural books today spans all aspects of the food system: from landgrabbing to the restaurant industry, the history of nutrition to the contemporary roof-top gardening movement. Like the readers of Civil Eats, we at the DFS Center gravitate to reads that take a critical lens to the current industrial food system and, with a good story, push the conversation forward.

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