The central message of this rather large book (put some legs on it and it could serve as a coffee table itself) is that industrial agriculture is unnatural, inhumane, dangerous; that big farms and big chemical multinationals are destroying the land and causing massive hardship for not only the ecology of the planet but for humans as well.
One of the arguments is that industrial agriculture actually leads to hunger and starvation for millions because it forces people off the land, land that is then used to produce foods or other products that are exported to the developed nations. The poor farmer cannot compete with the industrial farms and so has to go out of business. In the underdeveloped countries, land that once supported a variety of food plants that fed the local people has been turned into land that supports only a single crop destined for export, the profits going to middle men and the large land owners.
Clearly then, this is a polemic against industrial agriculture and in favor of a return to an agrarian life style. It is a tract against the use of pesticides and herbicides and in favor of organic farming. It is against monoculture farming and in favor of biodiversity and crop rotation. It is against genetic modified foods and Round Up ready seeds and in favor of the slightly blemished but flavorful produce from fields tended by hand and hoe. It is beautifully illustrated with breath-taking photos of farms, farmers, farm equipment and especially fields of verdant crops.
I am in substantial sympathy with the message of this book, but I do not appreciate facile or phony arguments in support of even the most agreeable message. I think unsubstantiated claims and superficial understandings do not help a worthy cause. Unfortunately there are a few of those in these pages.
On page 62, for example, the text suggests that "if biotech corporations really wanted to feed the hungry, they would...push for wealth redistribution, which would allow the poor to buy food." Obviously corporations don't work that way, and agrarian reform is not going to be helped by reviving delusive Marxist economics. On page 71 it is written, "...75 types of vegetables, or approximately 97 percent of the varieties available in 1900, [in the US] are now extinct." I am not sure what was left out here or misstated, but obviously more than about 2.34 vegetables (the 3% still extant) are still available. Worse yet is this from page 102: "In 1996...the fungal disease known as Karnal Bunt swept through the U.S. wheat belt, ruining over half of that year's crop and forcing the quarantine of more than 290,000 acres." However on page 100 it is reported that wheat fields take up "a total of 60-70 million acres" of land in the continental US. So how can a infestation that resulted in a quarantine of 290,000 acres (less than one-half of one percent of the total acreage devoted to wheat) ruin "over half of that year's crop"? Such slips tend to cast doubt on the credibility of the other figures in the book.
However, the central shortcoming of this otherwise laudable effort is the disinclination of the editor and the contributors to point to overpopulation as the root cause of hunger and starvation. Such a studied avoidance is disingenuous to say the least. The periodic starvations due to droughts that plague such places as Africa are due to too many people living on land that cannot reliably support them. In times of feast, the populations shoot up only to crash when the weather changes, as it must, as it has for millions of years. Furthermore to suggest (as the text on pages 50 and 51 does) that agriculture can keep pace with human population growth is mistaken. Fortunately, the essay, "The Impossible Race: Population Growth and the Fallacies of Agricultural Hope," by Hugh H. Iltis, which begins on page 35, presents a more realistic view.
Nonetheless, I applaud this effort by director Douglas Tompkins and those who contributed to the project. I was particularly taken with the photography and art design by Daniella Goff-Sklan who carefully avoids any "scare" photography. We are spared the sight of the bloated bellies of the starving poor. There are no photos of the horrendous conditions inside the poultry and meat packing industries. Clearly, the editors didn't want this book to be purely a propaganda piece. They wanted to get their message across without controversy; they wanted to be effective.
I am also in substantial sympathy with the agrarian movement itself. However whether it is possible or even desirable to return to an agrarian existence is in great doubt. Perhaps one might wax even more romantic and suggest a return to a hunting and gathering existence. Such nostalgic fantasies are just that, fantasies, like the notion of the noble savage or of an unspoiled garden of Eden. Humans have and will continue to alter the landscape. What I hope is that we find a balance between human needs and the needs of the planet's ecosystems before it is too late. Yes, a return to an agrarian culture (especially without the feudalism and warlord economies that existed concomitantly) would be a step away from the abyss that we are now approaching. But that isn't going to happen anytime soon. The surest way to save the planet from ourselves is to reduce our numbers. Until that message gets across, the planet will continue to be decimated by our insatiable desire to exploit and control. My vision of the future includes a large number of small farming communities with single family farms aplenty. But it also includes great tracts of forest and savannah, desert and tundra, unspoiled by human habitation. From my point of view the planet already contains too many humans. And that is why my vision and the agrarian vision so beloved by contributor Wendell Berry cannot yet become a reality.