In this 2010 book "Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know", Oxford University Press, Robert Paarlberg takes a Q & A approach to a broad set of food and agriculture topics, covering aid and trade, obesity and famine, organic farming and genetically engineered (GE) organisms, and the food system's effects on health and environment, among others. The work is a self-proclaimed attempt at "rebalancing some debates around food and farming" for "an aware audience of non-specialists". And on the whole, its strength lies in its accessible style and the common myths it dispels: how buying local produce, for example, is not necessarily more environmentally friendly or the fact that global market food prices do not automatically increase local consumer costs.
For all its breadth, however, the book is beset by problems. The simplicity with which the debates are framed and the generalisations employed oversimplify several issues; a number of inherent contradictions undermine some arguments' validity; a purely macro and economic appraisal of debates leads to conclusions that would have been challenged had the social and cultural politics of food been considered; it takes a US-centric approach despite promising a global overview; and the vexing lack of referencing throughout weakens the book overall since the aware reader is prevented from effective fact checking.
Food Politics' major failings, however, lie in its uneven, at times uncritical discussion of politics and presentation of broad-based counter-arguments with inadequate use of evidence to be undoubtedly convincing. He defends the GE agriculture industry safety, for example, by comparing it to GE medicine. Yet fails to tell the reader, among many other things, that through effective lobbying GE food and agriculture are not subject to the same rigorous testing and product development procedures the medical industry is.
Meanwhile, through a lack of political discussion, some of the author's positions appear one-sided. For instance, in discussing related topics there is no information on the positions of food industry personnel in US government, the politics behind lack of GE labelling laws or ability of monopolistic agricultural technology companies, through lack of regulation, to tie developing country farmers to one company's credit, input and farm-gate purchasing systems.
Furthermore, throughout, Paalberg fails to situate the discussion in wider historical political processes that have direct links to the issues under consideration. A brief note on the politics of neoliberal economic policies from the 1970s onwards, for example, would have afforded important context for the reader, since these helped to fundamentally change the face and the politics of food production and distribution through widespread trade liberalisation, privatisation and by dismantling many developing country governments' agricultural policy tools.
As a result of all these oversights, Paarlberg too easily dismisses certain critiques. Like the arguments that trade policy negatively affects Mexican farmers, that agrifood giants and supermarkets exert control over farmers and consumers, respectively, or that switching to GE seeds has anything to do with farmer suicides in India, to name but a few. Yet other arguments still are dismissed on what can only be described as 'head-scratching' grounds. According to Paarlberg, it would be problematic should the world decide to go vegetarian overnight, for example, because "farm animals would hardly thrive... they would have to be kept in zoos or perform in circuses to avoid extinction" (p.123) - as if this type of existence would somehow be worse than what factory-bred animals experience now, or as if this is in any way a consideration in food politics at all.
It is a formidable undertaking to try and discuss Food Politics in a single book. The area is so rich with debate, controversy and, of course, politics that the usual route is to focus on a handful of issues in a prolonged narrative. [Readers may be interested in Marion Nestle's 2002 ground-breaking Food Politics, which confines itself to an expose of "How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health", Peter Rosset's 2006 concise account of why 'Food is Different' when it comes to global trade, or Raj Patel's impassioned 2007 `Stuffed and Starved' that takes almost four hundred pages to deliver it's story of `Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System']. Robert Paarlberg's attempt at enlightening his audience to the entirety of `What Everyone Needs to Know' about food politics in 189 pages leaves much to be desired. Readers would do well to be cognizant of its shortcomings and avoid accepting it as any kind of a definitive authority on the subject.