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Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know [Paperback]

Robert Paarlberg
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 July 2010 What Everyone Needs To Know
One of the most persistent and startling news stories of the past year has been the global crisis in the world's food supply. Reduced stockpiles have led to panic buying and hoarding, a sharp rise in prices, food riots, the virtual collapse of portions of the food industry, and dire warnings about food and water shortages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecast prices to remain high for the foreseeable future, and the World Bank has predicted that this rise will push an additional 100 million people into poverty around the world. Theories about the roots of the crisis are many, diverse and contradictory: from increased production of biofuels, to rising populations, climate change, and environmentally harmful and inefficient farming practices. In Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, Robert Paarlberg, one of the most prominent scholars writing on agricultural issues, maps out and demystifies the phenomena that newspapers and magazines have variously labelled as causes of the food crisis, often in highly alarmist tones. Over the course of the book, Paarlberg addresses, in straightforward terms, questions about global food trade policy, agricultural subsidies, the factors contributing to famine and malnutrition, the green revolution, the effects of climate change on farming, the pros and cons of biofuels, food safety and regulation, pesticide use, organic farming, and genetically modified crops. Focusing on the world's most vulnerable populations and couched within a firm historical understanding of farming practices, nutritional standards, and food movements, what he uncovers will surely be surprising to many readers and stand as a corrective to reactionary takes on the state of global agriculture. Paarlberg concludes with a revealing chapter on common assumptions about the food crisis and the future of food, pointing the way toward socially and environmentally sustainable--and attainable--practices in agriculture and the wider food industry.

Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (1 July 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019538959X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195389593
  • Product Dimensions: 14.1 x 1.6 x 20.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 589,440 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Paarlberg provides a lucid and insightful primer on this vital subject. PD Smith, Saturday Guardian

About the Author

Robert Paarlberg is the B.F. Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. A leading authority on food policy, his books include Starved for Science, Policy Reform in American Agriculture, and Fixing Farm Trade.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Complacent food politics 18 May 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This writer seems to think that his explanations are the "true" reasons for the food crises! The book would be more interesting if he had included opposing views now and then! And he gives some rather curious reasons to account for some of the issues. For example he believes that customers in developing countries choose to go to MacDonalds because they have toilets (Does he not realise that other places in developing countries have toilets too?). My biggest disappointment is he leaves out crucial aspects (like the WTO Agreement on Agriculture that permits the US and Europe and Japan to keep their farm subsidies) in the book and believes that only the US is a significant player. There are better books on the subject than this one. I prefer to read Waldon Bello or Ray Patel.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Plenty of breadth, but lacking in depth 12 Aug 2010
By BS.Dos.
Overall, I found Food Politics to be disappointing. Though it may serve as a reasonably informative introduction to both environmental and political science under-graduates alike, I found it to be somewhat deficient in significant areas and lacking factual parity in light of its implicit US-centric perspective and tone.

In terms of scope, the book is far too parochial with Paarlberg making no reference to fish, either in terms of global dietary significance, declining global fish stocks or the rise in fish farms and other nascent aquaculture food systems.

In addition, Paarlberg also neglects to include any notable information on water, either in terms agricultural usage or how water scarcity is becoming a significant regional/national/geopolitical issue and how water resources impact upon on food production. Food and water are clearly not mutually exclusive, and as such, research into one must surely acknowledge the significance of the other.

On Genetically Modified Organisms, Paarlberg asserts that European opposition to GMO technology is `disliked' on account that `most were developed by a U.S. multinational' (p168). The view that European opposition to GMOs is grounded in nothing more than corporate nationalism is at best contentious and at worst, erroneous.

Crops targeted by GM corporations for transgenic modification are the foods by which a significant portion of the global population lives by (rice, wheat, barley etc). These food crops are known as monocotyledons and are organisms which rely on the wind for pollination.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent guide for the perplexed 10 April 2011
The politics of food is one of the most complex issues in international relations and trade. "Food Politics" is an excellent guide for the perplexed and resource for the curious.Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know
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25 of 31 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Leaves Much to be Desired 29 Nov 2011
By TheDevelopmentRoast(dot)org - Published on
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.
27 of 36 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Warning: Paarlberg is NOT liberal! 15 May 2011
By Drew - Published on
I'm one of those liberals who does not identify as liberal because "I don't like to be put in a box." But for all intents and purposes, one would classify me as a liberal (in the modern liberal = Prius driving, organic eating, gay-friendly and pro-choice consumer). And I think it's no accident that the cover and title of this book appeals to a liberal audience. This book will certainly challenge any liberal assumptions you may have about the modern food system.

I, who have no background in food politics or international relations, was looking for a good, informative overview of both topics and was expecting a progressive assessment of the modern food system (along the line's of Michael Pollan's work--which, it should be noted, Paarlberg takes issue with on multiple occasions). After a more 'progressive' criticism of modern farm subsidies, Paarlberg reveals himself to be an unapologetic globalist and capitalist in his stance on GMOs, organic food, local food, and green technology. He takes a pragmatic tone as most of his criticisms center around how effectively each system or technology can be monetized and capitalized. He pays short shrift to the cultural implications of each system and almost completely dismisses the importance of more abstract concepts like national and local sovereignty.

But to Paarlberg's credit, he does enumerate different points of views on the issues and explains (with a transparent bias) the rationale behind them before launching into his own opinion. And that is where this book succeeds: it provides a good overview of all the major debates within food politics--which, I suppose, is what I was looking for. This book is worth picking up simply because it's easy to read and covers a wide array of issues. It will not satisfy all your curiosities nor settle any issues for you. If anything, it will challenge your assumptions and prompt you to dive deeper into these issues.
15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Beware: Industrial Ag Perspectives, Presented as Neutral Observations 17 Jan 2012
By chris fisher - Published on
If you were discussing whether tobacco causes cancer would you consult a Phillip Morris scientist? If you wanted accurate information about the links between burning fossil fuels and climate change would you seek out a scientist funded by Exxon Mobil?

Fortunately I did not pay for this book, but was loaned a copy, because what I had been interested in - a critical perspective and investigation into the climate surrounding food politics - was noticeably absent.

I believe this book to be Oxford University Press's attempt to divert a significant number of "reasonable" and "pragmatic" folks out there from further investigation into the field of food politics, lest their eyes be further opened to the real world. In the real world we live with a food and agricultural system which has been established primarily for the purpose of increasing profits for corporate shareholders, with all other considerations of importance only when media headlines of famine, illness outbreaks, or deficit-growing subsidies for monocrops focus the public's attention, however briefly.

So Paarlberg has given us a book that purports to be a neutral observation, above the fray of what his publisher calls the "polarized" climate of the food politics debate. But without addressing any particular problems with the book's content, which has been done quite well by numerous other reviewers here, his qualifications as an independent observer and expert capable of taking a critical perspective come into question.

Paarlberg has been a paid advisor to Monsanto and received funding from the Gates Foundation, a major Monsanto shareholder, as well. This conflict of interest goes completely unmentioned, and the cursory examination of all the issues surrounding GE/GMO biotechnology contained herein are telling. That OUP would publish this small volume without this significant missing disclosure speaks volumes itself. Add the lack of citations where he does present evidence, his impugning of other scholars' work without the provision of evidence, the extreme selectivity of the evidence presented, and the use of prejudicial descriptors for his opponents and what we've got is a work of propaganda for industrial ag and a continuation of the status quo (with minor alterations). This is not objective, neutral, fair or by any means a legitimate overview of the state of food politics.

Do yourself a favor - borrow this from your library if you must. Then move on to more legitimate examinations of the world of food & ag: The End of Food by Paul Roberts, Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel, The Vegetarian Myth by Leirre Keith, Recipe for America by Jill Richardson, Depletion and Abundance by Sharon Astyk, Appetite for Profit by Michelle Simon and on and on. There is no shortage of information out there. This volume presents one perspective, bought and paid for, as neutral overview. Rule of thumb: pay close attention to anyone claiming to be a neutral observer who is above the fray - they're generally paid to say such things.
25 of 35 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing at Three Levels 25 Jan 2012
By Robert David STEELE Vivas - Published on
This book is disappointing at three levels:

1) The publisher has been completely dishonest in failing to illuminate the fact that this is a book Of, By, and For Monsanto, the greatest force of evil to ever hit farming.

2) The author (naturally) does not address the total corruption of the US Government and most other governments with respect to all issues, not just food. Corn as fuel, corn as fake sugar, corn as inedible cattle feed that puts cattle feces into spinach, the poisoning of our children and our environment by pesticides and other toxins that substitute poison for intelligence, are not covered.

3) Finally, the author is completely lacking in a systemic approach to all of these matters. Here are the twelve core policies that must be harmonized if they are to be effective: Agriculture, Diplomacy, Economy, Education, Energy, Family, Health, Immigration, Justice, Security, Society, Water. This book is abysmally oblivious--no doubt for the convenience of Monsanto--to the fact that agriculture that is based on fossil fuel consumption, inter-continental transport, poisoning for both growth and packaging; that destroys small farmers and community-related farming; that destroys the health of entire nations; that destroys the chain of life in seed that gives birth to new seed (instead substituting suicidal seeds); and finally, the cost-benefit ratio of water use in relation to all that is grown or raised--none of this is to be found in this book, ergo this is a dishonest, incomplete, rather ignorant book.

From where I sit, the publisher, the publisher has disgraced their brand. Here are ten links to books I recommend instead of this book.

Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer-And What You Can Do About It
How Everyday Products Make People Sick: Toxins at Home and in the Workplace, Updated and Expanded
Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense
Diet for a Small Planet
Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate (New in Paper) (Princeton Science Library)
Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy
The Republican War on Science
Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion
Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy
Debt and Death in Rural India: The Punjab Story
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Overall, fairly well balanced 7 Nov 2012
By Ken Barker - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I thought the author presented the facts and arguments pretty well - and certainly free of some of the hype (from both sides) that some of the other reviews cry about it lacking. The book presents fact based positions from both sides of several issues like hunger, organically grown food, and gmo's that people coming into the discussion need as a foundation....before choosing a side and drinking their kool-aid.
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