You don’t need a degree in environmental science to see that climate change is real — and it’s beginning to have a serious impact on every aspect of our lives, including food production and availability.
In three no-nonsense nonfiction books out this fall, food and farming enthusiasts weigh in on what we can — and should — do about it.
‘A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food,’ by Will Harris
Will Harris and his family have been managing his 1,250-acre farm in Bluffton, Ga., since his great-grandfather started acquiring the land in 1866.
Today White Oak Pastures, a model of regenerative farming with 10 species of animals, is “hot, wet, and outrageously green.” It’s the only pasture-raised livestock farm in the nation that has separate abattoirs for hooved animals and for poultry. There are farm-stay cabins, a reclaimed general store and a restaurant that serves locally sourced pulled pork and pickled beef tongue.
But it wasn’t always that way. When Harris’s father took over the farm after World War II, he went whole hog on industrial agriculture. Like most farmers of the day, he was lured in by the promise of newfangled fertilizers for disease control and larger yields. Instead of raising his cows from birth to slaughter, he pumped them full of hormones and sent them to industrial meatpacking companies to make his bottom line.
Harris followed his father’s lead until 1995 when he realized what he was doing — stripping the soil of microbial life, condemning the cows to an inhumane death — was wrong. As he puts it, “The way our food system has evolved — into one based on mass-produced industrial inputs, monocultures of foods that nobody, not even animals should gorge on, unspeakable conditions for animals and undignified conditions for humans, and corporate monopolies controlling every link in the chain — ain’t working too good.”
From that point forward, Harris aimed to reverse the “downhill plummet” of environmental damage. “A Bold Return to Giving a Damn” is the straight-shooting, thoroughly engaging story of the tenacious efforts of “one of the last Good Ol’ Boys” to transform White Oak from a business reliant on Big Agriculture into the thriving, zero-pesticide, zero-waste Garden of Eden it is today.
There’s a lot to like about the book — Harris’s cheeky sense of humor, for one. And his exploration of his family’s roots, their sacrifices and hard-earned victories, offers a rare window into cowboy culture that pays respect where it’s due.
But it’s Harris’s dogged insistence on explaining the hidden costs of the “abhorrently cheap food” that industrial farming makes possible — the negative health effects of hormones on animals and humans, runoff pollution in streams, the collapse of rural farming towns — that makes the book so necessary.
That, and his call to consumers to rejigger the way they choose their food and to “take back the know-your-farmer movement.” As he writes, “The bittersweet truth is, you’ve got to go all the way if you want to participate in a better food system.”
‘Endangered Eating: America’s Vanishing Foods,’ by Sarah Lohman
Like Harris, food historian Sarah Lohman, who unpacked America’s culinary history in her 2016 book, “Eight Flavors,” is deeply concerned about climate change and Big Ag’s impact on America’s food supply.
According to her research, an estimated 75 percent of vegetable varieties worldwide have been permanently lost. Ninety-five percent of America’s historical produce is gone.
In “Endangered Eating” she takes readers along on her journey to investigate foods or ingredients in danger of extinction and the farmers, shepherds, fishers and makers trying to save them. For her road map, she chose eight items from the Ark of Taste, a list of approximately 350 entries from Slow Food USA, an organization dedicated to food diversity preservation.
From Coachella Valley’s date gardens to heirloom cider apples in New York’s Hudson Valley to Choctaw filé powder in Louisiana, each stop Lohman makes is more interesting than the last.
On Lummi Island in the Salish Sea, she climbs aboard a skiff and learns a passive, Indigenous method of reefnet salmon fishing called sxwo’le. It’s considered the most humane fishing technique and is powered by electric motors instead of fossil fuels.
In New Mexico, she volunteers at a “Sheep Is Life” festival to learn more about the connection between the Navajo-Churro ram and traditional Navajo culture. Here, she helps butcher (and eat) the sheep from nose to tail, including slicing away its skin and turning its guts into sausage.
But “Endangered Eating” isn’t just a foodie travelogue (with recipes sprinkled throughout). Lohman encourages people to follow her lead and learn more about their food’s origins.
We can start by reading her intrepid book. Many of the chapters delve into the foods’ political backstories, such as the disenfranchisement of Native tribes during western expansion or the detrimental effect of large-scale development on growing habitats.
Others, like the section about a White distillery owner who uses Hawaiian legacy sugarcane in his drinks, raise important questions about who profits from the sale of these foods in the future. After all, she writes, “colonizers will allow a part of a culture to exist as long as it is prettily packaged for white, Western consumption.”
‘The Book of Wilding: A Practical Guide to Rewilding Big and Small,’ by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell
Across the pond at the (albeit cushier) 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex, husband-and-wife team Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell are also working to combat climate change, habitat loss and food security by advocating for the sustainable use of natural resources.
In 2002, they embarked on the ambitious goal of rehabilitating the land Burrell inherited from his grandparents. The estate has been in his family for more than 200 years and underwent a “catastrophic shift” after years of dairy farming, plowing and chemical abuse. Now, they are “putting nature back in the driver’s seat, allowing habitats to evolve, to shift and change, to find their own way” in order to “ignite the natural process and reinstate the creatures that restore ecosystems.”
“The Book of Wilding” is the thorough reporting of their efforts. At more than 550 pages and with the heft of a coffee-table book, it’s also an incredibly dense guide for everyone from horticulturists to apartment owners to urban planners on how to “rewild” our environments; recover natural water systems; foster diverse gardens; support animal migration and recreate bird habitats.
While some of us may not have access to the resources these two have — or live in the United Kingdom or want wild pigs in our backyards — there’s plenty to praise in this book. Handy takeaways include helpful diagrams of how to protect water systems from pollution, information on how to go chemical-free in your garden, and sections on innovations realized or hoped for (biophilic buildings, green roofs and sustainable drainage systems).
If that didn’t convince you, there’s even a “How Wild Are You?” quiz at the end.
Alexis Burling is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle and Chicago Tribune, among other publications.
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