reviewed by Billy Wilson
As a student of anthropology who is slowly finding his footing somewhere in the world of sustainable agriculture, I can’t say I’ve recently happened across a book whose content I’ve been more excited to digest than Global Eating Disorder . I was actually surprised at myself. The book looks at the globalized food system—it’s development, it’s footprint, it’s human-impacts—predominantly through a social scientist’s perspective.
As implied by the title, Global Eating Disorder seeks to convey the pathologies intrinsic to our industrial food system. There are the easi-ly-stated-but-not-so-easily-explained agricultural pathologies, such as 1) international markets demanding the flow of cheap foods causing farms to become bigger, while specializing in a few commodities—I mean “food”. This up-scaling is known in agro-business as “market rationalization”. Involved here are also GMO seeds, an unsettling reality, taking monoculture to greater heights. Ninety percent of US-grown soybeans are GMO crops. 2) Land use alterations worldwide se-riously skewing the distribution of US farmlands. Two-thirds of New England used to be farmed. This was all changed with urbanization and residential building. Farmland itself urbanized in the Midwest where tracts were cheap, abundant, and eventually consolidated. No wonder the quantity of chickens produced in the US increased fourteen-fold while, simultaneously, the quantity of chicken farms decreased by 98%! This explosion of chickens, by the way, is very much related to the explosion of GMO soybeans.
Furthermore, we also encounter 3) the various environmental pathologies resulting from modern agriculture practices: carbon-emitting diesel and plowing, soil-degradating herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers—all of which are practices heralded as “advanced”, “efficient”, and seemingly rewarded, even though they’ve successfully contributed to the loss of “one third of American topsoil”. Globally, between five and ten million hectares of farmland are compromised annu-ally from soil degradation.
So there’s a disagreement between what’s ecological and what’s economical. “We squander the capital of nature for short term gains”, Rundgren states, “in what sense is this efficient?” This is perhaps when we reach the core of Rundgren’s message. He wants to illuminate how our modern, commercialized food system mu-tated into what it is today; reveal how social institutions permit outrageous crimes such as seed patenting, which most consumers support unknowingly; relay how the cycles of water, nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and so forth are interrupted and off-set by what has become regular human activity. Most of all, Rundgren proposes our systemic, disorderly food system is not so much a result of technological innovation, but that it is a by-product of the current economy. The market is the culprit for our chaotic food system, and yet the market makes this world go ‘round.
Rundgren acknowledges the influence that technology has had in our modern farming culture. He recognizes that N-P-K inputs essentially obviate the need for hu-man waste as a soil amendment. He recognizes that mechanized agriculture drastically increased one laborer’s capacity to work, releasing a significant population to work in other sectors. He understands—having been in food policy for forty some-odd years—the phenomenonal feat of carrying this many humans on the planet. But he’s likewise aware that our technocratic, industrialized food system—which to previous generations would seem other-wordly—is taxing our planet at a highly exploitative rate. Further mechanization isn’t the answer. Rundgren discusses progressive CSA communities and transition farms, but states conclusively that “changes in our food system will have to be combined with changes in values, and a situation where man’s wealth neither results in nature’s poverty, nor the pov-erty of other people”. The food system is a symptom of cultural issues, not engineering issues.
As a college student in Boston, I was told directly that it’s the hard-scientists who will save the world from impending environmental havoc. A young civil engi-neering professor said this to me. I wasn’t an engineer. I don’t see modern society in chemicals and energy bonds. Rather, I see culture—and I see it as a duel or dance between modern society and the global environment.