Essential Reading for Understanding the Food System
We gathered together a book list for you — a Food Systems 101 reading list, as it were — to help you dig deeper on the issues you care about. Learn about how food production affects climate change and how the overuse of antibiotics in chicken production has created a public health crisis. Read about how the proliferation of fast food has impacted our agricultural landscape and how big food corporations manipulate governments and our palates. With these books you’ll figure out how we got to this mess and learn some ideas for how we will get out.
Essential Food System Reads:
These books, all published before 2006, can help any reader form a solid foundation of knowledge about the basics of our current food system and its impacts on the environment and public health.
“Diet for a Small Planet” by Frances Moore-Lappé
Written in 1971, this groundbreaking book makes a clear and persuasive case for a plant-centered diet being better for the environment and for personal and public health. Paving the way for those of us who advocate for people to eat much less meat, Moore-Lappé explains how it is possible to feed the growing population of the world: assuming we eat in a less meat-centered way. Plus: recipes!
“Food Politics” by Marion Nestle
In this seminal book, food studies pioneer Nestle helps lay out how the food industry is a powerful force, wielding their influence in government and science to shape what we crave, what we buy and what we eat.
“Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser
An examination of how the rise of fast food impacted agriculture, supply chains, public health and more. This book was, for a lot of people, the first time they began to think about how food ends up on their plastic trays/plates, and consequently the first time they realized the far-reaching societal impacts of the food we all eat. Bonus: a version for young people, called “Chew On This,” was published in 2006.
“Bringing it to the Table” by Wendell Berry
Berry is a farmer, poet, novelist, essayist and food activist whose writing stands the test of time. If you’ve heard him quoted as saying “Eating is an agricultural act,” and felt he was speaking your language, this book — a collection of some of his essays on food and farming — is a good starting place. (Here’s a nice list from Berry of things you can do to eat responsibly).
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan
Through the lens of different food supply chains — industrialized production, small-scale sustainable production and growing/hunting your own — Pollan continues the work that Schlosser started, pulling back the curtain on the forces that shape how food is produced in this country. He follows that up by then exploring sustainable alternatives. Also fun to read: this 2016 follow up article.
Additional Important Food System Reads, By Subject:
The Big Business of Food
Growing, processing, distributing and marketing food is big business. These books tackle everything from corporate control of our food system, to the exploitation of farmers and consumers, to the reasons behind our dual epidemics of hunger and obesity.
Climate Change and Food
The way we produce and consume food is inextricably connected to the earth’s changing climate. There are changes we need to make on both systemic and personal levels to address greenhouse gas emissions.
- “Diet for a Hot Planet” by Anna Lappé
Farming, Food and Race
It is vitally important that a just and sustainable food system address the many issues that lie at the intersection between race and food. The voices of those most impacted by our broken food system should not just be represented but leading the way. These books lead the way, respectively, by telling the stories of farmers of color (stories too often pushed aside) and providing a roadmap for Black farmers to be community leaders through farming. “Stewarding our own land, growing our own food, educating our own youth, participating in our own healthcare and justice systems,” Penniman writes, “this is the source of real power and dignity.”
Meat Production and Animal Welfare
The industrialized way in which we produce meat, eggs and other animal products has turned animals into units of production, subject to inhumane treatment, terrible living conditions and cruel deaths. These books tackle the business and ethics of how we raise animals for consumption — including the widespread use of antibiotics in the industrialized system— and the impacts on animal welfare, our environment and public health.
The production of our food, from fruits and vegetables to meat and seafood, relies on human labor – these workers make it possible for our food system to function. But the work pays poorly, is often unregulated and falls to those who will tolerate it because they have few other choices. These important books cover field work to grocery work to restaurant work, examining how workers are getting short shrift and tackling what needs to change.
About 40 percent of the food we produce gets wasted at various points along the food supply chain. The good news is that people are worried about and acting upon the problem of food waste — as evidenced by more than $125 million being poured into companies tackling the issue in 2018. If you’d like to read up on the basics, you’d be wise to listen to Jonathan Bloom, who has been writing about this topic since 2011 when his book came out.
- American Wasteland” by Jonathan Bloom
When it comes to seafood and sustainability, it can get complicated. Over 80% of seafood eaten in this country is imported. But we also export a whole bunch. Why? And what’s the deal with wild fish vs. farmed fish? What’s been overfished? What’s ok to eat? Paul Greenberg is an authority on seafood, writing about the global market forces of fish production as well as the environmental impacts of the way fish is raised, caught and consumed in the world today.