Food for Thought

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Review of 'Diet for a Dead Planet', Christopher D Cook, New Press £14.99

Recently I went shopping with a friend of mine. He had just returned from a lengthy stay in eastern Europe, and as we walked into my local supermarket he gasped in astonishment at the array of fresh fruit and vegetables. We take it for granted - rare delicacies and convenience foods from every corner of the globe without season or limit. It seems too good to be true, and this book proves beyond doubt that it is.

Christopher Cook looks at the US food industry, but the same methods he details and the same drive for ever increasing profits dominate the British food industry too.

That extraordinary bounty of fruit and veg I described is produced by eroding topsoil, polluting rivers with millions of gallons of pesticide, and allowing tons of toxic manure to run off from factory farms.

In meat packing and poultry plants the intense speed and volume of output maim and cripple tens of thousands of workers every year. Many of them are immigrants and are discarded and replaced every few months.

The system that produces and transports this superabundance runs on oil and diesel. In total more than 100 billion gallons are used per year in food production.

Just a handful of powerful corporations exercise increasing control over what we eat, how it is made, how much it costs and who profits from it. Twenty thousand farmers go under each year in the US.

As Cook argues, these are just some of the immense costs on our grocery bill that are not itemised but which we pay in taxes and public spending to treat food-related illnesses like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. There are other costs too - for cleaning the environment, for unemployment and welfare payments to injured and laid off workers. Cook provides a damning account of the rise of agribusiness and its effects in all areas of our lives. But this is not a depressing book: he details growing resistance against the food industry's power, through union organisation, protests, lawsuits, 'penny auctions' - and even shootings!

In the final chapter Cook looks at ways forward. He recognises that there are no individual solutions. Despite its growth, organics remain a niche market of 2 percent of foods consumed in the US. And already the corporations have moved in - Horizon, for example, is a $127 million public corporation that controls 70 percent of the retail market in organic milk. While an organic variety is less toxic than conventional farming, it still fails to sustain the soil the way diversified farming would.

While Cook is inspired by growing protests like that of José Bové against 'bad food' and wants 'a larger commitment... that takes into account the needs of the whole society - consumers, workers, farmers, the environment', he makes no attempt to link the struggle against agribusiness with the wider movement of anti-capitalist, anti-war activism. Yet without challenging the totality of the system we cannot hope to provide the sustainable food industry that we and the planet need.

Nevertheless I would recommend this book to anyone. It's a comprehensive exposé of the food industry and underlines the urgency of the need for change.