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Since the Nutrition Facts panel first appeared on all U.S. packaged foods in 1994, most every meal and snack has become a test: Read the label or not? It’s nice to know that your Cheerios have some riboflavin. But what is trisodium phosphate doing in that little O? The proliferation of data on the package, now including a fourth type of fat, often raises more questions about health and safety than one can stomach.
Richard Manning makes clear in his sweeping condemnation of agriculture, Against the Grain, that the labels nonetheless leave out important information. We participants in an industrial economy end up with abundant goods but rarely know the histories of our household objects or our meals. Manning’s dirt: The U.S. food supply arises from an ecological catastrophe. Across the country, food processors have gouged out the landscape, sterilized soil, and parched estuaries and gulfs. As much as William Burroughs ever did, Manning wants to freeze your fork in the air so you can see naked the food perched at the end of it.
Large grain companies like Archer Daniels Midland are the ones pumping the ground full of fertilizer and pesticides, yet Manning blames a different villain. We’re city people around here, so the untrustworthy culprits should come as no surprise: The plants did it.
Evolutionary physiologist Jared Diamond tagged guns, germs, and steel as the forces that carved our unbalanced world. Manning, an environmental reporter living in Montana, suggests that the soft-sounding trio of wheat, corn, and rice has been even more powerful—and brutal. The three grains wormed their way into human hearts by flashing easily detached, dense clusters of carbohydrates. Weary hunter-gatherers fell for their convenience. In staying put to farm, humans could have more of what we were obsessed with, food and sex. Plus, grains were storable, unlike dead mammals. This allowed trading, hoarding, the provision of armies, eating at one’s desk, and other innovations leading to sorrow.
The affection for these corrupting crops now verges on mania. In developed countries like ours, people get about 31 percent of their calories directly from rice, corn, and wheat. Of 10,000 items in a typical grocery store, at least 2,500 use corn in some form. The environmental damage arises because these starchy species thrive only in catastrophic ecological conditions. Catering to their needs, we humans plow up the soil, destroying other plants rich with sun energy. Then we drain barrels of oil restoring fertility to exhausted land. Put this on the label: Every calorie of processed foods has already demanded a calorie of oil—more like 10.
Manning urges a rebellion against processed foods and processors, who “farm the government” for subsidies. For inspiration, he supplies a dismaying dissection of how the U.S. developed a regionless, seasonless diet that depends on enriched and manipulated food substitutes. Yet his strategic analysis is thin. He suggests eating low on the energy chain—to start, spurn grain-fed meat. Also: Help farmers replace annuals like corn, wheat, and soybeans with perennials, or at least less-common grains. Yet building up a sane food supply, as he envisions, will require an informed urban constituency that reaches beyond upper-class eco-folks. The Montanan delivers neither a compact guide to eating ecologically efficient food nor an in-depth chapter analyzing what it will take to change urban eating habits. You’ll have to find moral fiber and clean crops yourself.
The revisionist history of carbohydrates that opens Against the Grain should gratify Atkins dieters. Manning wants his book, like Atkins’s, to go further and alter the way people eat. He may well achieve that, even among the Atkins horde. Food causes as much guilt as anything. If only he could land a gig writing his dirty ideas on cereal boxes.