Want to know more about the food industry and its environmental impact, but don’t know where to start? There’s a mind-boggling array of literature out there right now that purports to be giving you the straight story about the stuff in your grocery cart–but that literature isn’t all created equal. From diet books to documentaries, from Instagrammers to independent studies, where’s a food industry newbie to start?
Well, literature about the food industry–and really just about food in general–is my genre of choice. It started my sophomore year of high school, when I picked up a copy of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to read for a class project. But that book totally hooked me. What I learned about the food industry, and about how far removed I was from the food I ate, from those three hundred-some pages ignited a passion inside of me that I didn’t know existed. I had to know more.
I started making my own bread and accompanying my parents to the farmers’ markets on the weekend. I started working in our garden alongside my mom. I devoured book after book and watched movie after movie about the food industry and its destructive impact on the environment. Soon, my interest began to spill over into other aspects of environmentalism. But reading books about the food industry is where it all began.
The Best Books About the Food Industry & the Environment
So here are my top picks! I’ve read many others, some better and some worse–these are the best of the best, in my opinion.
- Project Animal Farm, by Sonia Faruqi. Some of these books are more of page-turners and others less so–but this one definitely takes the cake in that regard. When Faruqi lost her job as an investment banker, she decided to volunteer at an organic dairy farm, where she became interested in the treatment of livestock. Her research on the animal industry ends up taking her all over the world and through a variety of harrowing circumstances. However, while this sounds like the perfect lead-up to “Cowspiracy” in book form, it really isn’t. It doesn’t explicitly promote vegetarianism or veganism. It’s a total page turner that leads up to logical, balanced advice about how to make sure your meat was raised in a humane, environmentally-friendly way. It’s fantastic!
- Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. This book is similar to Project Animal Farm, but a little bit less, erm, graphic in its descriptions of animal cruelty. If you want to learn the truth about animal farming without the intensity of Faruqi’s book, then this is an excellent alternative. The author does come to the conclusion that vegetarianism is the best choice for animals and for the environment, but he’s not pushy about his opinion.
- Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America, by Douglas Gayeton. This is a beautiful book! Gayeton traveled across the US to meet farmers, ranchers, and food producers of all sorts. The book is a combination of their stories and Gayeton’s pictures made into gorgeous collages that supplement the stories. Unlike many books about the food industry, it’s very uplifting and optimistic about the future of sustainable agriculture!
- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. The book that started it all! When Kingsolver and her family moved from Arizona to Virginia, they decided to embark on a yearlong challenge to eat only local food (produced within 100 miles of their home). She shares their triumphs and struggles, combined with bits of American food industry history, recipes, and reflections on how their life changes as a result of the challenge. I could go on for days about what a wonderful book it is, but I’ll just stick with this: I’d be a different person, with much different values and interests, if it weren’t for this book.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. Pollan follows the “natural history of four meals” from start to finish: a meal produced via conventional agriculture (and lots of processing, haha), a Whole Foods “industrial organic” meal, a meal produced by small organic farmers, and a meal he made with his own two hands–he even goes boar-hunting with a friend! There is so much history, biology, and ecology packed into this book. It’s indispensable for someone passionate about the food industry. A disclaimer, though: some people love Michael Pollan and others hate him. Some, including many dietitians, think that his (very persuasive) writing induces “food guilt.” Personally, I think that it’s of paramount importance to learn about where our food came from, even if it’s guilt-inducing. And I come from the background of an eating disorder. Still, take this book with a grain of salt if you’re from a similar background. Strive for progress, not perfection!
You’ll notice that the following list doesn’t include books that promote a specific diet (except for Eating Animals–but Foer doesn’t guilt you for choosing to eat meat, he just shares his personal conclusion). While I do enjoy reading well-written diet books that back up their claims with science, I don’t think that they’re the best way to learn about the food industry and sustainable agriculture from scratch–you’ll come away with a skewed perspective. Happy reading!
But tell me: What books would you add to this list? And I’m thinking of writing a similar post about the food industry & health (instead of the environment), again excluding books that promote a specific diet like veganism, paleo, etc. Yes, such books do actually exist, haha! Is this something you’d be interested in reading?