BOOK REVIEW: Food: A Very Short Introduction by John Krebs

Food: A Very Short IntroductionFood: A Very Short Introduction by John R. Krebs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume in the Oxford University Press AVSI series examines human eating habits. The first chapter puts the human diet in the context of evolution, reflecting upon how we got where we did in terms of food consumption. Here one gains insight into where the Paleo-diet fad is flawed, and one learns how cooking had a huge influence on human evolution.

The second chapter delves into the issue of likes and dislikes in food. We see that there are species-wide commonalities, but there are also differences both at an individual and cultural group level. e.g. Why is spice so common in the tropics and so rare in the great white north?

The third chapter looks at the ways food can do us in and what we’ve done – besides [and including] the aforementioned cooking – to reduce the threat of food gone awry. The penultimate chapter examines nutrition and how we get what we need from food.

The last chapter takes a bit of a turn, but investigates the fascinating topic of how (and whether) we will continue to feed our species. Readers will likely remember the name Malthus from either history or economics classes. He was an economist who suggested humanity was in dire straits, vis-à-vis food. Malthus noticed that population was growing geometrically while agricultural output grew arithmetically, and he reasonably noted that this was unsustainable. Of course, Malthus failed to foresee the huge technological advances from fertilizer to mechanization. However, that doesn’t make his concerns forever moot – perhaps just tardy. It remains far from clear whether the limited land space and resources can take billions more humans – especially without killing off all the other species. (Especially, if we aren’t willing to give up eating resource-intensive foods like cow in favor of less intensive one’s like grasshopper.)

The book has some graphics as well as both a “references” and a “further reading” section.

If you’re interested in food in a general sense, I’d recommend this as a great way to take in the outline of the topic.

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BOOK REVIEW: Agriculture: A Very Short Introduction by Brassley and Soffe

Agriculture: A Very Short IntroductionAgriculture: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Brassley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is another in my favorite series of brief guides to various topics and disciplines, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” books. These books typically take around 100 pages to cover the fundamentals of a given subject. The series offers a quick overview in a no-frills fashion. This book is no. 473, providing an overview of agriculture.

The book is divided into six chapters, and has an Introduction in the front and a “Further Reading” section at the rear. The first chapter is about crop farming and it discusses the major issues of concern, including: the best soils, essential nutrients, fertilizer, as well as discussing what kinds of problems are faced in crop cultivation. Chapter 2 explores the other major division of farming, raising animals. In it, one learns about basic issues of feeding, breeding, housing, and providing medical treatment.

The third chapter investigates the topic of agricultural markets and trade. Here the reader is reminded of their basic economics education, and how market forces result in the topsy-turviness of farming in which a bumper-crop year can be bad while a drought year not so bad. (i.e. Huge harvests mean unit prices drop and surpluses may be lost to waste, whereas shortages result in high unit prices.) The authors also discuss the issue of global trade which is unique for agricultural products because almost every country makes some portion of their own food (excepting nations like Singapore and Vatican City), they are resources no country can afford to be cut off from, and they are perishable on varying time scales.

The fourth chapter is about the inputs used in agriculture such as land, labor, and machinery and equipment. This chapter discusses these topics more generally than they are touched upon in the first couple chapters. The penultimate chapter compares modern and traditional forms of agriculture. As the author points out, this division could mean very different things depending upon what two periods one is comparing. However, it is a worthwhile topic to consider with respect to its relevance to sustainability and the effect on the environment.

The last chapter is nominally about the future of farming, but it considers a number of current issues such as GMO (genetically modified crops) and the effects of climate change. The chapter explores what changes will need to be made as the population approaches 9 billion. It doesn’t go into issues like urban farming, petri-dish grown meat, or insects as the future of protein as much as I’d have thought, but does raise some interesting questions.

There are many graphics, from photos to tables, used to more conveniently and concisely convey information.

I would recommend this for those looking to get an overview of how farming works. Like most books in this series, it is optimized to being concise, not to being interesting – so if one wants fun facts and narrative creative non-fiction this isn’t so much the book for you. But if you want the gist of agriculture fast, this will do nicely.

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Five Farm Haiku

gleaming steel
plow blade turns the dirt, but
dirt taxes the blade


a weed pulled
in due time, beats one hundred
plucked too late


stalk stubble,
the haggard mourning face
of the field


mile high crazy quilt
viewed by climbing passengers,
brooding nature’s mood


when light is short,
but field days are marathon
harvest gloom