America’s Food by Harvey Blatt

3453605Nonfiction — print. MIT Press, 2008. 336 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “What You Don’t Know About What You Eat”, Blatt delves right into the specific horrors and problems with America’s food system — the use of fertilizers to enrich our depleted soils at the expense of our environmental health, the use of pesticides to grow specific crops at the expense of our biological health, and the fact that the average American eats his or her body weight in food additives each year. With an expansive breath and a critical eye, the book describes the production of all types of food in the United States — not only the basic food groups but grain farming, organic food, genetically modified food, food processing, and diet products — and explains the environmental and health problems associated with each one.

So I might have to call the Honors Project done. Not because I’ve made my way through my entire list of possible titles but because — this book? It is exactly what I was looking for when I started the project. I copied down nine pages of notes, including two fantastic tables, and know exactly how I’m going to integrate Blatt’s information into my own research. It took me nineteen books to get to this point, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to find another book as perfect for my needs before December.

Blatt’s insistence upon comparing our problems with those of food systems around the (developed) world was rather refreshing. One of the facts that naysayers always decry about the American food system is the subsidies our government provides to farmers and agribusiness for the production of certain crops, particularly corn. I was shocked to find out that the United States is not the major offender in the subsidy scandal. The European Union’s support of its producers was 33 percent of the value of production in 2004; Japan’s totaled 56 percent. America’s was only 18 percent.

Did I love every minute of this book? No. While Blatt does quote a variety of political figures (Milton Friedman and Rachel Carson, to name two extremes), he’s not nearly as harsh towards the organic label as I had expected. There are some inherent problems with organics besides the costly barriers to entry, and I was surprised to Blatt did not address a single one of these. There were also some more mundane moments were even I as a person interested in these topics just wanted him to move on.

Still, I believe he is the first author I have read on this topic that examines consumption of food products on a nation-wide scale. Most of the authors I have read either focus on their own consumption habits or on one particular food item (tomatoes or whales, for example). Several of his charts and graphs will help me retroactively justify the design of my own survey, an aspect of my thesis that I feared would end up being personal rather academic.

The Honors Project:

I read this book for The Honors Project, my own personal challenge to read more books about economics, food, and/or geography in preparation for writing my honors thesis. My goal for this project is to learn as much as I can about these topics so I can formulate better questions and, in turn, produce a better honors thesis. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

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