Natural Resources

Published on April 27th, 2010 | by Steve Savage

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“Food Politics:” A New Book Well Worth Reading

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The Political Scientist, Robert Paarlberg (Wellsley, Harvard – Weatherhead Center for International Affairs) has just published a new book (Oxford University Press) titled, “Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.”  I would recommend it highly to anyone who cares about international food issues, sustainability and the like.  It is a succinct, easy to read, but well-documented discussion of most of the important issues surrounding our food supply.

Paarlberg is a widely recognized expert on international food and trade issues who has spent a long and notable career focused on those topics.  He not only bridges the disciplines of political science and economics, he is a self taught expert on agricultural issues and the realities of “small-holder” farming in the developing world. I’ve read his books and papers and listened to some of his lectures online.  As an agricultural scientist, I have to say that I’m impressed with his depth of understanding of farming and agricultural technology.  

An Independent Voice

My wife and I had the opportunity to sit down with Robert for lunch this January in Boston and learn what a warm and sincere person he is.  He has a unique, independent voice in various food and technology debates. He writes the following about his sources of support over the last few decades: “I have never accepted corporate funding for any of my research.”  Instead he has been supported by Wellesley, the Weatherhead Center, IFPRI, USAID, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, and by the The Ford, Rockefeller and Gates Foundations.

A commenter on a previous post about Paarlberg’s work “charged” that he had consulted for Monsanto.  If corporations like Monsanto are listening to people like Paarlberg, that can only be a good thing!  They never “bought” his opinions about the food system, they are only seeking to learn from his perspective.

What Food Politics?

In this relatively short book (189 pages, small format) Paarlberg takes on a great many issues and questions:  

  • population growth vs food production
  • the food “crisis” of 2008
  • chronic hunger vs famine
  • the controversy about the “Green Revolution”
  • food aid and food power
  • obesity
  • farm subsidies and trade barriers
  • environmental issues for agriculture
  • animal welfare issues
  • agribusiness consolidation issues
  • fast food
  • organic
  • local
  • food safety
  • genetic engineering, and 
  • who really governs the world food supply.

Paarlberg is willing to take on problematic issues in terms of governmental farm policies and food industry marketing tactics.  He is an articulate critic of our animal agriculture system and its extreme consolidation.  He is also a critic of the role of certain environmental groups whose activism has denied even very basic and safe technology-development to some of the world’s poorest people.  

Paarlberg is also a critic of many protectionist practices, and also attempted manipulative efforts via food trade and food aid policies.  

I would never say that any one person could have the “full picture” on something as complex as the global food supply, but this book represents  a huge contribution to our understanding of it.  Of all of Paarlberg’s books, this is the one that I would most vigorously endorse for broad readership.

Oxford University Press book cover image designed by Joshua Haymann.  Top photo from iStockphoto.com.  Bottom photo from Corbis Images.

You are welcome to comment on this post or to email me directly at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com.

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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



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