Nathan Soule

Book Review

Kingsolver, Barbara, Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.
New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007

In her heart it appears that Barbara Kingsolver is still the pragmatic scientist that received her masters in evolutionary biology. How else could you explain her family’s decision to embark on a year-long experiment to almost exclusively eat local food? In this book Kingsolver recounts a year’s worth of reflections of her family’s attempt to take on the industrial food production complex from the grassroots level. The Kingsolver family became the subjects of a real life experiment which sought to answer many questions; among them was - is it possible for a family to survive eating only food that they could grow themselves or purchase locally?

The narrative begins with the Kingsolver family leaving their home of many years in Tucson, Arizona to move to the Appalachian foothills of rural Virginia. After many years of living in a place where the vast majority of the food and water that they consumed had to be shipped over many miles, they felt called back to a place that could sustain them, a place "where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground." (3) After a year and a half of acclimating themselves to this new place, they finally decided to take the plunge of becoming full-fledged ‘locavores’ – those who rely on sustenance from locally produced food.

Now for the Kingsolver family the adjustment was less significant than it would be for the average U.S. American, but nonetheless represented a significant change their lifestyle. They already were committed to eating locally grown and organic produce, and they had long since outlawed any meat except for the free-range variety in their diet. Their pledge to eat locally involved trying to grow as much of the food they would eat as possible, buy from local farmers’ markets whenever possible, and try to procure all of their foodstuffs from the source that resulted in the least amount of impact upon the Earth. Far from being an episode of fanaticism or elitism, Barbara points out that there are some things that they refuse to give up that must be imported long distances. However, in trying to limit these ‘extravagances’ as much as possible, the family limits such purchases to coffee, spices, and a little fruit and candy; but they still look to buy them from sources that practice sustainability and worker justice.

Kingsolver’s book is a reflection of one family’s real life wrestling with the consequences that the food we choose to eat has on all of our lives. Each chapter mixes stories from this experimental year with commentary upon the current state of food culture in the United States, and how it became such a mess. Barbara’s reflections serve as an insightful view into her thought process in coming to believe what she does about the brokenness of industrialized food production, while at the same time prompting the reader to recognize and analyze his own patterns of consumption. Her husband, Steven L. Hopp, writes numerous sidebars about the relationship between industrial agriculture, economics and public policy, pointing out the unfair advantages that large scale, genetically modified monoculture receives over small scale, diversified, organic farming. Also, Barbara and Steven’s daughter, Camille, adds a practical piece at the end of each chapter with seasonal recipes and menus for each month of the year, as well as stories about growing up in, and learning to appreciate, a countercultural food environment.

The premise of the book is that the United States has largely lost its food culture as large scale industrialized and commercialized agriculture has come to dominate the American landscape. The problems this has created are numerous, and have been written about at length in sources from academic journals to weekly magazines. Kingsolver begins to make the link between many modern problems with the disintegration of family farming. Kingsolver revisits her youth, growing up on a farm, in a time where everyone was more dependent upon the local economy to produce the necessary food for local consumption. Throughout the book she then traces the agricultural history of the past 50 years, which saw a dramatic move away from a system of local production and consumption to a system where food is produced as cheaply as possible, shipped to the consumer over long distances, and heavily dependent upon fossil fuel for transport and pest control. The benefit has been a stream of cheap foods, readily available in any season. The disadvantages read like a laundry list – far diminished quality in taste, decreased nutritional value of food, increased amount of processed food, contamination of air and water through fossil fuel burning, decreased productivity of land, loss of the family farm, increased resistance of pests, decreased knowledge about where food comes from, and a sense of disconnection with the land that sustains life.

Kingsolver’s conclusion is that we are living within an agricultural system that destroys the Earth, creates less tasty food, threatens worldwide food security, fattens and infirms consumers, destroys regional economies, and disparages knowledge of the land. In a sense food production mirrors the entire culture within this consumer and profit driven society. The extremism of turning food into a commodity to be sold (its profitability to be maximized) has undermined many internal and external goods that are central to creating a high quality of life. Thus, the Kingsolver family sets out with the idea that separating themselves from such a flawed system will reconnect them with the Earth, and ultimately lead to a way of living that provides more satisfaction and holistic health.

Kingsolver’s narrative moves through each season, showing the highs and lows of this family’s countercultural efforts to participate in and rediscover a food culture that has largely been lost. The family raises a good portion of what they eat in their garden or by raising livestock, and that which they cannot raise they look for at local farmers’ markets. By moving through each month, her family experience serves as an educational lesson to a culture that does not even know how to identify which produce is locally in season. From the early springtime asparagus to the pumpkins of late autumn, the Kingsolver experiment serves as a case study of how to utilize in season produce to make delicious food, and store what is left to have convenient, yet still local, food during the lean months of winter. Besides giving all the details of her own family’s experience, the chapters are interspersed with the stories of other people and cultures that seek to live in an alternate food economy. From greenhouse-farmers of New England to Amish communities in Ohio to centuries old family farms in the Italian countryside, Kingsolver’s travels tell the tales of people that have created healthy, prosperous and sustainable communities by relying on local food economies. Whether by using practices of their ancestors, as in the case of the Italians or the Amish, or by implementing new, smart technology, as in the case of the Massachusetts tomato farmers, she points out that an alternative to large scale, industrial agriculture is not only possible, but is thriving this very day in small communities around the world.

Kingsolver believes that a shift to local, organic, diversified farms is the main hope in creating a food culture that is sustainable and serves the needs of the human being, rather than the corporation. The costs of large scale monoculture is either being paid in government subsidies to large corporations, increased health care expenses, or are being passed onto other generations in the forms of climate change, decreased land productivity, and loss of crop diversity, among others. However, even though a major shift in agricultural practices could have huge health, climate, and economic benefits, the power of large scale operations continues to dominate in the United States. Kingsolver believes that this is a matter of the market, with shifts only coming as change in demand for products occurs. She notes that there has been a huge increase in the production, sale and consumption of organic produce since people have learned about the benefits for personal and environmental health. However, most of this is grown in California and shipped across the country to stores, often crowding locally grown organic produce off the shelves. Kingsolver points out that many of these companies market organic produce for the economic benefit, not necessarily because they care about implementing practices that improve sustainability. Therefore, whereas companies will cut corners to produce the product as cheaply as possible, local vendors conduct business on a code of trust, as their customers will know if they are using pesticides or using unsustainable practices. She argues that the best way to ensure the quality and integrity of a product is to buy locally; and the best way to ensure a market for local producers is to continue buying from them. The keys to changing food culture in the U.S. are many, including systematic changes from above; but a principle one is for consumers to shift the market by demanding more local, organic produce.

Ultimately, this book is a story about family, and the bond of life that becomes of sharing in a nourishing food culture. The cause of caring about one another and the Earth is one that begins at the dinner table. By placing a high value on sharing in producing and confecting high quality food, the Kingsolvers discovered a quality of life that values health, sharing in responsibility, caring for the land, intergenerational bonding, slowing down the rapid pace of our culture, and taking time to enjoy the precious moments and things of life. While it is obvious that their experiment placed additional responsibility on each family member, required a degree of sacrifice, and necessitated many hours of work in the garden, Kingsolver concludes by relating the beauty that was revealed in this more ‘organic’ way of living. After one year of farming (predictable as this may be), the family decides that it wants to continue living as ‘locavores,’ as they do not want to give up this new appreciation they have gained for the miracle of the Earth supporting their lives. This is wonderfully expressed in the final pages of the book as Barbara and her daughter, Lily, take in the miracle that, in this age of artificial insemination, few people alive have had the privilege of witnessing – the hatching of turkey chicks.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as it weaved family story with political and social commentary on the state of North American agriculture. Kingsolver’s style of writing is very informative and to the point, but at no point did it come off as preachy or elitist. This is a book where she puts herself out there, as if to say, “This is what my family did… I’m not saying that’s what all families should do, but try it out, you just might like it.” She is very honest with her own shortcomings in trying to live a sustainable and healthy life, yet she approaches this project not as just an author, but a person that is struggling to live out her own values. It is in doing so that she challenges her readers to ask some fundamental questions of their own consumptive habits. Where does my food come from? How far has it traveled to get here? What kind of chemicals have been used to produce it? How will eating it affect my own health? The health of my community? Can I switch to eat food that is in season? Can I find local farmers from which to buy?

Overall, this book is very well researched, written and compiled. While maybe not a comprehensive overview of the problems with large scale, industrial agriculture, it relates the issues in a way that is easy to understand, and in a way that does not demonize the participants in it. The practicality of this book is evident in the numerous recipes for each season, and the realization that comes with reading that cooking in season does not have to be boring, repetitive, or tasteless.

It is easy to critique Kingsolver because she comes from a position of privilege. One could easily respond to this book: “This shift in food culture is something that you can do because you have the economic power to buy land, have the leisure time to garden your own food, and have the disposable income to pay a higher purchase price for organic produce.” While all of this is true, I believe that Kingsolver is helping each reader to evaluate what he can do to support organic, local, diversified farms. Obviously, the answer will be different for each person. A city-dweller without much living space may only be able to shop at a farmer’s market during the summertime, but that’s a step.
Rural dwellers may be able to grow a part of their own diet. Others may choose, like Barbara, to not eat livestock that have been raised in large feedlots. Others still may simply choose to limit their consumption of that same type of meat. The point is, everyone can do something to support a more sustainable practice of agriculture – it’s up to the reader to determine what exactly that may be.

Kingsolver implicitly asks a question in this book that needs further conversation. That is, when does participating in sustainable systems become something that is not just for those with resources. Kingsolver begins to answer this question by pointing out that avoiding processed foods can compensate for the costs of buying organic produce, but this topic deserves more attention. There are some lunch programs that seek to inject healthy, local, organic produce into the meals of school children, but we still cannot expect that the majority of the children in the U.S. are getting healthy food options (and implicitly, then, are part of a system of consumption that is destroying the Earth). I do not think that we can expect overworked single mothers or others in stressful situations, to have the time or the resources to seek out the type of food culture for which Kingsolver advocates in her book. I believe that she is right when she says that availability and affordability of this produce will rise with increased demand, but there is a fundamental problem in our food system when the poor are continually fed under-nourishing food whose production practices are bad for sustainability. Ultimately, believing in this type of food culture necessitates advocacy for systemic change which will bring organic, local produce within reach of all people.