Monday, February 16, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver et al

Barbara Kingsolver is not a bad sort. I have enjoyed her novels in large part because of the connections the characters have with the land. And in this nonfiction work she offers useful information and a point of view that, for the most part, I share. Yet I had trouble getting through the book. It lived with me literally for months because I would pick it up, read a page or two, put it down again and reach for another book. I have no idea how many dozens (literally) of books I read at the same time.

The book is all about the Kingsolver-Hopp family going local. The four of them upped and left their western home for their farm in the country, specifically in Virginia, to spend a year being “locavores” - eating local food, most of it grown by themselves. It was an industrious effort. Nobody can accuse this family of being lazy. Yet by their own account it was not only rewarding financially, gastronomically and nutritionally, but it was fun.

Kingsolver offers us tidbits about dozens of kinds of vegetables and fruits, fiction and fact, and serves it up with more than a soupcon of self-deprecating humor. She also brings us into the land of harvesting animals, which is primarily where we part company. I learned a great deal about pumpkins, tomatoes, basil, canning, freezing, drying, and more, and I am determined to make a few changes based on what I learned. I also read bits about world hunger, the hidden costs of transporting foods, the meaning of fair trade, the expansion of farmers’ markets in this country, mostly written by Hopp. Virtually all of these global bits I already knew, but I had not considered one aspect of choosing what to import: how much water is used to produce it. Similarly the intertwined notes by Camille Kingsolver, which mainly offered the perspective of a young aware woman.

Some readers have called this family “rich white folks playing at farming” and it’s hard to deny that this is the case. They were not farming for a living, and they had other occupations. Kingsolver herself had to retreat to the computer to make notes about everything that was going on in her farming world in preparation for this book. It is quite fashionable to write about trying this or trying that for 30 days or 60 or for a year. I have been trying to think of what hook I could get hold of so I can do the same thing, frankly. To her credit, I do not think she was aware of the trendiness of this occupation. When the year was over she discovered that while the family was blissfully pulling weeds and tending turkey hens, many others were embarking on “locavore months”, for example.

I think, though, that Kingsolver offers a reasonable response to this type complaint. She kept detailed records of costs and was therefore able to prove that living off the land is indeed less expensive - assuming you have access to the land - than living from the grocery store. As for how much land, you might be surprised at how little is really required. She was easily able to make the case that eating organically is better for your health as well as the planet. More importantly, she makes a good point that you do not have to have your own farm to eat locally - at least in most of the populated parts of this country. There are farmers’ markets most of us can get to, the various public assistance programs, like WIC (women, infants, children) can be used at farmers’ markets, and we can make better use of what is nearby. Some people can grow some of their own vegetables in pots in a patio, if that’s all there is available. It isn’t impossible for most of us to live more locally than we do and enjoy it more.

Enjoying it more is only part of the point, of course. Kingsolver is not a fan of factory farming of animals or conventional farming of vegetables and fruit. She asks that we look at where our food is grown, if the people who grow it are compensated adequately and if harmful chemicals are used in its production. In the case of animals she tells us that when her family had the choice of CAFO (confined animal ) meat or no meat they chose to go vegetarian, as much because of the treatment of the animals as for the unhealthy nature of the meat itself. Again and again she drills into the reader the reasons we should think hard about our food sources.

I couldn’t agree more that current agricultural practices in this country leave in their wake clouds of noxious pesticides, damaged soil, polluted water and air, and ultimately inferior products in taste and nutritional value. The Omnivore’s Dilemma made me aware too that the practice of growing corn and soybeans results in fields lying fallow for months, adding to the waste and contributing to the loss of topsoil. The practice of trekking food across the country or even across the world adds to the environmental cost of the food and leaves us to wonder who raised and harvested that food and what costs do they pay to bring us cheap food, in addition to the questions about the food itself.

In other words, for the most part Kingsolver is preaching to a member of the choir here. I seek out organic produce at local farmers’ markets, I cook most of my meals myself, I buy fair-trade products from other countries (when local alternatives are not available). I am aware of the costs of eating Big Ag. I am not sure how this book affects those who have not been giving these concerns much thought - I do hope the effect is mainly positive. There is an overarching preachiness beneath the veneer of humor that may well turn people off, but based on the largely positive reviews I suspect most are not turned off by that tone.

My main concern with the book is the way Kingsolver discusses the animals. And my complaint is that she does not give this matter the kind of dedicated study that she gives to the vegetable sections. She short-changes the subject in favor of promoting her own prejudices.

Kingsolver argues on behalf of what has come to be known as “happy meat”. Animals raised in a pleasant environment and killed in a way that inflicts as little pain as possible, mentally and psychically (yes, I said psychically). I can’t argue that the home-grown concept is not better than factory farming, for the animals as well as the people. What I can, and do argue, is that all of the reasons Kingsolver trots out to make her case in favor of eating meat at all are weak and fall to the ground under the slightest scrutiny. As this review is long enough already I will refrain from repeating my point-by-point argument on this subject, but you can read it on this blog.

I give credit to Kingsolver for her resolve to let her turkeys mate and reproduce naturally. She resisted the incubators and the artificial insemination, learning in the process that nobody, virtually nobody, in farming today actually lets the turkeys mate naturally. She wasn’t at all sure the breed she had would succeed at it. What interested me was that she made the claim that her turkeys, being older than a few months, were among the oldest in this country. She also hunted for information on mating in agricultural books of the 1950s. I wondered about the wild turkeys. I can see scores of these wonderful birds a short distance from where I live and I am betting that 1) they know how to mate and 2) they live long, happy lives in the wild. Kingsolver’s deliberate ignorance of the wild versions of the animals she breeds raised questions to me. Admittedly, a turkey bred for factory farms and 4H clubs, bred for artificial insemination, may not be terrific at mating, but even the poorest mom is likely to have derived its technique from the same source as its wild cousins.

I recommend this book to those who can stomach the offhand cruelty inherent in this family’s use of animals - which is most of this country (but not all countries). I have come away with a few new ideas I intend to implement: I will take up drying fruits and veggies, I will consider the implications of water use in food I buy that is not local, I will do more breadmaking myself, I will even consider canning. I am not gifted in the growing department so I will not commit to growing my food for a year or even a month.

I will reiterate my animal complaint: many people share Kingsolver’s attitude toward animals. I am not accusing them of anything - I was one of them for over half of my life. What disturbs me in Kingsolver is that she did the research and should know better. Or rather, that she thinks she did the research but she didn’t, really. She misrepresents vegans, cows, chickens, and meat production in general, primarily because of her own built-in prejudice.

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