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Who will speak up for modern agriculture?
I was standing in a Borders bookstore at the highest price shopping mall in Indiana when I turned around and saw a shelf of books labeled “Agriculture.” What kind of books on agriculture would a place like this have, I wondered. The store was filled with well-fed mostly young people (20s and 30s) dressed in GAP and Abercrombie fashions, drinking lattés, skimming through magazines, perusing DVDs, listening to music, or examining the latest best sellers. There wasn’t a seed hat, vise grip pliers, or pair of work gloves in sight.

So what kind of ag books does a bookstore in uptown suburbia have? I classified them into three types. The first is the do-it-yourself books. These practical how-to books covered everything from raising chickens in your backyard to milking goats or starting you own small farm. I wondered who would buy these books since the zoning regulations for at least 50 miles either direction from the store expressly prohibit the keeping of farm animals and nearly every inch of land has been covered by concrete.

The second type of book I will call the “remember when” books. These included several by authors who grew up on farms and were recounting how great it was. There were also some classics by Wendell Berry and Gene Logsdon that romanticize the past and sing the praises of the simple agrarian lifestyle.

The third type of book on the shelf was what I will call the anti-agriculture book. There were books that told readers how bad modern agriculture is for the land, the air, the food, the animals, and just about everything else. They blamed technology and agribusiness for destroying the family farm and putting all of us at risk.

This got me thinking; where were the books that told the other side of the story? Where was a book that presented agriculture as the cure to many of the world’s problems, not the cause of them? Where was a book that told the story of thousands of men and women who worked hard, risked much, and fed and clothed the rest of us?

Upon returning home, I went to www.ama and found that a key word search of agriculture produced over 4,500 titles. The word farming produced close to 5,000 matches. Yet, here too, the majority of the books fell into the same three categories.

I refined my search to eliminate the first two groups, and what I was left with was collection of books preaching a crock of hysterical apocalyptic doom because of high-yield farming, biotechnology, crop protection chemicals, animal diseases, mass starvation, and economic collapse.

According to the Amazon website some of the most popular of these were “The Fatal Harvest” by Andrew Kimbrell, “Hungry for Profit” by Fred Magdoff, “Monster at the Door” by Mike Davis, and “Stolen Harvest, the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply” by Vandana Shive. All of these portrayed agriculture as the problem not the solution.

“Industrial agriculture is devastating our land, water, and air and is now threatening the sustainability of our biosphere,” is the first sentence of “Fatal Harvest.” “Monster at the Door” predicts billions of people will die as a result of the bird flu now sweeping the globe.

The author of course blames modern agriculture and the Bush administration for the pandemic. Indian environmental radical Dr. Vandana Shive has over a dozen books on Amazon all scathing attacks on agricultural technology and the United States.

“Where are the good guys,” I shouted at my computer monitor. There are a few out there but you have to dig deep to find them. “Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic” by Dennis Avery is the best thing out there. “Terrorism, Radicalism, and Populism in Agriculture” by Luther Tweeten is also a must read.

Other good books I found include “Agricultural Revolution of the 20th Century” by Don Paarlberg, “Our Natural Resources and Modern Technology” by Thomas DeGregori, and “Perspectives on World Food and Agriculture” by John Miranowski.

The problem I have with these works is that they are all weighty, academic texts designed to be college textbooks and carrying college bookstore prices. Avery is with the Hudson Institute, Tweeten with Ohio State, DeGregori at the University of Houston, Paarlberg at Purdue, and Miranowski at Iowa State. While these economists use real science vs. science fiction, they can be, well, a bit dull.

Let’s face it; these texts are not something a businessman is likely to pick up before a long airplane ride or something a busy mother will grab for some light reading during the kids’ soccer practice. The millenarians who traffic in fear and demagoguery have done a much better job of selling lies to the public than we have in telling the truth.

Agriculture needs some popular books written for the general public that tell the true story of modern agriculture. This is not a “how your food is produced” book, but one that explains to people that they will live longer, eat better, and enjoy a more profitable and sustainable world thanks to modern agriculture, technology, and the farm families who use it. The book should be engaging and relevant to the nontechnical consumer.

If you know of such a book, please let me know at truitt

If you are a publisher who would like to publish such a book, by all means let me know.

Published in the November 2, 2005 issue of Farm World.