Short takes on three books
FOODFIGHT: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill. Daniel Imhoff. Watershed Media, $16.95.
You might think that government agricultural policy is something of interest only to farmers or politicians, but as Daniel Imhoff shows clearly in his engaging new book, Foodfight, such an assumption would be far from the mark. In fact, the various government programs and subsidies created for farmers touch all of us quite directly: in the makeup of the foods we eat (thus influencing the health of our bodies) and in the many environmental side effects of agriculture (thus influencing the health of our planet).
Imhoff explains how the present system evolved over the past seven decades, mostly by virtue of a political alliance between antihunger advocates and agribusiness interests. The sad outcome is that the safety net our nation has put in place has, to use Imhoff's words, "become a calorie delivery system rather than a nutrition program"—one that tends to reward large-scale producers much more than family farmers. Imhoff also describes a more-recent concern: that our agricultural base is being co-opted to power our vehicles (primarily through the production of ethanol), at great cost to our food security and to the environment.
But Foodfight is by no means all doom and gloom. Imhoff explains, for example, how New Zealand, once mired in malfunctioning agricultural policies, decided two decades ago to eliminate most farm subsidies. Although financial support to farmers there now amounts to less than one percent of their incomes, agriculture (including the country's ubiquitous sheep ranching, above) contributes more to that nation's economy than it did when subsidies amounted to as much as 40 percent.
Imhoff also applauds certain U.S. government programs (albeit poorly funded ones) that have the potential to improve environmental stewardship and provide healthier food choices. And he gives many examples of what small groups and even individuals have done to combat the ever-rising tide of processed foods that are flooding America's school cafeterias, grocery stores and dinner tables.
Although Imhoff is off-base in some spots—for example, when he blames "cow farts" for producing atmospheric methane (cow belching is, in fact, the culprit), or when he concludes that the world could survive quite well with nonchemical farming methods (abandonment of synthetic fertilizer would indeed cause widespread starvation)—his judgment about how broken the present system is appears sound. In any case, Foodfight provides plenty of food for thought.—David Schneider
SIX LEGS BETTER: A Cultural History of Myrmecology. Charlotte Sleigh. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. $55.
Myrmecology, the study of ants, has long fascinated scientists and natural historians. Charlotte Sleigh's precise and witty cultural history of the field, Six Legs Better, offers detailed descriptions of ant behavior, communication and sociality but is broad in scope, encompassing a vast array of scientific thought and ideological argument.
Sleigh anchors her narrative with accounts of the lives and work of three significant myrmecologists, Auguste Forel, William Morton Wheeler and E. O. Wilson, but she includes as well a profuse array of scientists, natural historians, nature-study proponents, literary critics and political theorists. These thinkers vie for professional recognition, using ants to endorse ideologies from eugenics and misogyny to international cooperation and universal languages. These struggles provide a healthy reminder of how the cultural attitudes, personal tastes and fleeting whims of individual researchers deeply affect the formation and direction of scientific study.
A lively and erudite storyteller, Sleigh vividly portrays the fluidity between scientific genres and between the sciences and the humanities. She analyzes insect representation in poems by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and
I. A. Richards's classification of poetry as a natural system. (Readers who find this section compelling may also enjoy Insect Poetics [University of Minnesota Press, 2006], which includes essays on the appearances made by bees, cockroaches, caterpillars and the like in literature from Virgil to the present.)
Our relationship with insects, Sleigh points out, has always been both close and fraught: We are variously fascinated, repulsed, amused and terrified by them. The wide array of scientific interpretations of the insect world, then, is not surprising. Sleigh unfolds the dramas in the history of myrmecology so convincingly that one gains new perspective—reading the book is like peering into an ant farm to watch the construction of an intricate and complex nest.—Anna Lena Phillips
AN OCEAN OF AIR: Why The Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere. Gabrielle Walker. Harcourt, $25.
It's easy to overlook the atmosphere. We live on the surface of a planet, but also on the floor of an unregarded sea that keeps us warm, sustains our food supply and shields us from harmful radiation. "We don't just live in the air," writes Gabrielle Walker. "We live because of it."
In her engaging primer An Ocean of Air, Walker, a chemist and science writer, recounts our evolving understanding of oxygen, carbon dioxide, ozone, wind, magnetic fields and the Van Allen belt. She illustrates each topic with entertaining and often dramatic stories: Christopher Columbus discovers trade winds on his way home from the New World; the ionosphere relays radio messages from the sinking Titanic; Wiley Post encounters the jet stream on his 1933 solo flight around the world. But Walker's focus is always on the search for knowledge. She shows a storyteller's knack for making long-settled questions seem again intriguing and mysterious.
As a result, the book imparts a new appreciation of an element so pervasive as to be invisible. "Space is almost close enough to touch," Walker writes. "Only twenty miles above our heads is an appalling, hostile environment that would freeze us, and burn us and boil us away. And yet our enfolding layers of air protect us so completely that we don't even realize the dangers."—Greg Ross