By Danielle Nierenberg and Alonso Diaz
With record high unemployment, a reeling global economy, and concerns of food shortages, the world as we know it is changing. But even as these shifts expose inequities in the health and food systems, many experts hope that the current moment offers an opportunity to build a new and more sustainable food system.
To understand what it will take to move forward, Food Tank has compiled its summer reading list to delve into the issues that affect our food system today. These 20 books provide insight into food access and justice in Black communities, food relief and school nutrition programs, the effects of technology on global food supply chains, the relationship between climate change and food production, and much more.
1. Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community, and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil (forthcoming November 2020)
Priya Basil explores the meaning of hospitality within a variety of cultural, linguistic, and sociopolitical contexts in this short read. Basil uses her cross-cultural experience to illustrate how food amplifies discourse within families and touches on the hospitality and the lack thereof that migrants and refugees experience. Be My Guest is at once an enjoyable read and a hopeful meditation on how food and hospitality can make a positive difference in our world.
2. Biodiversity, Food and Nutrition: A New Agenda for Sustainable Food Systems by Danny Hunter, Teresa Borelli, and Eliot Gee
In Biodiversity, Food and Nutrition, leading professionals from Bioversity International examine the positive impacts of biodiversity on nutrition and sustainability. The book highlights agrobiodiversity initiatives in Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, featuring research from the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project (BFN) of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. Through this analysis, the authors propose that the localized activities in these countries are not only benefiting communities, but are transferable to other regions.
3. Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. by Ashanté M. Reese
In Black Food Geographies, Ashanté Reese draws on her fieldwork to highlight community agency in response to unequal food access. Focusing on a majority-Black neighborhood in Washington, DC, Reese explores issues of racism, gentrification, and urban food access. Through her analysis, she argues that racism impacts and exacerbates issues of unequal food distribution systems.
4. Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice edited by Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese (forthcoming October 2020)
Access, equity, justice, and privilege are the central themes in this forthcoming collection of essays. The food justice movement often ignores the voices of Black communities and white food norms shape the notions of healthy food. Named for Black Lives Matter, Black Food Matters highlights the history and impact of Black communities and their food cultures in the food justice movement.
5. Diners Dudes & Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture by Emily J.H. Contois (forthcoming November 2020)
In Diners, Dudes & Diets, Emily Contois looks at media's influence on eating habits and gendered perceptions of food. Focusing on the concept of dude foods, the book follows the evolution of food marketing for men. In doing so, Contois shows how industries used masculine stereotypes to sell diet and weight loss products to a new demographic. She argues that this has influenced both the way consumers think about food and their own identities.
6. Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net by Maggie Dickinson
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is essential for individuals who face food insecurity on a daily basis. Still, the program fails to reach many, including those who are unemployed, underemployed, or undocumented. Feeding the Crisis provides a historical overview of SNAP's expansion and traces the lives of eight families who must navigate the changing landscape of welfare policy in the United States.
7. Feeding the Other: Whiteness, Privilege, and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries by Rebecca T. de Souza
In Feeding the Other, Rebecca de Souza explores the relationship between food pantries and people dependent on their services. Throughout the work, de Souza underscores the structural failures that contribute to hunger and poverty, the racial dynamics within pantries, and the charged idea of a handout. She argues that while food pantries currently stigmatize clients, there is an opportunity to make them agents of food justice.
8. Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato by Rebecca Earle
In Feeding the People, Rebecca Earle tells the story of the potato and its journey from a relatively unknown crop to a staple in modern diets around the world. Earle's work highlights the importance of the potato during famines, war, and explains the politics behind consumers' embrace of this food. Interspersed throughout are also potato recipes that any reader can try.
9. Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal by Hanna Garth
In Food in Cuba, Dr. Hannah Garth looks at food security and food sovereignty in the context of Cuba's second largest city, Santiago de Cuba. Throughout the work, Garth defines a decent meal as one that is culturally appropriate and of high quality. And through stories about families' sociopolitical barriers to food access, Garth shows how ideas of food and moral character become intimately linked.
10. Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America by Marcia Chatelain
Scholar, speaker, and strategist Marcia Chatelain provides readers insight into the ways fast food restaurants expanded throughout Black communities. Dr. Chatelain traces their growth during the 20th century and their intersection with Black capitalists and the civil rights movement. This book highlights the dichotomy between fast food's negative impacts on Black communities and the potential economic and political opportunities that the businesses offered them.
11. Honey And Venom: Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper by Andrew Coté
In Honey and Venom, Andrew Coté provides a history of beekeeping while taking the reader through his own trajectory in the industry. A manager of over one hundred beehives, Coté raises colonies across New York City, on the rooftops of churches, schools, and more. Coté's passion for beekeeping comes through clearly as he narrates the challenges and rewards of his career.
12. Life on the Other Border: Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont by Teresa M. Mares
Agriculture, immigration, and Central American and Mexican farm workers may conjure ideas of the Mexico-U.S. border, but in Life on the Other Border, Teresa Mares gives a voice to those laboring much farther north. Mares introduces the readers to the Latinx immigrants who work in Vermont's dairy industry while they advocate for themselves and navigate life as undocumented workers. This is an inspiring read that touches on the intersection of food justice, immigration, and labor policy.
13. Meals Matter: A Radical Economics Through Gastronomy by Michael Symons
In Meals Matter, Michael Symons argues that economics used to be, in its essence, about feeding the world but has since become fixated with the pursuit of money. Symons introduces readers to gastronomic liberalism and applies the ideas of philosophers like Epicurus and John Locke to the food system. Through this approach, he seeks to understand how large corporations gained control of the market and challenges readers to rethink their understanding of food economics.
14. No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg addressed the United Nations at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit and has since been a global symbol of environmental activism. Her community organizing and impassioned speeches are uncompromising as she argues that climate change is an existential crisis that needs to be confronted immediately. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference includes Thunberg's speeches and includes her 2019 address to the United Nations.
15. Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It by Tom Philpott (forthcoming August 2020)
In Perilous Bounty, journalist Tom Philpott critically analyzes the centralized food system in the U.S. and argues that it is headed for disaster unless it sees some much-needed changes. Philpot argues that actors within the U.S. food system are prioritizing themselves over the nation's wellbeing and provides well-researched data to back up his claims. Providing readers insight into the experiences of activists, farmers, and scientists, this is a great read for those starting to learn about the state of the country's food system and for those who are already deeply involved.
16. Plucked: Chicken, Antibiotics, And How Big Business Changed The Way The World Eats by Maryn McKenna
In this exposé on the chicken industry, acclaimed author Maryn McKenna explains the role antibiotics played in making chicken a global commodity. Plucked makes it clear that food choices matter and show how consumers' desire for meat, especially chicken, has impacted human health. McKenna also offers a way forward and outlines ways that stakeholders can make food safer again.
17. Stirrings: How Activist New Yorkers Ignited a Movement for Food Justice by Lana Dee Povitz
Between 1970 and 2000, food activists in New York City pushed to improve public school lunches, provide meals to those impacted by the AIDS epidemic, and established food co-ops. In Stirrings, Lana Dee Povitz draws on oral histories and archives to recount the stories of individuals who led these efforts. She highlights the successes of grassroots movements and reminds readers of the many women leaders in the New York food justice movement.
18. The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race, and the Struggle for Sustainability by Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern
In The New American Farmer, Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern offers a look at farm labor in the U.S. Although most farm owners are white Americans, farm workers are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color. In this book, Minkoff-Zern details the experiences of farm laborers who are becoming farm owners themselves and outlines the many barriers that workers must overcome during this transition. Through interviews with farmers and organizers, Minkoff-Zern shows that these farmers bring sustainable agricultural practices that can benefit our food system.
19. The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren
Hope Jahren breaks down climate change for readers in an accessible and data-driven book. The Story of More explains how greenhouse gas emissions and consumption of natural resources in developed nations exacerbate climate change and outlines the consequences of these actions. Although she argues that the planet is in danger, she also provides a variety of everyday actions, like decreasing meat consumption, that consumers can take to make a difference.
20. Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes by Bryant Terry
Author, chef, and food justice activist Bryant Terry provides readers with over a hundred recipes to create approachable and flavorful vegan dishes, without relying on meat alternatives. This book is a wonderfully practical recipe book that begins with a list of recommended tools, is organized by ingredients, and even includes a music playlist. Vegans and non-vegans alike will appreciate Chef Terry's Vegetable Kingdom.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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