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Gift Ideas: Best 2019 Books and Movies About Our Food System

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Guido Cavallini / Cultura / Getty Images

By Stacy Malkan

If you like to give friends and family the gift of knowledge about our food, we're here with recommendations for 2019 books and movies that illuminate the issues close to our hearts. At U.S. Right to Know, we believe that transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – is crucial to building a healthier food system for our children, our families and our world. Kudos to the journalists and filmmakers who are exposing how powerful food and chemical industry interests impact our health and the environment.


Here are our recommendations for best-of-the-year food books and movies. You can also receive a signed copy of the award-winning 2017 book by our colleague, Carey Gillam, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, for a monthly sustainer donation to U.S. Right to Know through Patreon or you can donate directly to USRTK here.

Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food
By Timothy A. Wise, The New Press

Scholar Timothy A. Wise shows the world already has the tools to feed itself, without expanding industrial agriculture or adopting genetically modified seeds. Reporting from Africa, Mexico, India and the U.S., Wise details how agribusiness and its philanthropic promoters have hijacked food policies to feed corporate interests, and argues that policies promoted by the Gates Foundation-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) are failing to deliver productivity and income improvements for small-scale farmers in Africa. Wise also takes readers to remote villages to see how farmers are rebuilding soils with ecologically sound practices without chemicals or imported hybrid or genetically engineered seeds.

"Hundreds of billions of dollars spent on fertilizer and hybrid seed subsidies by Kenya and other African countries over the past few years have gone down the drain, a new book argues," writes Julius Segei in Kenya's largest independent newspaper, the The Daily Nation. "The scholar's verdict that there is little evidence of any green revolution coming to Africa more than 10 years after AGRA is likely to kick up a storm in agriculture and development circles."

The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception

By David Michaels, Oxford University Press (available January 2020)

David Michaels' new book offers an insider's look at how corporations manufacture doubt in science: bogus studies, congressional testimonies, think-tank policy documents and more. He provides new details of high-profile cases involving car manufacturing, professional sports, the food we eat and the air we breathe. Michaels, the former assistant secretary of labor under President Barack Obama, writes that the anti-science policies of the Trump administration are not new, but rather the outcome of decades-long campaigns by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to stop regulation of deadly products. "This book is written to get you angry enough to want to learn how to defend yourselves, your communities, and our vulnerable planet," writes consumer advocate Ralph Nader. "Let it grip you toward detection and defiance."

Dark Waters, feature film in theaters now, starring Mark Ruffalo, (link to trailer)

A tenacious attorney, Rob Billot, uncovers a dark secret that connects a growing number of unexplained deaths to one of the world's largest corporations. As the evidence in the film shows, DuPont was aware of the dangers of its Teflon ingredients for many years. While trying to expose the truth, Bilot soon finds himself risking his future, his family and his own life.

In these kinds of movies, "you know going in that you're going to see a story about how bad things are thanks to corporate influence over government as well as the economy," writes movie critic Roger Ebert, "but the extent of the corruption is still shocking, highlighting the implicit question: why fight, if the bad guys have already won? The answer, of course, is that you should fight because it's the right thing to do." Dark Waters is "an effective outrage machine," writes Michael O'Sullivan in The Washington Post, but the movie "doesn't aspire to be something it's not. Like Bilott himself, it gets the job done, not by showboating, but by laying out the facts."

Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World
By Bettina Elias Siegel, Oxford University Press

Bettina Elias Siegel, a leading voice on children's food, critically examines how America's food culture exploits children and misleads parents. Siegel exposes predatory food-industry techniques for marketing directly to children and convincing parents that highly-processed products are "healthy." She provides extensive coverage of America's school-food program — including why, even after Obama-era reforms, school meals are still so often dominated by processed foods, many of them bearing popular junk-food trademarks. "This is a gorgeously written, heartfelt, and deeply compelling manifesto arguing why and how we must do better at feeding our kids more healthfully at home, in schools, and on the soccer field," writes Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "It should inspire all of us to get busy and start advocating for better kid-food policies — right now."

Modified: A food lover's journey into GMOs
By Aube Giroux, feature length documentary now available for purchase or rent online

In this beautiful, moving, award-winning documentary, filmmaker Aube Giroux and her mother embark on a personal investigative journey to find out why GMOs are not labeled on food products in the U.S. and Canada, despite being labeled in 64 countries around the world. Interweaving the personal and the political, the film is anchored around the filmmaker's relationship to her mom, a gardener and food activist who battled cancer during the film's production. Fueled by their shared love of food, the mother-daughter team discovers the extent to which the agribusiness industry controls our food policies, and makes a strong case for a more transparent and sustainable food system. The winner of four Audience Favorite Awards and the 2019 James Beard Foundation Broadcast Media Award for best documentary, Modified is "beautiful beyond words … compelling and compassionate," writes the journalist Joan Baxter.

Et le monde devint silencieux: Comment l'agrochimie a détruit les insectes
And The World Became Silent: How Agrochemistry Destroyed Insects

by Stéphane Foucart, Editions du Seuil (in French)

Investigative journalist Stéphane Foucart details how the agrichemical industry orchestrated "the greatest ecological disaster of the early twenty-first century" – the collapse of insect populations. Although pesticide companies claim the disappearance of insects is a mystery due to multiple factors, Foucart reports that the dominant cause is the massive use of neonicotinoid pesticides, and shows how it was made possible by an industry that faked public debate by manipulating science, regulation and expertise. The book shows how the industry exploited science to the point of "making us forget that insecticides … kill insects," writes Annabelle Martella in La Croix (review in French).

Foucart won the 2018 European Press Prize for investigative reporting, along with Stéphane Horel, for their Monsanto Papers (translated into English here) articles about how Monsanto manipulated science, influenced the regulatory process and orchestrated stealth PR campaigns to defend its Roundup herbicides.

Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry
By Julie Guthman, University of California Press

Julie Guthman tells the story of how strawberries – the sixth highest-grossing crop in California which produces 88 percent of the nation's favorite berry – came to rely on highly toxic soil fumigants, and how that reliance reverberated throughout the rest of the fruit's production system. The particular conditions of plants, soils, chemicals, climate and laboring bodies that once made strawberry production so lucrative in the Golden State have now changed and become a set of related threats that jeopardize the future of the industry. "The strawberry industry's predicament is just one example of how our strategy of dominating ecological systems and focusing on increased output at all cost is short-sighted, with diminishing returns," writes Emily Monosson in a Science magazine review. "Recent efforts to work with, rather than against, natural systems suggest a path forward."

GMOs Decoded: A Skeptic's View of Genetically Modified Foods
By Sheldon Krimsky, MIT Press

Tufts professor Sheldon Krimsky examines health and safety concerns, environmental issues, implications for world hunger and lack of scientific consensus on GMOs (genetically modified organisms). He explores the viewpoints of a range of GMO skeptics, from public advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations to scientists with differing views on risk and environmental impact. Publishers Weekly calls Krimsky's book a "fair-minded, informative primer" that "lays out opposing 'claims and counterclaims,' demystifies the science, and shows where there is consensus, honest disagreement, or unresolved uncertainty." NYU professor Marion Nestle describes the book as "a gift to anyone confused" about GMOs.

And Two More Excellent Food Books From 2018

Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Food Supply
By Mark Schapiro, Skyhorse Publishing

Journalist Mark Schapiro reports on the high-stakes battle underway for control of the world's seeds, as climate volatility threatens the security of our food supply. Schapiro investigates what it means that more than half the world's commercial seeds are owned by three multinational chemical companies, and brings to light what the corporate stranglehold is doing to our daily diet – from the explosion of genetically modified foods, to the rapid disappearance of plant varieties, to the elimination of independent farmers who have long been the bedrock of our food supply. The book also documents colorful and surprising stories from the global movement that is defying these companies, and offering alternatives capable of surviving the accelerating climatic changes. "Seeds of Resistance is a wake-up call," writes Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse and the Edible Schoolyard. "With vivid and memorable stories, Mark Schapiro tells us how seeds are at the frontlines of our epic battle for healthy food."

Formerly Known as Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture

By Kristin Lawless, St. Martin's Press

If you think buying organic from Whole Foods is protecting you, you're wrong. Our food — even what we're told is good for us — has changed for the worse in the past 100 years, its nutritional content deteriorating due to industrial farming and its composition altered due to the addition of thousands of chemicals from pesticides to packaging. We simply no longer know what we're eating. In Formerly Known as Food, Kristin Lawless argues that, because of the degradation of our diet, our bodies are literally changing from the inside out. The billion-dollar food industry is reshaping our food preferences, altering our brains, changing the composition of our microbiota, and even affecting the expression of our genes.

"In this revelatory survey of the dangers of the industrial food system, Lawless offers crucial tools for navigating it safely," writes the author Naomi Klein. "The best ones have nothing to do with shopping advice: she asks us to think holistically about food, why it can't be separated from other struggles for justice, and what it means to demand transformative change."

Reposted with permission from U.S. Right to Know.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.