Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver (HarperCollins, 2007)When we were visiting Janet, a friend of hers was reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The friend wasn’t totally happy with it, but it sounded intriguing enough that I borrowed it from the library when we returned.
I’m not totally happy with it either. Kingsolver apparently doesn't know much about capitalism and corporations other than the standard leftist line, so every time she ventures into politics she becomes more annoying than enlightening. She also seems to have a vendetta against anyone who doesn't believe in evolution (she has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology, which may explain a lot) and can't resist making totally unnecessary snide comments in which she reveals how little she really knows about most people who don’t accept the entire package of evolutionary theory. She likes to point to microevolutionary changes and say, in effect, "See, take that! You ignorant creationists!" when in fact that is not a part of the theory creationists generally have a problem with. She also misquotes the Bible at one point, which ought to have been caught by a proofreader, but that merely rankles; it doesn’t affect any of her arguments.
Be that as it may, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is well worth reading. As a writer, Barbara Kingsolver combines a poet’s ear for language with an entertainer’s sense of presentation. Even if I had found the subject dull, I believe I would have enjoyed reading this book.
The subject is by no means dull. Kingsolver, her husband, and her two daughters decided to move to rural Virginia and dedicate a year to eating only what they grew themselves or that was grown nearby (with a very few exceptions, such as coffee and some spices). In the process of following the family’s adventures, the reader learns too much for comfort about the sad state of eating in this most food-wealthy of nations.
For quite a while now I’ve been becoming increasingly uncomfortable with our “factory farming” methods of producing food, but my concerns were generally limited to two: Cruelty to the animals and the associated pollution of their meat and milk with stress hormones, not to mention antibiotics and other unwanted chemicals; and the loss of flavor in our food.
These are certainly important issues, but there are many, many more. I’ll mention here only one, perhaps the most frightening, though the book doesn’t give it as much prominence as I think it deserves: Our food supply is no longer self-sustainable. Plants and animals have for years been bred for many characteristics, but those which encourage reproduction, by seed or by sex, are not among them. Those who sell seeds have little interest in plants that will allow the farmer to save seeds from his current crop rather than purchasing new seeds for the next year. Characteristics that make animals successful reproducers are not generally compatible with the technique of keeping animals in close confinement, and besides, artificial insemination is more reliable and predictable, so that’s the way our agricultural animals are reproduced. I find the idea of a food supply that can’t last beyond the current generation without artificial intervention to be very, very scary. Closely related is the way we have bred variety out of our food plants and animals. Ninety-nine percent of the turkeys we eat, for example, are of a single breed, the Broad-Breasted White. All I can think of when I hear numbers like that is the Irish Potato Famine. We may end up owing our lives to heritage and heirloom plant and animal breeders like our friend at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm.
This family’s year-long experiment could be considered a time of deprivation, but it was a time of abundance and joy. They would be the first to say it would not have been so joyful had they been trying to earn their living as farmers. With their living secured by outside employment, their farm work, onerous and time-consuming as it was, was more in the nature of a hobby—albeit one that bore primary responsibility for putting food on the table—than a job. They only had to feed themselves, not figure out how to sell food to others. The work of raising, harvesting, and preserving their plant and animal crops was hard, but also worthwhile, meditative, and restorative.I don’t believe the author would recommend their course for everyone, but she rightfully and strongly believes everyone should know a lot more than we do about where our food comes from, how it grows, and how it gets to us. Most of us could benefit from planting small gardens of our own, be it only a window box-full. Buying whatever we can from local farmers’ markets would improve our eating while supporting small farmers, and some of us might even consider encouraging our political leaders to transfer some of the government’s farm subsidies from mega-conglomerates to small-scale farms and individual farmers, as an investment in a more sustainable (not to mention flavorful) future.