Industrial farming: Blessing or curse? Two books offer dueling visions of America’s food system

Agriculture Plowing Tractors

“Simply put,” [Mark Bittman, in his book “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, From Sustainable to Suicidal,”] writes, “agriculture has, over the course of human history, gotten away with murder.” Strong words, but arguably fitting for humanity’s “incremental decisions” made over the past 10,000 years, beginning when our omnivorous hunter-gatherer-scavenger progenitors laid down roots—literally and figuratively—by farming plants and animals.

The Agricultural Revolution instantly made life a whole lot junkier. Our average life span fell by about seven years. Tooth decay increased. Gender roles and social stratification solidified. Intent on feeding proliferating populations, some cultures overfarmed, stripping the soil of necessary nutrients, leading to crop failure, famine and societal collapse—a process one conservationist labeled “suicidal agriculture.”

Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist with appointments at Wellesley and Harvard, is exceedingly more optimistic about the current state of the world’s larder. His “Resetting the Table” reads as a rebuke to industrial-agriculture opponents like Mr. Bittman. “The use of modern science is broadly welcomed in medicine, transport, and communications,” Mr. Paarlberg writes, “yet it has become strangely controversial in food production.”

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Chapter by chapter, “Resetting the Table” demolishes the preconceived beliefs of smart eaters raised on progressive, post-1960s culinary social movements. The author advises against strict locavorism. What matters is how food is grown, far more than how—or how far—it travels. 

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