From the moment I began reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I knew she was the kind of woman my mother would be friends with. I grew up in a family with a compost bin next to the sink, a worm bin in the basement, and a large garden in the backyard. Processed food and cellophane-packaged snacks are seldom found in our pantry. Fresh produce has always been a constant staple in my families diet, and I’ve always been aware of certain food issues because of my sister’s severe acid reflux and my mom’s gluten allergy. As I worked my way through the book, I made a point of underlining facts and details I found particularly interesting or disturbing.
One issue that the book brought to my attention was the looming, disastrous consequences of genetically modified seed farming. In chapter three, Barbara writes, “Plant diseases can attack their host plants in slightly new ways each season, encouraged by changes in prevailing conditions of climate. This is where genetic variability becomes important. Genetic engineering cannot predict or address such broad-spectrum challenges. Under highly varied environmental conditions, the resilience of open-pollinated land races can be compared approximately with the robust health of a mixed-breed dog versus the finicky condition of a pooch with a highly inbred pedigree” (pg 53).
She uses this comparison to explain the vulnerability of plants that have had their genetic variation bred out of them. The majority of our major crops, such as soybeans and corn, are the “inbred” seeds, pure and sterile. They are much more susceptible to plant diseases because of this genetic weakness. Barbara drives this argument home when she says, “History has regularly proven it drastically unwise for a population to depend on just a few varieties for the majority of its sustenance. The Irish once depended on a single potato, until the potato famine rewrote history and truncated many family trees…Our addiction to just two crops [corn and soybeans] has made us the fattest people who’ve ever lived, dining just a few pathogens away from famine” (pg 54).
This section, more than anything else in the book, gave me anxiety. Our country is so dependent on factory farming, industrialization, and processed food. If a blight were to evolve among corn or soybean plants, it would have no problem wiping out these crops. The farmers would have nothing to harvest. The animals that rely on these crops for feed would starve. They would not be fit for slaughter. The industries that rely on these crops for as processing ingredients would halt production. The entire food industry would be up the creek without a paddle. Which leads me to my next point of anxiety, if the food industry screeches to a halt, people will starve. That has not been a legitimate concern for the vast majority of the American people since the Great Depression.
Regardless of the seriousness of this situation, I do think that there are many things that people who don’t live on farms can start to do to become more self-sustaining. Looking for farm stands or farmers markets in your area or neighboring counties is not incredibly difficult to do. Buying local fruits and vegetables is almost always cheaper than the grocery store alternative, you just have to find them first. The internet and social networking make this easier than ever before. Trying to only buy fruits and vegetables that are in season is another change the average consumer could make.
Anxieties aside, I loved learning about how to grow certain fruits and vegetables, how to make your own bread, and cheese, and the foodie in me loved the recipes that suggested tasty and creative ways to cook with these items. It seems that the Kingsolver family also enjoyed this aspect of their “locavore” experiment. From Camille’s contributions to the book, to Lily’s egg business, it’s obvious that this was not a torturous experience for either of the Kingsolver children. In addition to a year spent learning the ins and outs of what it takes to run a farm, Barbara and her family were steadfast in their dedication to this cause, and it paid off. Barbara writes, “Our grocery-store bill for the year was a small fraction of what it had been the year before, and most of it went for regionally produced goods we had sleuthed out in our supermarket: cider vinegar, milk, butter, cheese, and wines, all grown and processed in Virginia. About $100 a month went to our friends at the farmers’ market for the meats and vegetables that we purchased there…In cash, our year of local was costing us well under 50 cents per meal. Add the $1.72-per-meal credit for the vegetables we grew, and it’s still a bargain” (pg 307).
This book isn’t your average non-fiction read. Barbara merges her memoir with educational information, about everything from global climate change to how turkey’s mate, and tops it all off with the recipes and references typically found in a cookbook. When I was about halfway finished reading, my close friend Carlie told me about her recent idea of moving back to North Carolina, to her former city of Greensboro, to start a commune and become self-sustainable. I immediately placed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in her hands and told her to read it, it would solidify her plans. She has since ordered it on her Kindle, and is considering a future on a family-owned farming commune more seriously than ever.
I recommend this book to anyone who is curious about what really goes on within the food industry that Food Inc. didn’t show. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to support local farms and boost the local economy. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to start their own gardening adventures, however large or small. And finally, I recommend this book to anyone who has rebellion in their heart, who doesn’t simply accept that things are the way that they are, and there’s no changing it. If one woman and her family could do it without starving or poisoning themselves, there’s no reason why others can’t follow suit.
– Amy Patt, aka Rebel Heart