Faculty Favorites: Savor These Books on Food and Agriculture

Stack of books next to a plate of apples and bananas

Each semester we here at Edge Effects invite scholars from a range of fields to share with us the environmental books and essays they are most excited to teach in the weeks ahead. This spring, we’re highlighting texts that engage with the food system—from farm to table to dumpster. Food and agriculture are sites of intimate entanglement between human and more-than-human worlds. They are also deeply political, wielded by the powerful to structure society and by the marginalized to resist control. The works recommended here span genres and geographies, illustrating the diverse ways food and farming intersects with our lives.

Be they delectable or hard to swallow, we hope the offerings on this list make for a feast of intellectual nourishment. For more reading suggestions, you can browse our full archive of recommendations.

Andrew Flachs, Assistant Professor in Anthropology, Purdue University

Recommendation: A Mass Conspiracy to Feed People: Food Not Bombs and the World-Class Waste of Global Cities by David Boarder Giles (Duke University Press, 2021)

Book cover for "A Mass Conspiracy to Feed People," depicting a black and pink photo of a person diving into a dumpster with white text overlaid

David Boarder Giles’ analysis of the value preserved by a system that would rather lock food away than share it with the hungry is witty, insightful, and captivating. Drawing heavily on the author’s experience as a cook, dumpster-diver, and true participant-observer, this book achieves one of anthropology’s key goals: forcing us to question the everyday and ask if a better world is possible. We read this book last fall in a class titled “Food, Culture, and Power,” and it provided a toolkit to connect environment, capitalism, social inequalities, and everyday activism. This spring, we’ll be reading it in an ethnographic methods seminar to dive deeper into the skillful ways that Giles questions food injustice through rich qualitative data.

Lisa Jean Moore, Distinguished Professor in Sociology and Gender Studies at the State University of New York, Purchase College

Recommendation: The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan (Grove Atlantic, 2019)

Book cover for "The Story of a Goat," depicting an illustration of a sideways black goat on a pink background with black and white text overlaid

The program in which I am teaching attracts nontraditional students, and the curriculum is organized around critical contemporary topics such as food, water, health, migration, transportation, and energy. Using a variety of genres, we examine the field of critical animal studies/human animal scholarship at the Anthropocene. I’m excited to work through Murugan’s book with students this semester. It seems we don’t have as many opportunities to read fables as we grow up, and this is a loss. The Story of a Goat is such a wonderful chance to remember the power of fables and allegories. This book emphasizes our human capacities for cross-species compassion and love. My hope is that students will be drawn in by the simple writing style and pacing of the story, which can sort of sneak up on you as you develop feelings for the main character, a small black goat. Additionally, the backstory of why Murugan wrote this particular book as resistance to censorship and a move away from human subjects adds such depth to the reading experience.

Joshua Sbica, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Prison Agriculture Lab, Colorado State University

Recommendation: Abolitionist Agroecology, Food Sovereignty and Pandemic Prevention by Maywa Montenegro de Wit (Daraja Press, 2021)

Book cover for Abolitionist Agroecology

During the Spring of 2023, I am teaching a course called Food, Agriculture and Global Society. There are pressing problems in a food system underpinned by systems of oppression, but agroecological and food sovereignty movements present a concerted response. Pushing us to tie these movements—and our thinking—to the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic and Movement for Black Lives is Maywa Montenegro de Wit’s Abolitionist Agroecology, Food Sovereignty and Pandemic Prevention. This long essay considers how colonialism, racial capitalism, and neoliberalism have ruptured agroecosystems across the planet, creating the conditions for the emergence of COVID-19. The pandemic furthermore revealed preexisting ethnoracial disparities in the food system. But lest we despair, Montenegro de Wit offers a radical avenue for action: integrate abolitionist thought and practice into efforts to transform the food system. Reject reformist reforms and adopt non-reformist reforms. Abolition is a world-making endeavor and central to that are liberatory food practices.

Silvia Secchi, Professor, Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences, University of Iowa

Recommendation: “Between Forty Acres and A Class Action Lawsuit: Black Farmers, Civil Rights, and Protest against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1997–2010” by Valerie Grim in Beyond Forty Acres and a Mule: African American Landowning Families since Reconstruction (University Press of Florida, 2012)

Book cover for Forty Acres and a Mule

Particularly in the land-grant system, it is common to see term such as “efficient” and “optimizing” in reference to U.S. agriculture and its institutions. These terms provide an illusion of scientific objectivity and value-neutral progress while conveniently distracting from the fact that U.S. farming is the product of publicly funded institutions and powerful rent-seeking lobbies. Professor Grim, a fellow Iowa State University graduate, skillfully illustrates this point with regards to one of the cornerstone institutions of the American farm sector, the USDA, which African American farmers sometimes refer to as “the last plantation.” Her work shows that the allocation of resources within the department reflected systemic racism and drove the reduction in African American farms from 14% of the total in 1920 to 1% in 1992 (1.6% in 2017 according to my calculations). Favoring large (white) farmers has social and environmental implications. When it comes to “optimization” in agriculture, we should always ask: “optimizing what and for whom?”

Sarah Dimick, Assistant Professor in English, Harvard University

Recommendation: Heroes & Saints by Cherríe Moraga (West End Press, 1994)

Book cover for Heroes and Saints & Other plays

Written in response to the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott and campaign against pesticide poisoning, Cherríe Moraga’s play commemorates the struggle for agricultural justice that unfolded—and continues to unfold—in California’s San Joaquin Valley. One of its main characters, Doña Amparo, is based partially on Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), while other characters recall the children impacted by a cancer cluster in McFarland. Moraga’s drama spotlights the intersection of Latinx environmentalisms, public health, labor organizing, disability rights, and feminism. Without spoiling anything, I’ll note that it’s a strong contender for the most breathtaking ending in contemporary theater. I teach Moraga’s play alongside Sarah Wald’s brilliant The Nature of California, the transcript of Dolores Huerta’s keynote address at the 1974 American Public Health Association convention, and digitally archived copies of Food and Justice, a magazine published by the UFW.

Molly Anderson, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Food Studies, Middlebury College

Recommendation: The Most Costly Journey: Stories of Migrant Farmworkers in Vermont Drawn by New England Cartoonists, editors Marek Bennet, Andy Kolovos, Teresa Mares, and Julia Grand Doucet (Vermont Folklife Center, 2021)

Book cover for The Most Costly Journey, with black and white cartoons depicting a man in a dairy barn and a man holding a family photo, a paintbrush, and a wrench with a large glowing heart on his chest

I’m assigning The Most Costly JourneyStories of Migrant Farmworkers in Vermont Drawn by New England Cartoonists to students in my Food Power & Justice class this spring.  This book came about through a collaboration among health care workers, cartoonists, and staff at the Vermont Folklife Center who were concerned about the mental health of the approximately 1,200 immigrants from Mexico and Central America who have come to Vermont to work on dairy farms.  To get here, they endure hardships that are almost unimaginable to most Vermont residents and once they are here, they face isolation, homesickness, the constant fear of deportation, long hours, and poor working conditions.  Telling and sharing their stories is powerful therapy; and the pain, fortitude and hope that comes through these 16 stories are deeply moving. The book is a great window into the realities of workers on whom our state’s main agricultural industry depends.

Nan Enstad, Buttel-Sewell Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Recommendation: Allotment Stories: Indigenous Land Relations Under Settler Siege, editors Daniel Heath Justice and Jean M. O’Brien (University of Minnesota Press, 2021)

Book cover for Allotment Stories, depicting a landscape painting broken up into rectangles of varying sizes by a red border

Allotment Stories is the most mind-blowing, transformative, and exquisite book I have read in the past year. Mind-blowing in its razor-sharp analysis of private property (read: expropriation agriculture, individualism, capitalism); transformative in its use of family story to disrupt dominant—a.k.a. settler—historical and environmental logics and to reveal indigenous worlds; and exquisite in the poetry and heart that comes through in nearly every chapter. The 29 scholars and creative writers, the majority of whom are Indigenous, investigate the crisis of the allotment of collective Native lands into individual plots, a key mechanism of settler colonialism. Did I mention the epistemological centrality of stories? As editors Justice and O’Brien write in the Introduction: “Privatization is more than policy or practice—it is a storied dispossessive process. So, too, is its restorative resistance.” Many of the authors investigate their own families and/or tribes, showing us by shining example how radical history is done.  

Featured image: stack of books next to a plate of apples and bananas