Shutting your eyes may be presidential policy, but the journalist and blogger Tom Philpott won’t let us get away with it. He wants to focus our attention squarely on the environmental consequences of the global and, especially, the American way of raising food. Nothing, his new “Perilous Bounty” reminds us, is going in the right direction.
Not the economics of farming — neither the small-scale diversified farming we love to support at our local farmer’s market, which has nearly vanished, nor, surprisingly, the consolidated farms of the Corn Belt, where even with federal protectionism farming is “a pretty awful business.” Not the topsoil of those farms, “one of the jewels of global agriculture” formed over millenniums, depleted by monoculture and left to wash away in the increasingly uncontrollable and erratic deluges caused by climate change. Not the tap water of half a million people around Toledo, who in 2014 were told not to drink, wash or bathe in water made toxic by “titanic amounts of industrially produced nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers” dumped into Lake Erie.
Philpott, now a food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones, has long been my go-to writer on farming and the environment. His bent is for small-scale and regenerative farming — the new catchphrase for what biodynamic and then organic farming were historically called, a practice of constantly replenishing soil and with it natural ecosystems. I didn’t once see the word “regenerative” in “Perilous Bounty,” though Philpott is very much concerned with soil and water health. He must dislike the term — and given the plain-spoken crankiness that has always been an endearing feature of his writing, he maintains a surprisingly tactful silence on it. The whole book, in fact, skirts the tendentiousness that has become a hallmark of writing that sounds environmental alarms.