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The theory goes that we all have loads more time for reading during lockdown. Ha - not sure that's the case round here!
But, if you do have some spare time, or you're looking for ideas of excellent presents to give (or receive), then here are our top tips for stimulating books about the future food world we want – and need – to see. And how to create a small pocket of that world in our own lives.
(If you're looking for a bookshop that pays their taxes, check out bookshop.org – a new site that supports independent bookshops across the UK.)
Farmer and social scientist Chris Smaje has written a book that chimes harmoniously with GC’s vision for better food and farming. Subtitled “Making the case for a society built around local economies, self-provisioning, agricultural diversity and a shared earth”, the book picks apart the crises facing our society and argues that small farms have a crucial role in addressing those. The world needs to shake off its worship of rapacious, unbridled growth and find comfort and resilience from living within limits.
Using a combination of science and good sense, Chris makes a persuasive case. He argues for conversion of urban spaces to city farms, a shift from monocultural arable to mixed arable farms, rewilding of grazing land, and a huge increase in smallholdings – as well as a reframing of prevailing political and economic structures.
“Decency, non-hierarchical autonomy and engagement with the natural world seems the better bet for creating viable human societies long-term.”
Claire Ratinon: How to Grow Your Dinner Without Leaving the House (Laurence King)
In his book, Chris Smaje describes a “wild kind of glee” that most people feel when they raise food themselves. He is describing how he felt at seeing the first tiny egg laid by one of his own chickens, but growing food brings absolutely the same astonishment and joy.
Former GC patchworker Claire Ratinon describes “the pleasure of nurturing a seed into a plant that ends up on your plate [as] a simple but humbling process”.
She says, “It has allowed me to access a deep gratitude for all those who have a role in growing our food, and it has enabled me to connect with the natural world that supports us and with the seasons through which we move every year. Most importantly, it has prompted me to cultivate an ever-expanding awareness of the systems that feed us, and to do my best to tread as lightly on our extraordinary Earth as I can.”
In simple steps and beautiful prose, this book will help you experience all those benefits even if you have no outside space at all. Plus, of course, delicious fresh produce.
James Rebanks: English Pastoral (Allen Lane)
A different take on food production is apparent in Lake District sheep farmer James Rebanks’s second book, described by Nigel Slater as “a beautifully written story of a family, a home and a changing landscape”.
He paints a disturbing and unflinching picture of where current farming, shopping and eating practices are leading us and pleads eloquently for a return to farming that nurtures biodiversity and a better future for everyone.
Required reading for anyone who has ever eaten food!
Carolyn Steel: Sitopia (Chatto & Windus)
Another call for a radically different approach to food comes not from a farmer this time, but from London-based architect, academic and writer Carolyn Steel.
Her follow-up to the brilliant Hungry City argues that food is at the centre of all our lives, touching on everything we do. But the way we eat now has lost its cultural heart and is totally dysfunctional. It’s destroying our planet and making us unhealthy. She argues that forming a new, healthier relationship with food production and consumption could solve many of the world’s greatest problems.
Far from academic in tone, her writing is always funny, warm and easy to digest.
Leah Penniman: Farming while Black (Chelsea Green)
Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land combines a damning indictment of the racism rampant in farming with a concise guide to all aspects of small-scale farming, from business planning to preserving the harvest, sharing the wisdom of African diasporic farmers on soil fertility, seed selection and agroecology.
Leah Penniman is a compelling writer and speaker, who has created in Soul Fire Farm a leader in education and food justice. While farm management is among the whitest of professions, farm labour in the US is predominantly brown and exploited, and people of colour disproportionately live in "food apartheid" neighbourhoods and suffer from diet-related illness.
A healing book for black farmers, it’s also an essential read to help white people gain a deeper understanding of their power and privilege and the steps they can take to create a more just and equal world.
Isabella Tree: Wilding (Picador)
If the number of post-it notes stuffed into a book is any indication of how good it is, then this one's a cracker. My well-thumbed copy has notes about the decline of wetlands, hedgerows and wildflower meadows (97% gone since the 1930s); the phenomenal networks of mycorrhizae twining around tree roots and their ability to sequestrate carbon; the 30 words for mud in the old Sussex dialect (sleech, slawm, gubber and smeery among them); the pigs that swam across a lake and devoured sacks of powdered Mr Whippy ice-cream.
Isabella Tree's memoir of turning the exhausted land of the Knepp estate in Sussex into a rich and thriving ecosystem is a thrilling adventure story and passionate defence of nature, filled with challenges and triumphs, turtle doves and dung beetles, heartbreaking moments and fascinating nuggets. Irresistible.
Rob Hopkins: From What is to What if (Chelsea Green)
Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins makes an enthralling case for the power of imagination in changing our world. Without a vision of the future we want to see, how can we ever hope to achieve it? He laments that imagination has been squeezed out of education, work and just about every other area of our lives and urges educators, policy makers and all of us to make space for it urgently.
"Find a place you pass every day, sit down and imagine it in the future - a future in which things turn out OK. What would it look like? Smell like? Sound like? Feel like? What would stay the same? What would change?"
Visions help individuals and communities to see what is achievable and motivate them to make changes, And, goodness knows, the world needs some pretty big changes right now.
A thoughtful and optimistic book full of hopeful and inspiring examples.
Meera Sodha: East (Fig Tree)
Philosophy, history, animal husbandry, politics and economics are all very well – but we still need to eat an actual meal at the end of the day.
One of my favourite ways of achieving that is to pick out a recipe from Meera Sodha’s magnificent Fresh India, a veg-based cook book with not a dud recipe to be found (so far – I haven’t tried them all!). East is her follow-up, which includes easy vegetarian recipes from across the East, including Thailand, Japan and Vietnam.
Favourite recipe books are like good friends – comforting and nourishing in all the right ways.
What are your go-to cookbooks?