Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - David Goodman and Michael Redclift, Refashioning Nature: Food, Ecology and Culture

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

David Goodman and Michael Redclift, Refashioning Nature: Food, Ecology and Culture

Brian Osborne
Queen's University
Goodman, David and Redclift, Michael. Refashioning Nature: Food, Ecology and Culture. London: Routledge, 1991. 279 pp., 25 illus. Cloth U.S. $59.95. ISBN 0-415-06702-2. Paper U.S. $18.95, ISBN 0-415-06703-0.

1 The basic human prerequisites for life are air, water and nutrition. While these elements are ubiquitous, ensuring their provision has required the exploitation, organization and transformation of aquatic and terrestrial habitats. As human numbers increased and as technology became more sophisticated, the landscapes of production dominated our ecumene. Indeed, perhaps agriculture has done more than industry in changing the face of the earth.

2 But it is more than a matter of somatic needs fulfilled by biological inputs organized into unchanging staple diets. The dynamic dimensions of taste, preferences, avoidances and fads are also central determinants of production. Thus, nature is refashioned by the equation of food, ecology and culture, a theme that has been explored by several writers over the years. Redcliffe Salaman's History and Social Influence of the Potato (1949), F J. Simoon's Eat Not This Flesh (1961), Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1986) and S.A.M. Adshead's Salt and Civilization (1993) all underscore the social, economic and political contexts of patterns of consumption, modes of production and systems of distribution of foodstuffs.

3 David Goodman and Michael Redclift's Refashioning Nature: Food, Ecology and Culture is the most recent contribution to this œuvre. As the subtitle suggests, it too positions the study of food in the context of ecology and culture. This is heady stuff. The development of the modern "food system" is elucidated by a political-economic concentration; environmental degradation; and trade disputes. These several developments are represented as,

the outcome of the drive of industrial capitals [sic] to control 'nature' in agricultural production and food manufacturing and the interest of the state in pursuing cheap food policies (p. xv).

4 The analysis presented here also demonstrates how these same forces have served to "disarticulate" the agriculture of the nations of the south. It is posited that it is the loss of indigenous food-security that is responsible for rural poverty, rural-urban migration and increased dependence on exotic grain and animal protein. For the authors, the responsibility for the erosion of indigenous production of staples by a peasant system is laid at the feet of the western world. It is the systemic penetration of the western system of expropriation by transnational corporations (TNCs) that has perpetrated so much of the global environmental degradation and food shortages. Ironically, it is the same western world — if different components of it — that exercises itself with the need for moralistic intervention to ameliorate the symptoms.

5 Given the comprehensiveness of the analysis of the modern food system, it is predictable that reference is made to recent biotechnological innovations in food marketing and processing. Often touted as the panacea for global hunger, the widespread application of "agrigenetics" poses major problems: the emphasis on production growth rather than on low-input production sustainability; corporate appropriation of "agri-biotechnologies"; the privatization of the biosphere. These developments have been energized by the unholy alliance between the interests of "pure" perspective on the interactions between such matters as science and technology, social justice and gender relations. The essential thesis is that it is the "commoditization" and "industrialization" of food production, processing and consumption that has revolutionized what, how, and where we eat (p. 88).

6 Thus, the first substantive chapter, "Food into Freezers: Women into Factories," refers to the social processes that have accompanied the "commoditization of food" in advanced industrial societies since World War II. These include increased participation by women in the work force; increased consumption of consumer-durable goods for the home; and increased consumption of processed foods. For the authors, such developments were central to the establishment of the modern food system through the collapsing of private and public domains into domestic and commodified activities.

7 Another transformed reality was that of rural society where the perpetuation of family farming continues in association with the breakdown of natural organic cycles and the increased integration of agricultural and industrial processes. Following an excellent critique of the deconstruction of the fundamentals of local rural communities, the authors conclude with the paradox that "while urban society has elevated 'rural' values to the ideological level, the society from which they are supposed to emanate has passed away" (p. 86).

8 Rural society, therefore, has been the locus of introduction of the principal components of a modern "agri-food" system that has been industrialized in a "fordist-productionist" model: mechanization; "agri-chemicals"; genetics and hybrids; farm research and crass profit. Already, genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) have been introduced into the environment in the U.S. and the U.K. as the "agri-food" system enters into a new relationship with its ecosystems. As Goodman and Redclift point out,

The relationship between the agri-food system and the environment thus takes on dimensions which have yet to be revealed and whose irreversible consequences are unknown and unforeseeable (p. 197).

9 Taken together, this study demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between the technological initiatives in reshaping nature and the economic and political forces that are restructuring society. In particular, it is argued that the relationship between sustainability and development rests on paradigms that have historical and geographical bases and social and economic contexts. With the particulars of "environmental consciousness" understood, progress can then be made with "the organization of alternative forms of social action to redress environmental problems" (p. 231).

10 This study is a signal demonstration of this precept. The authors may be forgiven, however, for what is left unaddressed: the fundamental question of the appropriate ideological catalyst for such social action. At a time when socialism has collapsed, capitalism is shuddering and selfish materialism is thriving, the search for a corrective "grand design" for a sustainable and non-exploitative system of production promises to be a daunting one. However, few would disagree with Goodman and Redclift's concluding statement: "We need to address the sustainability of our own models, then, before we are in a position to hand them down to others" (p. 256).