We share some of the most interesting reads from the past year, on everything from toxic weedkillers to bringing back beavers.
Toxic legacy: How the weedkiller glyphosate is destroying our health and the environment
Stephanie Seneff is an MIT scientist who has now dedicated her life to debunking the myths around the safety of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. Her book, Toxic Legacy, rests on a foundation of comprehensive, objective and accessible science – the credibility of which is assured through Seneff’s impressive academic credentials, achieving four different degrees and publishing over 200 articles.
With a dry wit and powerful sincerity, Seneff takes readers on a meticulous journey that details the toxic impact of glyphosate on people and the planet. First navigating the history of glyphosate and how it works as an herbicide, Toxic Legacy unearths the roots of our glyphosate dependency and extent of our exposure. Seneff then unravels the science exposing glyphosate’s toxicity, exposing its links to the degradation of the microbiome, liver disease, infertility, antibiotic resistance, depression, soil degeneration, water contamination and mass biodiversity loss. Ending on a note of cautious optimism, Toxic Legacy concludes with a call to transition towards organic, regenerative and sustainable agriculture, offering guidance on how to ‘take control’ of our health and protect ourselves against glyphosate’s toxicity.
The tone of Seneff’s writing is understated yet powerful, scientific but accessible, providing a fresh and vigorous review of research on glyphosate. But considering such a wide scope of evidence often comes with drawbacks. While Seneff’s credentials are flawless and the evidence persuasive, Seneff often draws a correlation between rising disease rates and glyphosate use, the relationship of which is unsubstantiated in certain cases. However, this is not to say that Seneff makes sweeping statements without considering the premise of her argument: the causal links proposed are always transparent and presented with the appropriate caveats, with evidence considered from both sides. Coupled with the sheer volume of research and intricacy of her reasoning, these correlations are both convincing and concerning.
Toxic Legacy is a vibrant addition to the growing list of glyphosate literature. Whether you’re a farmer, policymaker or health-conscious citizen, Toxic Legacy is the perfect introduction to the science of herbicides. Understanding the dangers of these chemicals may empower you into action and make you think again about their widespread use.
Bringing Back the Beaver: The Story of One Man’s Quest to Rewild Britain’s Waterways
Derek Gow is very funny, (I would challenge anybody to read the prologue of this book, without laughing out loud). He is also very serious, irreverent, committed, impatient.
Impatient because if there was ever a time to bring back a keystone species to a depleted landscape, that time is now, and that species is the beaver.
Gow doesn’t want token beavers in safe (or as it turns out, not so safe) pens to demonstrate what they can do for us, he wants widespread beavers doing what, ‘the 40-million-year-old circuit board in their heads instructs them to do’, in all the watery places that we once shared.
Bringing Back the Beaver is an accessible book, illustrated throughout with Derek’s own distinctive line drawings. It delivers science, history and tales of daring-do in a style that could only come from someone with deep personal experience and understanding. Weaving together amusing stories and gut-wrenching facts, Gow tells us, without preaching, why the beaver (and its absence) is so important, and why beavers need to return to all our wetlands rather than a just a handful, carefully selected and controlled by us.
The subtitle of the book, The Story of One Man’s Quest to Rewild Britain’s Waterways, is a provocative one. ‘Rewilding’ is a controversial concept and means different things to different people. For some it is about setting aside ‘wild’ places to develop ‘naturally’, free from the interfering hand of humans. Others believe we cannot compartmentalise our planet and that ‘the wild’ needs to be returned to everywhere that it has been excluded from. Gow reminds us of how we once lived with the beaver and how the knowledge we now have, ‘renders inconceivable the prospect that they were not at one time present in all our watercourses, slowing flows, filtering silts and building soils. Readying the land for us. To use. To farm’.
Bringing Back the Beaver doesn’t tell farmers how a beaver-filled landscape would look on the ground or how we can adapt our own use of land and water around them. With his extensive knowledge of both beavers and farming, Derek Gow is in the rare position of being able to imagine that for us. Hopefully, he will illustrate the implications and practicalities in a future book.
The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption and One Man’s Search for Justice
The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption and One Man’s Search for Justice is a tale of manipulation, disinformation and, arguably, a down-right cover-up of dangers of Monsanto’s biggest selling herbicide, Roundup.
Author Carey Gillam paints a vivid and compelling picture of the trial that kicked-off an extensive raft of court cases from people who developed cancer after ongoing exposure to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.
Monsanto had campaigned for years on the safety of Roundup – and the herbicide is still widely defended as safe. When IARC deemed glyphosate a possible carcinogen, it found a crack in armour that Monsanto had built around its product, and suspicions about its safety came spilling out.
Taking on the behemoth of Monsanto was no mean feat, but it was remarkably helped along by Monsanto’s own scientists overt deception – they paid external scientists to ‘ghost-write’ papers that supported the chemical’s safety record. Gillam writes that ‘The lawsuits accused Monsanto of knowing that glyphosate was a health hazard but engaging in years-long deceptive campaigns to mask the dangers of the company’s herbicides.’
Gillam’s book focuses on a central figure – Dewayne Anthony “Lee” Johnson – a groundsman in the Benicia School District in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. Johnson worked frequently with Roundup, notably sustaining a significant spill over himself, after which he subsequently developed a dangerous skin cancer. Johnson was the first case in the ‘multi-district litigation’ of what was to become thousands and thousands of court cases. His case delivered a monumental award of $289 million, though this was significantly downgraded in a subsequent ruling. Johnson is still alive, remarkably.
Gillam’s writing brings alive the story of the trial and what it revealed – it’s a good read. And while the danger of glyphosate is still to be definitively determined, what the trial most revealed was the perniciousness and dishonesty that goes on in corporate companies with a lot of money at stake in their products.
Animal, Vegetable, Junk / A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal
Animal, Vegetable, Junk starts with a simple sentence: ‘You gotta eat’. It the most essential and fundamental thing that humans must do, something we absolutely cannot do without. And yet, how we do it – how we feed ourselves – is anything but simple and we have been in a scrabble for it across millennia. And our current endgame on this front is closing out, having created a global food system that is effectively killing us in great numbers.
Bittman has taken on a daunting task – to unravel how humans made such a mess of the food system. It comes as no surprise that power and profit lie at the heart of it and as agriculture evolved, Bittman writes, ‘…it led to a new kind of society that bred injustice, poverty, disease, slavery and war’.
Soil health lies at the heart of agriculture and so much depends upon it. The degradation of agriculture starts with the degradation of the soil, and Bittman spends some time mapping the treatment and manipulation of soil (and those that work it) from the Common Era up through the Industrial Revolution and into the 20th Century – where the whole game changes with invention of nitrogen fertiliser and the arrival of an array of chemicals.
The increase in yield that nitrogen fertiliser drove, also facilitated the industrialisation of food creating things like ‘American cheese’ made from reduced, dyed milk paste, and transforming one of our most staple healthy foods, bread, into ‘junk’. Bittman follows this trajectory into the heart of what has gone wrong in the food system, with emphasis on how the US has shaped it. It’s an eye-opening journey, detailed and comprehensive. The book ends by looking at ‘Where we’re at’ and ‘The way forward’ suggesting that we’re sitting on the cusp of change. Understanding how we got here is a critical next step to moving forward.
Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them
How does Britain get its food? Why is our current food system under such stress? Can we fix it before it is too late?
These are all questions that Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City University of London, tackles in Feeding Britain. Lang argues that UK food security needs to be taken much more seriously. Despite our well-stocked and endlessly diverse supermarket shelves, a hand-to-mouth existence, poor dietary choices and a reliance on food banks have all become alarmingly prevalent. The UK food system is responsible for driving and reinforcing social inequalities, which has widened the gap between the rich and poor beyond Victorian levels.
The timeliness of Feeding Britain is notable. Published in March 2020, as the UK went into its first COVID-19 lockdown, the book provides a sobering foresight of a crisis which calls for a ‘Great Food Transformation’ in Lang’s words. His warning of the vulnerability of the UK food system now resonates more strongly than ever. Its just-in-time supply logistics leave little room for error and the increasing trade gap in food renders the food system ‘bankrupt’, since the UK spends twice as much on imported food as it earns through exports, not to mention the burgeoning pressure on ecosystems and the NHS. Lang provides a thorough overview of the relationship between food security, health and the environment, and the challenges associated with each.
It’s not all doom and gloom however, as the book outlines a series of optimistic and ambitious proposals to ‘fix’ the problems in our food system. These include shifting budgets towards measures which prevent diet-related health conditions, reforming food education and transitioning towards a true cost account of food production, whereby food prices reflect the externalised costs borne by healthcare and the environment. Crucially, while Lang recognises the need for changes in consumer demand, he strongly maintains that the government must take on the bulk of responsibility, rather than the ‘light-touch governance’ we see today.
As might be expected from a book about food policy, Feeding Britain is not short of academic jargon, lengthy statistics, graphs and tables. However, the key messages are easy to extract and well worth reflecting on.