Wanted: A Few Good Books


Getting books in the hands of incoming freshman as they prepare for their first year of college has become a summer regimen for many universities and colleges across the country. Nearly 300 now ask their incoming freshmen to read a particular book before the fall semester begins.

Just don’t assume that this leads to extra servings of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, or Hemingway. A new study by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) says that the books most commonly assigned display “a surprisingly low level of intellectual difficulty.” To make matters worse, a distressing number of schools select books that launch one-sided attacks on the modern food industry.

This is a shame because food production is an important subject that informed citizens should strive to understand and learn more about. Yet these summertime assignments aren’t helping. Some of them are actually hurting the public’s understanding of agriculture.

One of the most suggested authors for summer-reading assignments is the best-selling controversialist Michael Pollan. Students at ten campuses must digest one of his books, according to the NAS survey. They range from little Albion College in Michigan to the prestigious University of California at Berkeley. Another popular writer is Barbara Kingsolver, an advocate of the “local food” movement who is required reading at Virginia Tech and elsewhere.

Professors often talk about the importance of diversity, but I wonder if they really mean it: By assigning books by Pollan and Kingsolver, they’re exposing students to only one part of what is an important global discussion regarding what tools and technology are needed to feed a growing world population in a sustainable manner.

My preference is to recommend a more pragmatic and balanced reading list for the students as they prepare for the next phase of their educational journey. Because the current college and university reading lists imply little interest in alternatives to a narrow-minded and politically correct critique of food production, I thought I’d suggest three books that offer a more rounded understanding of the subject.

  • Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, by Michael Specter – The media bombards us with facts every day. They are intellectually stimulating, mind numbing, and confusing all at once. But the difference between good information and bad information is crucial. Specter’s approach recalls a quote from the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.” Specter encourages us to recognize that science-based facts are often the very best kind of facts. We need more of them, not fewer. They allow us to see through agenda-driven ideologues and special-interest groups. They also help us debunk popular myths about everything from organic food (which is no way to feed the world) to genetically modified crops (which is a part of the solution).
  • Food Politics: What Everyone Needs To Know, by Robert L. Paarlberg – Two years ago, Truth About Trade and Technology named Paarlberg’s Starved for Science as the “book of the year” because of its sensible call for the developing world to accept agricultural biotechnology. Now Paarlberg is back with a new volume that’s jam-packed with the type of science-based facts, figures, and arguments that Specter says we must learn to value. This book informs readers about the basics of agriculture and challenges notions about farming and food production that are regrettably popular in the faculty lounges. Food Politics truly nourishes the mind.
  • The Time It Never Rained, by Elmer Kelton: The author passed away last year, but his novel of a 1950s drought in West Texas is timeless. Its gripping story provides an excellent look at the opportunities and hardships that people in agriculture constantly face. The main character, Charlie Flagg, is a lovable grump who says that “a farmer’s concern is always the land.” The novel goes on to show why this is true, and why farmers and ranchers are some of the best stewards we have. This book is a perfect example of fiction’s ability to provide powerful insights into the way the world really works.

These three books are worthwhile on their own terms as well as for their value as antidotes against the propaganda that a few college and universities are peddling in their summer reading programs.

There’s nothing like a good book.

Mary Boote serves as Executive Director of Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org

Mary Boote

Mary Boote

Mary Boote serves as Chief Executive Officer of the Global Farmer Network. Raised on a Northwest Iowa dairy, pork, corn, and soybean family farm, she had the privilege of serving as agriculture adviser to Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad from 1997-1999.

Through the Global Farmer Network, Mary works with farmers around the world to develop and deliver communication platforms that engage the farmers' perspective and voice as an integral part of the dialogue regarding the global agri-food system. The mission: To amplify the farmers' voice in promoting trade, technology, sustainable farming, economic growth, and food security.

Named as one of the Worldview 100: Global Industry's top 100 Visionaries and Leaders in Biotechnology by Scientific American Worldview in 2015, Mary has had the opportunity to travel internationally, serving on agriculture leadership missions that focused on issues as varied as instruction on strategic planning and personal representation for privatized agriculturalists in newly independent countries to learning more about smallholder maize projects to observing the trade negotiation process at the World Trade Organization.

Mary attended Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa and was privileged to participate in the 2009 Harvard AgriBusiness Seminar.

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