In this provocative, wide-ranging book, Against the Grain, Richard Manning offers a dramatically revisionist view of recent human evolution, beginning with the vast increase in brain size that set us apart from our primate relatives and brought an accompanying increase in our need for nourishment. For 290,000 years, we managed to meet that need as hunter-gatherers, a state in which Manning believes we were at our most human: at our smartest, strongest, most sensually alive. But our reliance on food made a secure supply deeply attractive, and eventually we embarked upon the agricultural experiment that has been the history of our past 10,000 years.
The evolutionary road is littered with failed experiments, however, and Manning suggests that agriculture as we have practiced it runs against both our grain and nature's. Drawing on the work of anthropologists, biologists, archaeologists, and philosophers, along with his own travels, he argues that not only our ecological ills-overpopulation, erosion, pollution-but our social and emotional malaise are rooted in the devil's bargain we made in our not-so-distant past. And he offers personal, achievable ways we might re-contour the path we have taken to resurrect what is most sustainable and sustaining in our own nature and the planet's.
In this controversial and prodigiously researched condemnation of our current and past systems of growing grain, Manning (Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution) argues that the major forces that have shaped the world disease, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, trade, wealth are all a part of the culture of agriculture. He traces the beginnings of agriculture to the Middle East, where plants were abundant and easily domesticated in coastal areas; hunter-gathers, who became fishermen, formed settlements near river mouths. Manning skillfully details the historical spread of agriculture through the conquest of indigenous peoples and describes how this expansion led to overpopulation, famine and disease in Europe, Asia and Africa. Sugar agriculture was supported by slaves and farming by laborers who grew produce for the rich while the workers ate a high carbohydrate diet (potatoes, rice, sugar, bread) and ingested no protein. In the U.S., modern agriculture has evolved into an industrial system where agribusiness is subsidized to grow commodities like wheat, corn and rice, not to feed people but to store and trade. According to Manning, agricultural research focuses on just these few crops and is profit driven. Although he succeeds in drawing attention to critical problems caused by agriculture, such as water pollution and malnutrition, he is pessimistic about reform coming from political systems. He romantically advocates hunting animals for food and hopes that such citizen movements like urban green markets and organic farms can lead to better nutrition.