AgBookClub was created by Gracie Weinzierl and Laura Wolf to spark discussions in the agriculture community on consumer-facing books on food, farming and related topics. They cover a new book each month and host weekly Twitter chats on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Central using the hashtag #AgBookClub. If you missed last month’s discussion, here’s what the duo thought of their latest read.
“Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love,” by Simran Sethi, is a self-proclaimed book about love. It covers five foods we crave — wine, chocolate, coffee, beer, and bread — and explores how each of those end up in our cup or on our plate. Sethi doesn’t hold back on including her thoughts and opinions as she visits farms where these foods originate nor when she brings up social, scientific, and economic issues related to each one.
As the coffee-obsessed millennial I am, I had to pick up this book once I read the summary on the back cover. “Bread, Wine, Chocolate” is a really interesting book if you can get past the interjected opinions about various components of production agriculture. While Sethi’s unrelenting emphasis on maintaining biodiversity is a little irritating, she does make a lot of good points to consider. We don’t want to lose valuable traits of older varieties, but it also begs the question: Should farmers be forced to continue using varieties (of any crop) that require intensive management and yield poorly compared to varieties that have been bred to better withstand pest pressure and yield significantly higher if only for preserving the genetics of those inferior lines? Sethi argues that there’s a niche market for those farmers, but I still find myself a little skeptical.
As Sethi pointed out, farmers who grow the cacao for our chocolate and care for the coffee trees for our pumpkin spice lattes typically live in poorer regions of the world and are far beneath the U.S.-defined poverty line. They want the same things for their kids as anyone: a good education in order to secure a stable income. Consumer demand for those niche varieties is one thing, but growing low-yielding varieties with a perceived higher quality without a definite return on investment is a gamble that few are willing to take. Before that becomes a viable option for those farmers, we have to ask ourselves whether we, as consumers, are willing to pay more for something that we’re so used to buying for a relatively low price. Would you buy the more expensive product if you knew a farmer was making a fair wage for preserving those older varieties?
Another theme in the book seemed to be Sethi’s caution about allowing ourselves to experience “sameness.” Take wine, for instance. I can go to Target and buy my favorite Barefoot bottle of Moscato in October and expect to buy a bottle with the exact same taste again in January. Sethi challenges that taste complacency, wanting her readers to make an attempt to explore unique, small-batch (if that’s a thing in wine) flavors. I can attest to the benefits of those unique batches as one of my dad’s hobbies is making wine. Sometimes his wine is really, really good, but I also appreciate the consistency of my Barefoot Moscato when one of those batches of wine my dad makes doesn’t turn out quite as well. My taste preferences are probably influenced by our American culture, but I don’t ever want to lose the option of large-batch consistency, nor do I want to lose the uniqueness of those niche growers.
Overall, I’d give this book a 4 out of 5. It’s very thought-provoking, but maybe doesn’t capture the whole picture in some arguments. Be warned: make sure you run to the store to pick out your favorite bottle of wine, a bag of your favorite coffee beans, and a handful of chocolate before you settle in with this book.
In “Bread, Wine, Chocolate,” I grew to appreciate the hands that grow, harvest, and create the foods I love even more. Sethi traces back a favorite glass of wine, a favorite chocolate bar, and so on, to its roots. She walks the rows of cacao fields with the farmer who tends to them, and she asks insightful questions about industry shifts that have resulted — intentional or not, good or bad — in standardization, right down to the varieties planted. While the book focuses on the loss of biodiversity and variety in flavor, I thought of all the benefits these changes can bring.
If customers want a consistent product at a low price, and farmers can provide that while also addressing their in-season concerns like disease — with a good yield to boot — it’s no wonder farmers and companies have made the choices they have. But Sethi examines whether these forces have pushed too far — turning these joy-giving foods and drinks into commodities with very little variation, and razor-thin margins for the farmers growing the raw materials.
All of this begs a larger question for us as consumers: How important is it to us as coffee drinkers — as chocolate aficionados or wine snobs — that we get the same experience every time we return to our favorites? I don’t know whether I’d consistently be willing to pay more for a bar or a glass knowing that it wouldn’t always be the same. But I do know that I like the idea that the makers were dedicated to something that preserves variety and choice in the marketplace and biodiversity in the region.
Maybe I would be willing to pay more to feel good about my favorite indulgences, but I don’t think niche markets will fully address Sethi’s concerns or provide an equitable global food system. I was left at the end of “Bread, Wine, Chocolate” with this question: What’s the right balance of biodiversity with the kind of scale and efficiency that leads to consistent products with palatable prices? Is there an answer that addresses these disparate desires and still allows those with very limited incomes to access these culinary sources of happiness?
This book gave me moments of pure joy and intense chocolate cravings. It challenged me, and I challenged it right back. It accomplished its purpose with style, but left me wanting a second version, with an author who traces back true dietary staples to their source — commercial-scale farms taking advantage of the best technology available to them — with the same interest, gratitude, and love. For me, “Bread, Wine, Chocolate” earns a 4 out of 5, and a permanent place on my bookshelf — right next to that second version, as soon as someone writes it.
AgBookClub is wrapping up October’s book, $2.00 A Day, and will begin discussing November’s book, The Worst Hard Time, on Nov. 1. Visit their website for the full reading schedule.
Moving Agriculture Forward
The AGDAILY Digest is the information superhighway for your country road.