The growth industry

<strong>Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating</strong>

Barbara Kingsolver <em>Fa

Having formerly struggled to keep a pot plant alive for more than a week, this spring I embarked on a re-education project. A friend and I signed up for a small plot of scrubby ground on an allotment site in Leyton, in a less than promising spot between several major dual carriageways. Every weekend, while our friends nursed their hangovers or cooked up Sunday lunches, we set about creating our own little garden of Eden, sifting tons of topsoil, removing barrows upon barrows of thistles, hoeing, staking and planting.

It's not exactly rock'n'roll, but it has convinced me that agriculture is more addictive than any class A. All of a sudden, I am unable to let a week pass without spending several hours up to my elbows in mud. I love just hanging out on the allotment, where everyone says hello and people of every age, colour and class share tips on asparagus and mulch. Last weekend, when we harvested our first broad beans, I had a pitiful little city-girl epiphany - those tiny seeds had actually grown into real food! It was the miracle of life, right there in grubby old east London.

There are many very good reasons to avoid supermarkets, many of which Barbara Kingsolver spells out in depth in this book. But the most persuasive is that by distancing ourselves from the production of food, we have deprived ourselves of some of life's greatest and most fundamental pleasures: being active, working outside in the sunshine and the rain and, best of all, eating delicious, fresh, flavour-packed fruit, vegetables and meat. What we have instead is a poor replacement: days spent doing sedentary office jobs that barely allow us to see the sun, mass-produced food that tastes like cardboard and, if we are feeling virtuous, sweaty hours in a gym to burn off the excess calories. Little wonder so many of us are fat and depressed. The irony is that this is supposed to be progress.

Not everyone will want to go quite as far as Kingsolver has done to redress the balance. Having spent years living in Tucson, Arizona - a desert city where nothing grows but cacti and the only water comes from a non-renewable fossil aquifer - she decided to up sticks to a farmhouse in Appalachia, on the grounds that it "had more than one out of three of the basic elements necessary for human life". There, she, her husband and their two daughters set about living on entirely locally sourced food for a year, cultivating most of it themselves and buying any extras from farmers' markets. It was relentless, backbreaking work - imagine drying and canning all the vegetables your whole family will need to survive the winter - but by the end, their lives had changed for ever; they "did not want to go back".

The book is a combination of a diary, an agricultural how-to and an impassioned polemic against mass farming and America's self- destructive food culture. Kingsolver alarmingly shows how control of the world's food supply passed from the many to the few; six companies are now responsible for 98 per cent of the world's seed sales. The growth of large-scale farming has encouraged the production of vast quantities of unhealthy, calorie-rich crops that the industry has winkled into the food chain with disastrous results for public health. Now that mankind relies on only eight species for three-quarters of its sustenance, crop failure is a terrifying prospect. Americans are, writes Kingsolver, "the fattest people who have ever lived, dining just a few pathogens away from famine".

Kingsolver's argument is not that we should all switch off our PCs and head for the fields (though she does make that option sound attractive). Rather, she demonstrates why some knowledge of where food comes from is fundamental to any person's - and therefore any society's - well-being. We are educated in history and maths, but remain painfully ignorant about the industry upon which we all depend: "Is the story of bread . . . less relevant to our lives than the history of the 13 colonies?" It is a message that is just as pressing in Britain as it is across the pond.

The homespun style of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is sometimes cloying - I certainly could have done without the contributions from Kingsolver's husband Steven and daughter Camille - but nevertheless, I found the project inspirational. Next stop for me is a chicken coop.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant