The best books to help us understand why we must adopt low-impact local food systems, and what’s stopping us

Why am I passionate about this?

I started my career as an academic social scientist and seem set to end it as a gardener, small-scale farmer, and accidental ecological activist. I’ve learned a lot of things along the way from these different parts of my life that I channel in my writing. I don’t claim much expertise. In fact, I think claims to expert knowledge that can ‘solve’ modern problems are a big part of our modern problems. I’ve always been interested in how people and communities try to figure things out for themselves, often by picking up the pieces when big ideas have failed them. My writing arises out of that.

I wrote...

Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case For an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods

By Chris Smaje,

Book cover of Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case For an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods

What is my book about?

One of the few voices to challenge The Guardian's George Monbiot on the future of food and farming (and the restoration of nature) is academic, farmer, and author of A Small Farm Future Chris Smaje. In Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future, Smaje presents his defense of small-scale farming and a robust critique of Monbiot’s vision for an urban and industrialized future.

Responding to Monbiot’s portrayal of an urban, high-energy, industrially manufactured food future as the answer to our current crises, and its unchallenged acceptance within the environmental discourse, Smaje was compelled to challenge Monbiot’s evidence and conclusions. At the same time, Smaje presents his powerful counterargument–a low-carbon agrarian localism that puts power in the hands of local communities, not high-tech corporates.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Agricultural Dilemma: How Not to Feed the World

Chris Smaje Why did I love this book?

I’ve been reading, thinking about, and doing food and farming for a long time, but I still found this book an eye-opener in its rigorous understanding of how we’re getting the food system so wrong globally.

We’ve been spun a line that modern petrochemical-intensive agriculture, with its supposedly scientific and efficient methods, holds the line against poverty and hunger in our populous modern world. In scholarly but readable prose, Stone’s book demolishes this idea, showing how modern industrial farming makes too many of us ill, poor, and vulnerable.

Breathing new life into the much-maligned model of the labour-intensive small ‘peasant’ or family farm, he points the way to more local and human-scale agriculture for the future. 

By Glenn Davis Stone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Agricultural Dilemma as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

provides a new analysis of population and agricultural growth. argues that we can't make sense of population and food production without recognizing the drivers of three fundamentally different types of agriculture: Malthusian (expansion), industrialization (external-input-dependent) and intensification (labour-based). upends entrenched misconceptions such as that we are running out of land for food production and that our only hope is development of new agricultural technologies written in an engaging style, containing vignettes, short histories and global case studies will not only be of interest to students and scholars of agriculture, land management and development, but also those more widely interested in…

Book cover of Meat: A Benign Extravagance

Chris Smaje Why did I love this book?

If there were justice in this world, Simon Fairlie would be a national treasure. A life lived at the margins of polite society informs his magnum opus Meat, which is only partly about meat and livestock.

At a deeper level, it’s about what a sensible, fair, renewable, and low-impact society would look like in modern Britain – the answer in a nutshell being a society substantially of small mixed farms geared to local needs. Forensic data analysis, deep historical knowledge, a conversational style, and a rare wit combine to make this book a classic of modern agricultural writing.

By Simon Fairlie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Meat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Meat is a groundbreaking exploration of the difficult environmental, ethical and health issues surrounding the human consumption of animals. Garnering huge praise in the UK, this is a book that answers the question: should we be farming animals, or not? Not a simple answer, but one that takes all views on meat eating into account. It lays out in detail the reasons why we must indeed decrease the amount of meat we eat, both for the planet and for ourselves, and yet explores how different forms of agriculture--including livestock--shape our landscape and culture.At the heart of this book, Simon Fairlie…

Book cover of Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

Chris Smaje Why did I love this book?

It’s easy to get caught up in the immediate issues around food, farming, and the need to transition to localism.

Yunkaporta’s book weaves them into a far larger tapestry concerning the need for renewable long-term culture. I like the way he sharpens indigenous knowledge unsentimentally into a practical tool with a purpose that’s potentially available to everyone, not a mystical cosmology available only to a few.

Endlessly thought-provoking ruminations on how to live from a local ecological base, and how modern culture disrupts us from doing so.

By Tyson Yunkaporta,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Sand Talk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner, Small Publishers' Adult Book of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards 2020

This remarkable book is about everything from echidnas to evolution, cosmology to cooking, sex and science and spirits to Schrödinger’s cat.

Tyson Yunkaporta looks at global systems from an Indigenous perspective. He asks how contemporary life diverges from the pattern of creation. How does this affect us? How can we do things differently?

Sand Talk provides a template for living. It’s about how lines and symbols and shapes can help us make sense of the world. It’s about how we learn and how we remember. It’s about…

Book cover of Dreamland

Chris Smaje Why did I love this book?

I don’t read a lot of fiction, but sometimes only a novelist can flesh out how the world to come might look.

Dreamland has little to say about local food (apart from some neat rooftop gardening scenes), but it’s relevant as a kind of negative counterexample. Unless we get focused on realistic approaches to climate, food, energy, and justice right now this is the kind of world that we’ll summon into being – and it’s terrifying. The future it paints is based on trends that are all too evident in the here and now, adding to the sense of authenticity.

A propulsive plot, believable characters, and finely-crafted descriptive writing combine to make this an immersive experience in what we absolutely mustn’t let happen. 

By Rosa Rankin-Gee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dreamland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For fans of Children of Men, Years and Years & Station Eleven, a postcard from a future Britain that's closer than we think.

'A beautiful book: thought-provoking, eerily prescient and very witty.' Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half

'Water courses through its pages, as rising sea levels heighten inequalities, buoy populist politicians and wash away every certainty of civilisation. But there's also the novel's prose - its liquid grace and glinting sparkle - and the sheer irresistibility of a narrative that sweeps along with a force that feels tidal in its pull.' The Observer

''You said that you would…

Book cover of Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia

Chris Smaje Why did I love this book?

Almost everywhere, there’s a local agrarian tradition in which people ingeniously figured out how to build autonomous livelihoods on their local ecological base. And almost everywhere it’s been destroyed by modern economic forces, which not only import energy and capital non-resiliently from elsewhere, but also import scorn for older rural ways once admired for their tenacity.

With a historian’s eye for detail, a storyteller’s gift for narrative, and an intensely human empathy for ordinary lives, Steven Stoll tells this story in the case of Appalachia in the United States. But the implications go much wider, and are endlessly informative for thinking through the basis of local agrarian societies worldwide today.     

By Steven Stoll,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ramp Hollow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Short-listed for the Phi Beta Kappa Ralph Waldo Emerson Book Award

In Ramp Hollow, Steven Stoll offers a fresh, provocative account of Appalachia, and why it matters. He begins with the earliest European settlers, whose desire for vast forests to hunt in was frustrated by absentee owners―including George Washington and other founders―who laid claim to the region. Even as Daniel Boone became famous as a backwoods hunter and guide, the economy he represented was already in peril. Within just a few decades, Appalachian hunters and farmers went from pioneers to pariahs, from heroes to hillbillies, in the national imagination, and…

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Book cover of This Animal Body

Meredith Walters

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What is my book about?

Neuroscience PhD student Frankie Conner has finally gotten her life together—she’s determined to discover the cause of her depression and find a cure for herself and everyone like her. But the first day of her program, she meets a group of talking animals who have an urgent message they refuse to share. And while the animals may not have Frankie’s exalted human brain, they know things she doesn’t, like what happened before she was adopted.

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By Meredith Walters,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Animal Body as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Frankie Conner, first-year graduate student at UC Berkeley, is finally getting her life together. After multiple failures and several false starts, she's found her calling: become a neuroscientist, discover the cause of her depression and anxiety, and hopefully find a cure for herself and everyone like her.

But her first day of the program, Frankie meets a mysterious group of talking animals who claim to have an urgent message for her. The problem is, they're not willing to share it. Not yet. Not until she's ready.

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