Of "Malbouffe", selling our water and other Napoleonic torments

Books reviewed:
The World Is Not For Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food
Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World's Water
The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.; Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe; The Last Great Dance on Earth. A trilogy by Sandra Gulland

TORONTO -- DURING THE SUMMER I read several books while recovering from the back strain of moving from a big house to a small one. In the process I got rid of some 300 books, 10 boxes of teaching notes, 12 boxes of the kids' school notes, 2 sofas and tables, and 4 truckloads of trash at the Mississauga dump. The move occurred during Toronto's garbage strike; being union members and hardly Catholic, we were nevertheless glad when the Pope arrived and the strike was declared over.

The older I get, the more radical I've become. Yes, it's supposed to be the reverse, but I've grown increasingly concerned about the world we're leaving our children. So here are a few political books I'd recommend.

The World Is Not For Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food
By Jose Bove and Francois Dufour. London: Verso, 2001. ($36)

JOSE BOVE is one of my heroes. He's smart, articulate, educated, pro-union, anti-globalization, and French to boot. A sheep farmer from southwest France, Bove became famous three years ago after leading a demonstration against a McDonald's restaurant under construction in his area. Angered by America's tariff increases on locally-produced Roquefort cheese, the farmers marched into town, dismantled the building, and paraded in their tractors to the cheers of the townspeople, many of whom joined the protest. Five farmers, all members of the French Farmers' Confederation, were arrested. Bove refused to pay the bail and went to jail for several months. The publicity he received catapulted him into the role of international farm leader against agribusiness and doctored food.

This British publication has a foreword by Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and fellow protestor against the meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 2000 and Quebec in 2002. There's a preface by Gilles Luneau who conducted the interviews with Bove and Dufour, the General Secretary (i.e., president) of the same farmers' union as Bove.

The book is divided into three sections: the accounts of the McDonald's protest by the two fighting farmers (who happen to be very articulate unionists); their thoughts on the damaging effects of intensive farming; and their ideas on how to lobby for fair trade.

The middle section was the most interesting for me because here the two farmers discuss the origins of junk food. They call it "malbouffe", which means to eat poorly or to eat bad food. "Junk food" doesn't capture all the rich connotations of the hilarious French term. They discuss how farm co-operatives got reorganized to support multinationals, how farms have become factories, how farmers have become technicians, and how the farm unions have fought against the use of hormones to boost livestock yields. No wonder American farmers turned out in big numbers to hear Jose Bove when he toured the U.S. before the Seattle conference. I reread this book whenever my spirits flag at the news accounts of contaminated food, the genetic manipulation of seeds -- which is often.

Good companion reads are The McDonaldization of Society (a 1996 sociology textbook my son told me to read) and a recent American bestseller, The Fast Food Nation, a copy of which I lent out so can't tell you the author's name.

Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World's Water
By Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke. Toronto: Stoddard, 2002 ($30).

I HOPE the editor and copyeditor managed to collect on their invoices for this handsome Stoddard publication.

The book's subtitle should be "Our Water Is Not for Sale". Maude Barlow, the chairperson of the Council of Canadians, turns out to be the co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, an international citizens' movement to protect water. She and Clarke wrote three books on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

Since I did a great deal of research on the topic while writing The Water Book for Kids' Can Press (1992), I am familiar with a lot of the information the authors present. I found it very depressing, in fact, to learn that nothing has changed in the past 10 years; on the contrary, the water crisis has gotten worse. Many of the sources of fresh water have become hopelessly contaminated (when was the last time you swam in Lake Ontario?), huge aquifers are being rapidly depleted (golf courses, ski resorts, and factory farms are sucking up the groundwater at an alarming rate), and wells are being polluted by runoff from fields heaped with manure (Walkerton). Even more alarming is the news that international trade agreements have made water into a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Public water services have been privatized in North America and Europe, so that water brokers can now sell the product -- in the form of bottled water, or icebergs, or shiploads with containers -- at a pretty profit. The Harris government almost got away with allowing a company to sell off water from Lake Superior; the Newfoundland government is trying hard to pull off a similar deal.

The maps of proposed water lines from the Great Lakes to the American midwest have been around for 20 years. I saw various schemes outlined in several books 12 years ago. The biggest aquifer in the midwest will soon run dry, so you can bet entrepreneurs on both sides of the border are lobbying hard to build those water lines. Does Premier Eves play golf, too, like Harris? Does he vacation in Arizona? And the BC Liberal Cabinet members -- do they golf in California? Both American states would sure like some water shipments from BC.

The book presents convincing evidence of a looming water crisis, shows excellent research, and concludes with positive suggestions as to how people can protect their water. Walkerton is just the tip of the iceberg (please forgive me but I couldn't resist it) or an impending water crisis in this country of ours, which has the biggest source of fresh water in the world.

On a lighter note are the three novels about Josephine Bonaparte by Sandra Gulland from Canada. If you like historical fiction and have visited France, you will enjoy this trilogy about Bonaparte's wife. The first, The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., is her diary account of her early life in Martinique, her first marriage to a philandering French aristocrat, and many insightful comments about French society leading up to the Revolution. The second novel (Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe) is even better: the journals reflect a maturing writing style and perspective. The account of her imprisonment during the Reign of Terror is harrowing. The third novel, The Last Great Dance on Earth, focuses on her marriage to Napoleon and the Napoleonic Empire. Josephine had horrible in-laws, tried several remedies to get pregnant to no avail, and was divorced by Napoleon for failing to produce an heir.

Gulland did an astounding amount of research and recreates French society in vivid detail. The three novels are the same quality as The Autobiography of Henry VIII and The Memoirs of Cleopatra by British historian Margaret George. Watch for her name among the nominees for literary prizes.

*Debby Seed took early retirement from teaching high school and college, and recently attained a diploma in horticulture from the Ontario College of Agriculture, Guelph for a future business as a garden editor/writer and consultant. Her The Water Book (Kids' Can Press) was translated into French, Portuguese, and Danish and recognized by the Canadian Librarians' Association as a Notable Book.

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