Review: Animal, Vegetable, Junk

Mark Bittman. Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of food, From Sustainable to Suicidal. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, Boston and New York: 2021.  ISBN: 9781328974624.  pp.364.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

What if all human evolution and history can be seen through the lens of food? Mark Bittman, chef, journalist, columnist, and professor at Columbia University, has put together such a work.  What he concludes is that once past the gatherer hunter stage, humans for the most part, after the rise of agriculture, have destroyed themselves and the planet.  As a species, we have caused famine and malnutrition.  We have eroded farmlands and other parts of the terrain.  We have caused slavery and caused more racism and sexual discrimination.  Moreover, all of this has happened with the willing participation and cooperation of business, universities, and governments.  Much of it has been done  in the hope of progress and modernism.   Is there hope? Bittman sees some hope le for the future—if we redo our agricultural and food production at all levels. 

Bittman’s book is in the muckraking tradition of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath,  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet, and Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the US.  Once people became farmers, they were pressured to produce more foodstuffs, both plant and animal.  For the most part, soil was  neglected, with repeated famines.  A vicious set of cycles  followed when there was more food: population increased, leading more land, including marginal land,) to be put into farming.  Depending on the society,( but particularly in the US starting in the Nineteenth Century, farms, including animal husbandry, became more mechanized.  This mechanization  was combined with credit procedures to finance these operations. Farmers were and continued to be pushed to acquire more land and thus bigger farms.  They then became dependent on  Big Machinery (e.g., John Deere)  and Big Credit.

Bittman addresses the US and other countries as well. (This will be addressed, shortly.) In the US, these policies were often initiated and always promoted by government policies at the federal and state level.  Universities, through  agricultural schools and cooperative extension programs, contributed to those developments.  The result was to force small farmers and producers out of production.  After the Civil War, Blacks were not given access to adequate lands and supports and were, in effect, forced to migrate to urban centers in the North.  Because of these policies and one crop farming, White and Black people in the Plains States  left the Great Dust Bowl and migrated West—when they could.

In the US,  industrial farm policies were further aided by corporate and government plans to “fix” the problems they created.  With the rise of non-nutritious white flour, Americans suffered malnutrition.  So, vitamins were added to bread.  The same was done with sugar-laden cereals for children, helping address the over-production of the sweetener, also by adding vitamins.  The net effect was to enable the country to avoid the mess government and corporate policy had created.  Nevertheless, ‘spillover’ problems were formed. US trade policy towards Mexico meant that wheat was sold at reduced prices.  Small farmers in that country went out of business, creating large numbers of people without work, many of whom could be used/exploited as farm workers in the US.

These are just a few of the examples Bittman offers.  Others include the rise of ethanol as a subsidized crop offshoot. Ethanol costs more to produce and offers less energy as a gasoline additive.  Yet it is an important political tool for politicians to use to connect to voters in state like Iowa.  Branding, a primary focus of Bittman, creates markets for food specialty products. Chicken, once a lowly form of protein in the US and eaten primarily by poorer people, especially of color, became transformed into products like McDonald’s McNuggets.  As with the other transformative practices noted above, women’s lives were also changed.  Aside from job displacement, role displacement occurred as well—Americans now ate more frozen and prepared foods, with women, the primary food preparers, doing different tasks.

Bittman  also addresses countries that have and had more directly authoritarian policies, such as the former Soviet Union and China.  In the Soviet Union, a temporary class of farm owners helped avoid a famine in the 1920’s  Then Stalin eliminated them.  In China, Mao killed off large numbers of farmers, creating famines, which then killed off even more people.  Government policy can be overt and/or covert—and create death, famine, and large population movements. 

As for the Green Revolution, Bittman sees it as a continuation of the nightmarish programs developed and practiced in the US.  Originally promised as solving the World’s hunger problems, the Revolution  produced highly vulnerable crops that had to be grown on large farms.  These crops actually caused  more food deprived situations—with less food for more people. They carried the burden of needing pesticides to flourish. And they made the industry again dependent upon large seed companies who repeated the pattern of making farmers dependent upon them for seeds and credit. 

Bittman sees signs of promise.  The first is the increasing ecological and philosophical awareness that Earth is  a system of interconnectedness and finite resources. The Whole Earth catalogue and other writers, such as Barry Commoner, promoted this awareness. Despite the continued  conflicted roles of the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and  the Federal Bureau of Investigation, agricultural self-sufficiency  promoters like Helen and Scott Nearing and Fanny Lou Hamer espoused a more holistic and healthy relationship to the land.  Healthy eating promoters, such as the Black Panthers, bypassed the corrupt and contradictory activities of federal agencies giving out often very unhealthy food to people in urban areas.  Still, big agriculture and big food, according to Bittman, clouded the issue by promoting diets filled with starches and sugars despite these efforts.  

Big agriculture and big food contribute strongly to climate change.  Affected by climate change,  carbon is disappearing from the land as is water.   All this is happening  while some people eat well and eat foods that affect the  land and climate adversely—because the foods can be grown and shipped  all year long.  At the same time, huge numbers of people are undernourished  because of the amount of food they  can access and the nutritional value of this food.  Consequently,  food-related diseases like diabetes increase.

Big agriculture produces more waste by, in effect, “manufacturing” meat, poultry, and fish.  During this manufacturing, animals are treated terribly.  Workers who tend to the animals are also treated poorly.  Bittman further argues that  the government is complicit in the process, helping to hide its mechanics.  To add to Bittman’s argument, people’s personal practices, e.g, cats as pets in many countries, has created its own problem.  Fishing for people food is regulated world-wide,  but it is not for cats, leading to depletion of other fish populations (Gorman 2021:D4.)

Bittman acknowledges that most of this book is “…not, exactly, uplifting (p. 264.)”  Still,  he says that there is hope and there are solutions. Earlier in the book, Bittman proposes a low meat, high produce and grain laden diet that should be acceptable to people.  Next, building on the idea of inter-relatedness, the emerging philosophy of “agroecology”, of creating workable agriculture that respects the land, is a beginning. So, too, Bittman continues, is a recognition that all parts of the food industry –processors, grocery stores, restaurants, (especially fast-food restaurants) –can produce healthier food that does not exploit workers in their facilities. Even agencies in the past that promoted Big Agriculture occasionally promote citizen activism that that has long-range implications (Crowder 2020.)  In his last two chapters, Bittman provides a list of people, facilities, and agencies for people to engage all aspects of the food  world.  For him, the next steps are both personal and political and must be done. 

 Bittman has put forth an important, comprehensive,  and controversial book.  Whether everyone will agree with all its conclusions and proposals is debatable.  Nevertheless, it should be read as an outline for the next steps forward in the world of food  This book is well-written, well-resourced, and well-researched. It is appropriate for all levels of university and the public. 


Crowder, Lucien.

       2020.  Q and A: Covid-19’s Effects on food systems, , youth development programs and nutrition.  California Agriculture. v. 74. No. 3.  (pp. 116-119.)

Gorman, James.

      2021 Feeding Time: People have shared food with animals for centuries. Now researchers want to know why and to what effect.  The New York Times.  May 11. D1+.

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