April 2021 Book Review: “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” by Mark Bittman

File:Unhealthy snacks in cart.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Basket of Ultra-processed Food Products
Image Source: the web site of the National Cancer Institute (http://www.cancer.gov).

Summary

This book presents is a wide-ranging history of food from the evolution of homo sapiens to current day “ultra-processed foods” (AKA, junk food). In Bittman’s own words, “[It]’s a chronological telling that blends scientific, historical, and societal analyses.” [page xiv] We can add this to the growing stack of literature and multi-media listing the unsustainability of our dominant food production systems. He provides context and a narrative for how we got to this point, from the emergence of agriculture for the benefit of the few, produced by the many, to the modern day marketing of surplus junk, sold to consumers as food.

The first quarter of the book covers the connection of food and the evolution of humans through to the beginning of the Colonial period of the world, then mainly shifts focus to the U.S. The second part of the book, which comprises the bulk, focuses on the many failures of industrial agriculture and the supporting system (USDA, fertilizer and seed companies, land tenure, etc.). The final section gives a rundown on the state of the world plus ideas and examples of how to move us towards something better. For an excellent summary, check out this blog post.

Will I recommend it to friends?

No. Though the writing is compelling, I think better introductions exist with more objectivity and more research. (Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan and the original, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver). This could’ve been a great book if he’d had more time to bolster his arguments. Instead, it was good mainly based on his ability to string together compelling phrases and ideas.

I agree,

The main idea is very simple – our contemporary, industrialized food system must change. If the food system were working well – at a minimum, providing nutritious food to people – then the leading cause of death in the U.S. over the past decades wouldn’t be diet-related. For example, “…sugar is not a useful nutrient, and neither are thousands of other twentieth-century creations that contain either empty or harmful calories, and the failure of government to regulate those creations amounts to criminal negligence.” [page 179] Clearly, this system isn’t working for us consumers. “At least a third of farmworkers earn less than official poverty wage…” [page 261] It isn’t really working for farm laborers, either. Soil loss, fertilizer runoff, and biodiversity loss indicate the natural environment loses, too.

But…

As Bittman says in the introduction “…you can’t have a serious conversation about food without talking about human rights, climate change, and justice. Food not only affects everything, it is everything.” He tries to pull each into the conversation – and he does touch on each – but I was left wanting more. Especially in the final sections, I wanted more analysis of the current state and the desired state. What’s the average carbon footprint and the associated risks of the current food system for say, NYC or Atlanta, versus one that is more locally-focused? Does it reduce carbon footprint and does it decrease supply chain risk? Does it improve nutrition and the local economy? He mentions the Fight for $15. How do those numbers break down in big cities, like he lives in, versus the small towns where finding good food can be challenging at best? Should it be Striking for $17 in San Francisco, CA, and Needing Nine in Nederland, TX, instead of Fight for $15 everywhere in the US? (Hypotheticals, not real movements. 😊) He acknowledges on page 300 that the deadline ended the writing process. A shame, because the book and the message would’ve benefited.

Finally, a small critique. Why include a quote from a former vice-president on the cover of a book? If the publisher wants to attract a wide audience, why immediately abandon a third to a half of the potential audience before they’ve even cracked the cover? Seems a shame to send that signal when we need everyone getting behind this movement.

Who should read this?

If you’re ok without footnotes and with pronouncements like, “This is bulls**t” [page 179], think capitalism is the toolkit of the devil, and that Big Ag is run by his minions, this book will be comfortable for you. If you’re generally familiar with the topic, give it a pass and read something more targeted, interesting, or thoughtful. I suggest Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer or Freedom Farmers, by Monica M. White.

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