What we grow determines how we eat, and what we eat determines how we live and die. These simple but overlooked truths drive the work of the longtime food writer Mark Bittman, whose new book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, From Sustainable to Suicidal, takes an ambitious look at the flaws of the industrialized food system and the politics of transforming it. On Episode 29 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene talk with Bittman about the difficulty of eating ethically, the way food connects to nearly every other important issue of our time, and how change starts less with what we buy or cook than how we vote—and organize.
Mark Bittman: People don’t ask the questions often enough: “What is food for? Why is food important?” Because when you read liberal publications about the crises in America right now, the way the Republicans are standing against progress, the crises you read about are climate change, Covid, income inequality, racism, gender discrimination, labor. Agriculture, food in general, does not make it onto that list of the top five or six crying issues we have in our country. But I strongly believe that it should be up there.
Laura Marsh: That’s the legendary food writer Mark Bittman. You probably know his writing about food and his recipes from his books and his column in The New York Times. The chances are you have cooked some of his recipes. Today we are talking with him not about the pleasures of cooking or taste but about the politics of food.
That starts long before food gets anywhere near the kitchen or even the grocery store. We’re talking about the land food is grown on, the places where livestock is raised, the types of food that we choose to grow and export. How is the Western diet harming the planet and the people who grow and distribute our food?
Alex Pareene: Mark has a new book out; it’s called Animal, Vegetable, Junk, and it’s a history of the food we grow, starting basically at the beginning of agriculture and tracing the problems up to the present day.
Laura: We got to talk with him about corn, capitalism, and chicken, and the near-impossibility of eating an ethical diet.
Alex: I’m Alex Pareene. I’m a staff writer at The New Republic.
Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh, the magazine’s literary editor.
Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.
Laura: Hi Mark. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Mark: Great to be here, Laura. Hi Alex.
Laura: So I’ve been reading your new book, which is about the way we eat and the problems with all of this. How hard is it to eat a basically healthy, ethical diet in the United States today?
Mark: It’s almost 100 percent a function of money and time. So if you have plenty of both, you can do a pretty good job of it. If you’re short on one or the other, it’s virtually impossible. But even if you have plenty of money and time, there are so many problems with the food system that even people who may be eating in as principled a fashion as they can—there’s no purity here. It’s a bad system. It’s not working well. It’s contributing to climate change. There are labor abuses everywhere, and that’s not even getting into the pesticides, the dietary consequences of eating junk food, and so on. So you can avoid some things with money and time, but you can’t avoid a lot of the injustices.
Laura: It feels like there are a lot of traps. So say you’ve got enough money and enough time, and you’re being told that plant-based milks are a really good substitute for dairy, because we all know that raising cattle is really bad for the environment—I was thinking this, and then I saw there was this big discussion about the milk brand Oatly, I don’t know if you saw it.
Mark: I did not, but I would have raised that, because it’s currently the most popular nondairy milk. And I would have said, “I don’t know anything about their production facilities. I don’t know anything about where they’re sourcing their oats. I know nothing.” If you really have time, and you’re going to investigate every ingredient of every manufacturer, it’s a full-time job. I drink probably 50 or 75 percent nondairy milk, but I make it myself. I have money and time, and I’m kind of a nut, and I know how to cook, so I do that stuff. I would say to people, if you want to do this, here’s how, but there’s no way that’s a solution to the problems of the dairy industry, for everybody to make their own oat milk. That is not the answer.
Laura: Apparently the deal with Oatly milk is that it contains canola oil and more sugar than cow’s milk. So you think you’re doing the right thing, and then you actually don’t have all this information about how it’s made, unless you’re literally making your own oat milk.
Alex: I think it’s really interesting, because I feel like there’s a lot of advice about how to eat clean that’s aimed primarily at people who, as you say, have money and time. But I appreciate that you brought up that you don’t know where they’re sourcing their materials. People are not getting that as advice in the same way. They’re getting advice about health and advice about the purity of ingredients. They’re not getting, “What was the labor situation? What’s the sourcing? Where do the ingredients come from?” That’s a lot harder to find.
Mark: Labor is really the hidden factor, and you cannot produce cheap food without producing cheap labor. I think the people who are buying Oatly are not asking themselves this—and we don’t need to single out Oatly, we don’t know if they’re better or worse than anybody else—but anytime that anyone innovates anything in the trendy food category, even a legitimate trend in a food category like nondairy milk—which is an ancient product: Soy milk is an ancient product, maybe oat milk is too, for all I know—but anytime anyone innovates something in that arena, they’re pretty quickly bought by one of the big food companies, and then the real so-called efficiencies begin. Again, I don’t know enough to speak about it, but the first thing I would do even before wondering about their labor situation is read the label, because if you make oat milk at home, you might put in a pinch of salt, you might put in a teaspoon of vanilla for a little flavor boost, but you’re not going to use corn syrup or canola oil to make that.
Laura: So maybe we should back up to the broader subject of the book. How would you characterize the way that most Americans eat today?
Mark: The most surprising statistic I came up with in the course of writing Animal, Vegetable, Junk was that 60 percent of the calories available to Americans today are in the form of ultraprocessed food. So by extension, by logical extension, that means that 60 percent of the calories we eat are from ultraprocessed food, because that’s what’s out there, and we can only eat what exists. Some people don’t eat 60 percent of their calories from ultraprocessed food, but that’s an average. So it means many people are eating more than 60 percent. That’s not a choice, particularly—that’s what’s in the market, and what’s in the market is driven by what’s planted, and what’s planted is driven by government policy, by profits; profits are helped by government policy. The leading cause of death in the United States is chronic disease, and the leading driver of chronic disease is diet. A leading driver of problems with diet are ultraprocessed foods or junk foods. So what we grow is determining what we eat, and that’s determining how we live and die.
Laura: So I want to talk about how those ultraprocessed foods affect what we grow. So, if you’re talking about a bag of potato chips, we’re growing potatoes, presumably, but there’s other stuff in there. There could be corn syrup, there could be palm oil, there could be additives. How big a part of the agricultural system are those kinds of noningredient ingredients?
Mark: Well, potato chips, even good potato chips, have three ingredients: potatoes, oil, and salt, and the dominant source of calories is obviously the oil. When you drive through Iowa or places like that, you can’t help but think about junk food, because that’s where everything is going. It’s all corn and soybeans, and corn and soybeans are the source of most of the calories in most junk foods. The soybeans and the corn both make oil. They both make proteins and sugars and carbohydrates, obviously, and different derivatives of those plants go into making most of the junk food that we see in the market. There are a lot of problems with the agricultural system. In part it’s who owns the land and how much of it they own, but a very fundamental problem is the infrastructure. If you talk to well-intentioned farmers in Iowa, they will say it’s hard for me to grow anything other than corn or soybeans, because that’s what the market is buying. If I drive to the grain elevator, if someone comes and picks up my product, they want corn and soybeans, even if they’re growing oats—now this is becoming the Oatly podcast.
Alex: We shouldn’t pick on Oatly so much.
Mark: But even if they’re growing oats, it’s hard for farmers in corn and soybean country to sell oats because the whole infrastructure is “bring us your corn and soybeans.” So there’s a bit of chicken and egg here. The system really began—I mean, you can pick any day you want, but it really intensified with industrialization of agriculture, which was late nineteenth, early twentieth century, and the creation of huge amounts of surplus commodity crops. Just to expand for a second, “commodity crops” is a term we’ve all heard all our lives, but it really means crops grown for selling, not for eating. They are commodities. They’re cash crops. The idea is you grow what you grow best, and that’s corn and soybeans in much of the United States, and you sell it. And then you use that money to buy whatever it is you need, which is grown elsewhere, where presumably that’s grown best. That’s kind of a neoliberal modern capitalist way of looking at things, but it’s brought about huge problems in many aspects of food.
Alex: As Mark says, many of the problems in our food system date back to the industrialization of agriculture and the rise of the commodity crop—food grown not to be eaten by one community, but to be sold on the market.
Laura: After a short break, we’ll be back to talk about Bill Clinton, Mexican corn, and soda.
Laura: Before the break, we were talking about commodity crops. A lot of what is grown in the United States isn’t for consumption in the U.S., it’s grown to be exported.
Alex: I really love the point about what we eat being downstream of what we grow, and I think your book does a good job of explaining why we grow what we grow in the United States and across the world. It was a political and economic decision that you should grow what you’re good at and then only sell that. I think your explanation of how Nafta affected corn and how Mexican farms worked was really interesting. Can you give a summary of that history?
Mark: Without getting into the politics of it, it’s useful to think of Bill Clinton as kind of this country’s father of neoliberalism, because we tend to blame all our current problems on Republicans. Certainly Reagan was in there, but it’s a bigger issue than that. The driver is really an economic philosophy. So if you apply that to Nafta, the theory was that Mexican corn, which was subsidized by the federal government and the Mexican federal government, obviously, grown in relatively small quantities by small farmers who are doing it themselves, producing their own—
Alex: —for domestic consumption.
Mark: For their own consumption, right. Corn that was exported from America to Mexico could be sold at roughly a third of the price of corn that was grown in Mexico. So once you drop the barriers, exporting industrially produced corn to Mexico, what you’re effectively doing is putting those farmers out of business because you’re basically putting corn on the market that costs a third of what their corn costs. So those farmers were forced to sell or abandon their land and move to the cities, where their labor, which was less expensive than labor in the United States, could be used in new factories, where there was work for everybody. So by doing this you’ve basically destroyed the livelihoods of many hundreds of thousands or millions of small farmers throughout Mexico, and this is happening worldwide, and you’re doing it by industrially producing an inferior product that can sell for less.
Alex: There’s a really fascinating end to that tale, because as you describe it, Mexican farming was small-scale and sort of local before. When our industrially produced produce, corn in particular, starts flooding the market, you suddenly have an entire group of people who need to cross the border to the United States to do work because their farms are no longer sustainable, and there are these industrial farms that need work on this side of the border. It creates this whole system.
Mark: There’s at least two things to say about that. One is that the small corn farmers in Mexico certainly didn’t produce corn syrup. And before Nafta, Mexico was not the world’s leading per capita consumer of soda. And now it is, or it has been in recent years. So that’s one thing. The other thing is, it’s a good way to demonstrate that the decisions made about food and agriculture affect much more than what we eat, and even our health. We’re sitting here talking about migration. I don’t think anyone thought, when we started recording this podcast, that one of the topics we’d cover would be migration. But food does affect almost everything you can think of if you follow the trail back far enough.
Laura: The book is Animal, Vegetable, Junk, and junk is a big part of what’s wrong, and we’ve talked about Vegetable with corn, but Animal is also a very big part of what’s wrong. I was intrigued by your chapter on chicken, because people think of chicken as the good meat—it’s a lean meat; it’s not beef, which is causing methane gas to heat the planet; if you buy free range, people feel like that’s a step in the right direction. And I was so fascinated by the way that you traced the rise of chicken to the center of the American diet.
Mark: Chickens are easy to grow, easy to take care of. They grow quickly. They weren’t part of white Western European diets, particularly, but they became popularized by formerly enslaved people and by immigrants from countries where chickens were popular, so they started to enter the market. But the real changes were mostly postwar, when antibiotics were invented, when the government invested money in developing what was called the “chicken of the future,” which was a chicken that grew two or three times as fast as its ancestors and could be packed into farms, especially with the routine use of antibiotics. And it is true that compared to cows, chickens contribute less to greenhouse gases, contribute less to environmental damage, are not as bad for you diet-wise, but globally, we’re killing something like 55 billion chickens a year. It’s a lot. There is environmental degradation associated with raising chickens in those numbers. And there are a lot of antibiotics being used. And then there’s the moral issue, which, when you’re talking about raising literally billions of animals in horrible conditions where they’re suffering from the day they’re born until the day they die—we can only imagine how terrible that is. And without some transparency, of which there’s virtually none, and the producers would like to keep it that way, we don’t really know what goes on on inside our factory farms. Journalists are basically banned at this point, the public is certainly banned. I’ve been saying this a lot, and I honestly believe it—if people could see how their animals were raised, the consumption of meat, including chickens, would fall by 50 percent tomorrow. It would happen instantly because it’s that horrible.
Alex: What happened over the last 10 years? Is that a monopoly story? Is that a corporate power story? Why is it harder to know what’s happening in industrial farms now?
Mark: Both of those, the concentration of the industry, and the people who actually are in charge of producing the chicken are effectively factory managers. They’re not farmers, they’re people who operate an automated barn that makes sure the chickens are fed and watered, and eggs gathered, or harvested for slaughter. There’s no care per se. The other thing is that there’s been some legislation in some states that specifically enhances trespassing laws—the term that’s often used is “ag gag laws”—that prevents not only regular citizens but journalists as well from gaining access. Those are fairly easy to enforce if there’s any industry unity on We’re not letting anybody in these barns. And then the problem with the deregulation and the defunding, to some extent, of the EPA and a little bit the FDA and the USDA—the EPA doesn’t even know how many of these kinds of factory farms there are. It doesn’t even have an accurate count. And it certainly isn’t enforcing existing clean water and air laws around them. So if there are local protests, if there’s local environmental enforcement, it’s rare—those are good things, I think—but for the most part, if you want to expand into egg-laying chickens, there’s almost nothing that can stop you.
Alex: After a short break, we’ll be back to talk to Mark about how he turned from cooking to the political economy of food itself.
Laura: Before the break, we were talking about chicken, and how the problems with that industry exemplify the problems in the food system more broadly.
Alex: We were both curious how Mark, after a long career in food writing, came to study these problems.
Laura: What led you down this path? You’ve taken on this huge set of issues around the way food is produced, and I’m curious how you were radicalized.
Mark: Well, I was radicalized in 1965 by the Vietnam War. So being what we used to call political, or being radical, is not new to me. I fell into food writing. I wanted to be a journalist, but I wound up writing about cooking, mostly travel, restaurants, and so on. I guess when I became secure enough in my career to really think things through was at a time—say 1995 or 2000—when it was also becoming clear that American agriculture had gone in the wrong direction, and becoming clear to me—people knew this before I did—that fast food was dominating, that we were developing more health problems as a result of our diet. And what was becoming clear was that there was a path for me to write about this. This is the edited version of what I’ve learned in 20 years of thinking seriously about food and five years of intensely researching this stuff. And it is a radical vision. It’s a radical vision because, as I said before, food is tied to everything—any issue you want to talk about, practically, we can trace back to problems with the food system.
Alex: It’s driving a lot of those things, too. You bring up Covid—it started popping up in all these rural places, and the problem was food production. The problem was that these people still had to go to work in these farming places—all across the country, people were still going to work in these crowded conditions, and that was driving the spread of Covid. So even there, all these things are downstream of our agriculture system.
Mark: And the other thing—since we’re going here, let’s go here—we look at these individual problems, and you can say that food is part of each of these individual big problems of Covid or climate change or in income inequality, whatever. But of course, upstream from that is our economic system, is capitalism or neoliberalism or whatever you want to call it. I mean, I’m using food because food is what I know. I’m using food to try to call attention to the fact that we have a very flawed economic system that won’t exist in this way in a hundred years, either through catastrophe or progressive innovation, it won’t be this way a hundred years from now: Capitalism will have been transformed into something better or worse.
Alex: When we were planning for this episode, our producer and Laura were making fun of me because I was like, “I was just reading this Marxist essay that made a lot of the same points that Mark Bittman was making in his book.” But that actually brings me to my question, which I think you’ve sort of already answered: What do you want to happen as a result of this book? Who do you want to read this, and what do you want them to take away?
Mark: Part of it is about self-determination for people in the world, part of it is about who owns land and what they do with it, part of it is about who controls wealth, and what happens with it. And you can talk about those issues by starting to talk about food, as we just did—we started talking about oat milk, and here we are talking about destroying capitalism. So that’s cool. I love that track—in a way it’s a sort of bait and switch, because I can start talking about cooking and get to capitalism, too. So an upside of having come to this from the cooking world is that, I think, many people think I’m benign, which—I am benign, actually—but many people say, “Oh, it’s just Mark Bittman, that cooking guy, or The Minimalist, or whatever,” but there are serious things to talk about here. I hope that I’m able to talk about them.
Laura: I think a natural question for people who are reading the book and really engaging with the issues that you bring up is, “What can I do?”
Mark: To go back to your original listeners, who are the people with time and money, there are many, many worthwhile organizations to contribute to who are frontline organizers. My favorite is called the HEAL Alliance. HEAL stands for “health, environment, agriculture, labor,” and it’s an Oakland-based organization that is an alliance of alliances and of people who are working in food. So that’s one thing. Another thing is to support local food movements, and that’s everything from farmers markets to urban farming to better school food to CSAs. And then, I don’t want to get too far afield, but supporting the right to vote, supporting progressive legislation, these are really important issues because it’s not like we’re all going to be eating a great diet while they’re still underpaying workers, while there’s still income inequality, while there’s still racism, while there’s still greenhouse gas generation constantly, while there’s no support for education, no support for public transportation—these things all have to be addressed simultaneously. Food is one part of the bigger puzzle of how do we build not just a better food system but a better economic and political system.
Laura: It’s interesting, because I think a lot of people tend to go to, “What can I do as a consumer?” Like, is this something that could be solved through my choices about the things I buy? And it sounds like you’re saying that the main thing you can do is actually engage with the political system, with activist groups, with politicians who are willing to do something about this—that’s the place to focus.
Mark: Well, Laura, we’re right back to where we started with our discussion of Oatly. This whole podcast has turned into an ad for Oatly. If you have time and money, you can eat pretty well, but the people who have time and money in this country are maybe 10 or 20 percent of the population. You can argue about that, I don’t care if you want to say 40 percent, great, but it’s not 70 percent. We know that. So like so many issues, this does come down to a moral issue. Do you actually believe what this country supposedly stands for, which is that people are created equal, should have equal opportunities, should have equal rights? Because if you believe that, then you can’t possibly believe—and I think this is a quote or paraphrase of something that Lula, the former and hopefully future president of Brazil, has said—you can’t think that it’s fair that there are people who can eat 10 times a day in the same neighborhood as people who worry about whether they can eat once every 10 days. That’s just not right. We were ignorant of many, many things until the twentieth or maybe even twenty-first century. Ignorance is not an excuse anymore. I don’t think anybody can make a credible argument for there being a ruling class or for there being billionaires and poor people on the same planet. It won’t wash. So I think we all need to think about that stuff through food, or whatever other avenues we like, and act on that. It does become a moral issue. It is a moral issue.
Alex: I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to us today.
Mark: Well, it was fun and stimulating for me also. I’m going to go look up Oatly ingredients right now and try to perfect my oat milk recipe.