(Bloomberg) — Few people have had as much to say about the American diet as Mark Bittman.
Between his bestselling cookbooks, four television series and 30-year run covering food for the New York Times, Bittman, 71, entrenched himself in America’s kitchens. But his latest tome goes further than teaching readers what to eat and why. With a multi-millennial sweep, he uses cuisine to track the evolution of Homo sapiens through imperialism and colonization to today.
The central takeaway from “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” is that if society doesn’t fix its food system—and everything tied up in it, including the environment, human rights and democracy itself—it faces disaster.
Bloomberg recently spoke with Bittman about history, the future and what he hopes the Biden administration will do to change it.
In the beginning of the book, you write that civilizations that degrade their soil will ultimately fail, pointing to examples such as Sumer, the Mayans and Rome. What does this mean for us?
It’s not the only reason Rome or Sumer fell, but it was a contributing factor. You can trade for gold. You can trade for food. But soil and water, you either got ‘em or you don’t. Think of soil as a pantry. If you have a pantry, and you keep taking things out of it, and you don’t put new things into it, it runs out.
When we do monoculture and grow one crop at a time, we don’t really pay attention to replenishing the soil. The soil then becomes less and less healthy and eventually production drops no matter how many chemicals you pour into it.
To say things like the earth is finite in its gifts sounds a little woo-woo, but the earth is finite in its gifts.
You write that feeding more people was “arguably the foundation of imperialism and colonization,” as the ruling classes looked for land and resources to provide food for their people.
Slavery, too. Sugar is very labor intensive, and as sugar moved west, so did slavery. Often indigenous people, indentured servants, prisoners of war and anyone who could be forced to do sugar growing and sugar processing was forced. When those people ran out—and in part they ran out because indigenous people in North and South America died—that’s when the slave trade began.
There used to be famines, but in modern America food is abundant. And yet, people are still deprived of nutrients. How will agriculture fail today?
Not a great number of Americans go hungry, but many are malnourished. They’re eating calories of the wrong type that promote disease rather than health. We know there is overuse of antibiotics in the food supply, and people are getting sick. But they could get sick at a much greater rate because of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.
There are carcinogenic pesticides being used indiscriminately, and those pesticides are going to kill a certain number of us. Same with industrial production of animals. They poison land and water. They’re making land uninhabitable. You can’t qualify morality, but they’re damaging our souls.
As a parent, one part of the book that really hit me was how companies sell junk food to kids. What do you want to see the government do to limit this kind of advertising? And what else needs to happen to make feeding kids nutritiously more attainable for parents?
In the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission was really ramping up to rein in marketing of junk to children. That was the heyday of ‘Gee, maybe we don’t want to encourage our kids to believe that Tony the Tiger is their best friend, that Coke is the optimal drink and that McDonald’s is the funnest place to eat.’
The fix is a more responsible federal government, but I don’t feel like Joe Biden has a sense of urgency around these things. [Secretary of Agriculture] Tom Vilsack doesn’t talk about it. He was a terrible appointee who believes that this is the consumer’s responsibility. That everybody should be hypervigilant about how they’re feeding their kids and feel guilty all the time if they’re not doing it well. Not everybody has the time, the money and the inclination to do that. Not everybody’s even able to feed themselves well.
Big Food isn’t going anywhere. Can it be reformed? Is Sweetgreen really that much better than McDonald’s?
As long as a profit motive is running everything, I don’t think you can count on Big Food. If you’re going to make money selling food, you’re going to cheat somebody. You’re going to cheat workers, farmers, the environment or the customers. In the case of McDonald’s, it’s all of the above. In the case of Sweetgreen, it’s less, but the system is still the system.
What about the boom in plant-based meats? Where do you put them on the spectrum of problem and solution?
Squarely in the middle. They are ultra-processed. You can’t count on them for doing good agriculture, for making good food available to more people. Big Food—it’s just not their nature. It’s not what they do. What they do is sell junk.
Impossible [Foods] and Beyond [Meat] have not had a visible impact on the sales of meat in this country. What is going on is increasing consumption of really junky burgers. I don’t think that the fake meat thing is really taking us in the right direction. It’s like a red herring in a mystery novel.
It’s just not going to be relevant in the long run.
Where are your expectations for the Biden administration? Are you hopeful?
I’m decreasingly optimistic with each passing month. But okay, what could happen? The FDA could say we’re going to take antibiotics out of routine use in the food supply. We could strengthen the EPA and just enforce existing regulations on industrial production of animals.
More support for local food, CSAs, farmers’ markets, school lunches, dadda dadda da—all of that would be good. If Vilsack does anything, we’ll be grateful.
Get some good stuff done, and the people will follow you with their votes.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bloomberg received the following responses to Bittman’s comments.
“Consumers who are shopping for burgers are shopping for burgers, not tofu or lentil salad,” Impossible Foods said in an email. “Displacement is the best way to address the climate and biodiversity effects of animal agriculture while giving consumers what they love.”
“We started sweetgreen to evolve the food system and believe the choices we make every day about what we eat,” said Nicolas Jammet, Sweetgreen co-founder and chief concept officer. “From building a transparent supply network and cooking from scratch every day, to committing to be carbon neutral by 2027 and providing 5-month paid parental leave to all team members, we’re on a constant journey to improve and further our mission of connecting more people to real food.”
McDonald’s and Secretary Vilsack’s office declined to comment.
Beyond Meat didn’t respond to requests for comment.