Book Reviews

We Are What We Eat

We all need food, but did we really need to build a global system that turned this necessity into such excess?

By Jo-Ann Mort

Tagged factory farmingFood Policy

Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal By Mark Bittman • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt • 2021 • 364 pages • $28

Mark Bittman has written a book not only about the history of food, but also about colonialism, imperialism, corporatism, agribusiness, racism, climate change, structural inequality, and even more. It’s about how we live, how we earn, how we cultivate, how we nourish. Read this book and you’ll never put a morsel into your mouth again without considering cause and effect.

Writing with dense detail in readable prose, Bittman intentionally directs the reader toward activism. This book couldn’t be better timed, as we emerge from COVID with a Biden Administration moving swiftly through an unexpectedly progressive agenda.

Early in the book, Bittman quotes the philosopher Justus Freiherr von Liebig, who warned in the 1870s of the “folly” in assuming that the “Earth is inexhaustible in its gifts.” It’s safe to say that, through the centuries, few have heeded that warning.

Bittman takes us on at least two journeys in this book that get us to our present-day crisis. One begins with explorers like Christopher Columbus, who sought out goods for trading and exploitable labor. This global trajectory evolved through the ages into a divided North-South world of rich and poor nations. The second journey is specific to our own nation, with the growth of slavery in the 1800s, creating an industrial and agricultural infrastructure from which we are still feeling the impact in racial and economic inequities. Both journeys end at today’s global climate crisis.

In essence, this important book tells the story of us, all of us, from the beginning of time until the present day through food—from gathering to production, from farming to hording, from health to excess. Bittman begins literally at the beginning, as homo sapiens evolved from mammals. “You gotta eat,” is the first sentence in this book, as Bittman illustrates how necessity turned to excess. Food led to food making, led to competition, led to how and where we lived, led to creating community and lording over communities. “Between the moment we came down from the trees and the eras of exploration, colonization, science, and capitalism,” Bittman claims, “no collection of events had a greater impact on early human civilization than the development of agriculture….but agriculture also led to a new kind of society that bred injustice, poverty, disease, slavery, and war.” This book charts Bittman’s take on the history of food and gathering since these earliest days, along with his remedy for the mess we’ve all created as a world collective.

Mark Bittman is my go-to for recipes. I cook almost nothing that he doesn’t prescribe, trusting him eminently to provide an outline for healthy, easy to cook, delicious food. But honestly, even after reading his New York Times columns and other essays about food policy, I wasn’t prepared for this fascinating and dense ride through history via the food cycle. Bittman has written something both enjoyable and challenging, a warning to us, along with a blueprint about how to feed the world justly while also tackling the very real climate crisis.

History is an incredible teacher here, as Bittman leads us back to the source of many problems we face today. In America, the Homestead Act of 1862 offered farmland to white men only, while that same year saw the establishment of the Department of Agriculture and the founding of the land grant colleges, both of which to this day support growth of high production, corporate driven agricultural output. “Because land was so quickly turned into a financial asset,” Bittman argues, “owned by bankers, financiers, and speculators, it’s easy to see how debt has figured so prominently in the plight of American farmers.” And he points this out: “The 1862 Homestead Act had guaranteed that every ‘person who is the head of a family’—which excluded most women in letter, and all in spirit—and who is a citizen, which in 1862 excluded African Americans, was given the opportunity to fulfill this basic wish.”

The farms created by the act grew alongside America’s Industrial Revolution, leading to an agricultural system reliant on efficiency and expertise focused on production that benefited the emerging corporate structure. Alongside all this, newly thriving railroads and transportation systems to transport and trade wheat and grain emerged. The USDA, founded in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln, who called it “the people’s department,” was actually never about people. From its founding, it has supported a corporate, non-sustainable structure that led to present policies. As Bittman writes: “From its birth, the USDA was designed to harness the political and economic power that comes with being an agricultural powerhouse. If the people and resources exploited to create that powerhouse were collateral damage, so be it.”

He harkens back to 1863, in the agency’s earliest year, when the first commissioner of agriculture, Isaac Newton (seriously, this was his name!), declared that “the surplus of agriculture not only allows the farmer to pay his debts and accumulate wealth, but also does the same for the nation. To increase the surplus, therefore, to develop and bring out the vast resources of our soil, and thus create new additional capital, should be the great object of the Department of Agriculture and of legislation . . . It should be the aim of every young farmer to . . . make two blades of grass grow where one grew before.” Bittman castigates this policy, pointing out that it shows “a complete ignorance of nature, the world, and even the laws of the universe.” From its earliest iteration, the USDA and consequently, our government’s farming policies assumed unlimited natural supply even as they created endless demand.

This put extreme pressure on farmers, especially family-owned and non-corporate farms. A century later, responding to the dire economic situation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt intervened precisely to service Americans in desperate need. With the Dust Bowl sweeping through the middle of the country in the 1930s, Bittman writes, “[b]y 1933, previously prosperous families had lost their homes and were living in chicken coops, and all that remained was glimmers of hope and persistence.”

FDR introduced farm legislation that encouraged farmers to reduce their planting using income support. But this didn’t address population growth or embedded debt. FDR then went further, with ambitious legislation like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. But even these were band aids, not long-term solutions. That’s because, Bittman argues, the very concept of what our national agricultural system was supposed to be for was never fully addressed. “Was it to create healthy families, communities, and economies? Was it to sustain the land? Or was it to exploit every resource imaginable, including humans, so that flour millers, tractor manufacturers, fertilizer producers, banks, and so on could sap farmers’ income?”

Bittman goes on to show how these policies were especially harmful to small farmers and sharecroppers, the descendants of slaves, increasing a still-lingering inequity. The very New Deal legislation that we laud on the left, like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act of 1935, excluded these small farmers, with the support of the then-segregationist Democratic Party. The cotton farms and textile mills employed a workforce one step up from slavery, with barely any union protection or legislated rights.

Black farmers went from 14 percent of the national total in 1920 to 1 percent of farm owners today. FDR’s more liberal wife, Eleanor, was concerned by this situation, and according to Bittman responded to the appeals and activism of organizations like The Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, both led by Black Americans. She helped initiate the 1937 Farm Security Administration to assist farmers in dire need. But in the meantime, this loss of livelihood helped spark the Great Migration north, as Blacks headed toward auto plants and steel mills in the Midwest and North. Mechanization of the farming industry continued apace, with companies like International Harvester and John Deere taking control of the economic reins of power.

Isabel Wilkerson, in her book analyzing the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, provides haunting context: “They traveled deep into far-flung regions of their own country and in some cases clear across the continent. Thus, the Great Migration had more in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world, where oppressed people, whether fleeing twenty-first century Darfur or nineteenth-century Ireland, go great distances, journey across rivers, desserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.”

Meanwhile, many farmers also saw California as a future for their livelihood. Within years, the great breadbasket that has become the Central Valley would take hold, bringing an entire new model to farming—along with new labor issues. Another iconic American book, The Grapes of Wrath, captured this movement West:

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out . . . ‘We lost our land.’ The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first ‘we’ there grows a still more dangerous thing: ‘I have a little food’ plus ‘I have none.’ If from this problem the sum is ‘We have a little food,’ the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours . . . The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket—take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from ‘I’ to ‘we.’

As California’s Central Valley transformed into our nation’s fruit and vegetable basket, the seasonal Mexican workers who plucked the produce from the ground grew into a substantial informal workforce with little protection for living or workplace conditions. The cynical system that agribusiness set up in concert with the state and federal government supported a system where they allowed workers across the border to service the crops and then forced them to return to their homes, only to return next season, like a human spigot.

But beginning in the 1970s, farmworkers began to organize, transforming each worker from John Steinbeck’s “I” to a “we,” as they fought collectively for decent standards for living and working. The United Farm Workers (UFW) became a model for grassroots organizing, initiating a broad swath of activists into union and community and civil rights organizing. The farmworkers union formed alliances that crossed racial and economic barriers. The UFW created a form of organizing that was attractive to middle-class families, who stopped buying grapes or iceberg lettuce. The UFW sent organizers to houses of worship or to assemble in front of supermarkets across the nation. The Black Panthers, having built their own base of power on the creation of free food programs in the late 1960s in Oakland, California, joined the farm workers’ boycott, creating a model for community-based organizations today. One important contemporary organization cited by Bittman is HEAL, the Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor Food Alliance. As Steinbeck understood, and as Tom Joad predicted, an “I” turning into a “we” can amass the power that will make the difference.

Today, Cesar Chavez’s granddaughter, Julia Chavez Rodriguez, works in the White House as director of intergovernmental affairs in the Biden Administration. When she enters the Oval Office, she sees a bust of her grandfather that has been placed there prominently by the President.

Indeed, the White House has issued a string of announcements to show which side the new Administration is on. The UFW Cesar Chavez Day of Action at the end of March found the First Lady Jill Biden in the Central Valley meeting with farmworkers at a COVID vaccination site and speaking alongside 90-year-old feminist and farmworkers’ trade union icon Dolores Huerta. The Biden Administration recently supported the UFW in a case before the Supreme Court that would, if settled in the UFW’s favor, continue to allow unions to organize on farmers’ land without permission, as they have for 45 years. The Trump Administration, no surprise, had weighed in on the other side, backing two large agricultural firms.

The White House also just announced support for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to grant temporary legal status to these seasonal workers while also offering a 10-year citizenship path. Were this to pass, it would go a long way toward completing the journey that Cesar Chavez began in the 1970s to organize farmworkers.

The Biden Administration’s policies emanating from the USDA will get scrupulous attention from food activists like Bittman and his allies. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the USDA head, has been criticized by food activists for his past support of large, corporate farms over family farms, and business over workers. Recently, a former Vilsack aide was quoted in Politico saying that “the picture that’s being painted about Secretary Vilsack is not accurate . . . that’s one of the reasons Vilsack wants to return to USDA [he served in the same position under President Obama] . . . there’s unfinished business, in particular with equity issues.”

Bittman takes us on two journeys. One begins with explorers like Christopher Columbus. The second is specific to our own nation.

Also on the Vilsack agenda is the expansion of feeding and nutrition programs, especially after so much ground was lost here in the Trump years. For this, too, we can take a lead from Bittman. He devotes significant space to outlining how corporate America played a critical role in creating the American diet of processed food replete with too much salt and sugar, one in which both obesity and under-nourishment are significant markers of health (or lack thereof). Marketing junk food, writes Bittman, became similar to marketing tobacco: “Both shirked responsibility for poisoning entire populations . . . . and both prevented or interfered with remedial policymaking.”

In a chapter worthy of an entire book, Bittman traces the growth of fast beef and burgers and the marketing of milk and processed cheese along with familiar names of companies that have dominated the food business for decades like Heinz and Campbell’s.

Side by side with the rise of processed food, the late 1950s also saw the rise of organic farming, with the move to ban DDT and other pesticides. By 1962, Silent Spring author Rachel Carson became a prophet for any who would heed her words as she warned that our planet would simply run out from misuse. And then, as the civil rights movement took hold, so too did another movement of Black farmers. Famed civil rights pioneer Fanny Lou Hamer was quoted saying, at the time, “Land is the key; it’s tied to voter registration.” Hamer went on to found the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, Mississippi, organizing farmworkers alongside food and health-care cooperatives. This cooperative model is intriguingly a model that can be replicated in urban settings today. (We even have the return of voting rights to join with the issue of food sovereignty, alas.)

For us to shift our habits and practices, we will need an inside/outside strategy. On his second day in office, President Biden signed an executive order for COVID relief that included a massive package for food assistance in a message that cited “one in seven households, and more than one in five Black and Latino households, report that their household is struggling to secure the food they need.” Biden’s plan extended the 15 percent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit increase, investing $3 billion to help women, infants, and children get the food they need, among other key steps. He asked the USDA to take steps to provide nutrition assistance to working families, including to ensure that kids who were missing meals due to school closures get fed and to increase nutrition assistance.

Indeed, COVID, along with the staggering cuts to food assistance during the Trump years, has created a new crisis situation that is nonetheless ripe with opportunity. Bittman introduces the term “agroecology,” a word he says was first introduced 100 years ago to describe the type of relationship we must have with our food. Simply put, it means producing food in concert with nature to ensure social justice, broadly defined, especially land for the landless and farmers controlling their own produce. This concept includes organic practices like composting, while necessitating growing food closer to the population it’s feeding. Ideally, locales large and small would adapt this philosophy, but at the very least, Bittman argues, we need to mitigate the harm done by industrially produced food. Bittman sees low wages as a major culprit in keeping this system alive. Expand to a living income for all industrialized agricultural workers, he argues, and the equation will immediately shift.

This vision of food organizing is promoted by the global peasant organization La Via Campesina, a loose confederation of 200 million farmers and activists organized for food sovereignty, with whom Bittman has worked. We have much to learn from them. And there are groups like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network that promotes food access and collective buying. I found it hopeful to read that Detroit has more than 1,000 community gardens today.

The U.S. government has enormous buying and persuasion power. On an average day, more than 30 million American kids receive meals in their public schools. School districts are organizing, even without federal support, to provide nutritious meals to their students. The LA Unified School District began a Good Food Purchasing Program in 2021, and today, nine major school systems have joined in equaling a billion dollars annually of food purchases.

This is a movement where everyone has something at stake. By acknowledging first that healthy and plentiful food is a right, not a privilege, we can begin the long journey in upending all assumptions about food, food production, and delivery. There is much work to do, but certainly nothing more necessary to sustain us.

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Jo-Ann Mort is a member of the Dissent magazine editorial board, and writes frequently about progressive issues, with an expertise in areas related to progressive Judaism and Israel. Her last article for Democracy was "What Work Is."

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