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

A history of food, from sustainable to suicidal
By Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman’s latest book comes at a momentous moment. In the first weeks of his tenure, President Biden not only joined the Paris climate accord, announced new emission reduction targets and canceled permits to build the Keystone XL pipeline and to drill in the National Arctic. Wildlife Refuge, but has also made climate change an essential element. consideration of foreign policy and national security, ordered federal agencies to invest in communities of color suffering the brunt of climate change, and pledged to address the impact of this crisis on immigration and the economy.

But there’s at least one area in which Biden’s climate critics remain skeptical: his approach to food system reform. Tom Vilsack, the candidate for head of the Department of Agriculture, is not just a holdover from Barack Obama’s days, but a pro-corporate moderate à la Clinton. Vilsack has vowed to call on USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation to encourage sustainable and climate-conscious methods of growing, but hasn’t said much about how he plans to convince farmers and ranchers. dilapidated and dying rural communities that the time has come for a big change.

So Bittman’s “Animal, Vegetable, Junk”, a comprehensive treatise on humanity’s relationship to food, fits our moment – manifesting a necessary sense of urgency but also no doubt about the challenge that lies ahead. “You can’t talk about agriculture without talking about the environment,” he wrote. “You can’t talk about animal welfare without talking about the well-being of food workers, and you can’t talk about food workers without talking about income inequality, racism and immigration.” Each problem affects another.

Simply acknowledging the sheer scale of the problem has persuaded most writers to take a narrower slice and go deeper. But Bittman clearly relishes the insane ambition of his business (“maybe too ambitious,” he slyly says, “you’ll be the judge of this”), often pushing the reader through waves of information with momentum. of his story. While he seems a bit breathless at first, Bittman moved in fairly early in his story, delivering a clear and compelling collection of modern agriculture.

In particular, his take on the early mechanization of the American farm is epic and captivating. We feel carried away by the promise and possibility of all these new technologies, so much so that the shift from agriculture to agribusiness, even though we know it is coming, is still a blow. . “It was not an entirely cynical process, and some might even call it innocent,” Bittman writes, but “whether or not the tragic result of the push towards a standardized monoculture has been that scientists and researchers alike. are allied not with farmers, but with bankers, equipment manufacturers and sellers of seeds and chemicals. ”

It’s a vivid glimpse – and it shows what could be Bittman’s greatest strength. It does not fall into the controversy of certain political lunatics who too often want to make every mistake seem predictable or the product of an unforgivable fault. His painstaking delineation of the difference between Joseph Stalin’s ignorant and ruthlessly statist food policies and American “laissez-faire” to uncontrolled corporatization, for example, is extremely welcome. Likewise, he recognizes that the development of canned food and later fast food was a consequence of the growing importance of women in the workplace after WWII and the large number of middle class women. and Superior who were, for the first time, “Doing the majority of the domestic work themselves.”

These nuances not only allow us to approach political questions with more complexity, but they also temper our moral certainty. By the time Bittman reaches his final section, simply titled “Change,” he has earned the right to damn the obvious flaws in our system. He has the wisdom not to dwell on the short-sighted ambition that brought us here, but rather to offer an equally unbiased assessment of several failed attempts to right our mistakes. “The impact of humans on the environment is often unintentional and unforeseen,” Bittman writes, “but we have yet to recognize it and act on it.” In the end, it comes to a place that may be familiar to readers of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, “Stuffed and Starved” by Raj Patel or “Perilous Bounty” by Tom Philpott. that the only solution is to focus on sustainability.

Still, I’m freshly convinced by Bittman’s framing. The food system, he notes, is not broken. In fact, it works almost perfectly for the large seed and chemical companies, and it also “works quite well for about a third of the world’s population, for whom food just seems to be eaten at will.” But it does mean that the change will be fought for by those with the most power and will be inconvenient for the majority of Americans as well.

So it will take a little poetry in the early stages of public mobilization, and then it will take an equal measure of bold and sure action. As Bittman makes clear, we don’t have the luxury of taking well-meaning missteps or settling for half measures. The time for big changes is now.

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