Interview by Ben Trollinger
For 30-plus years, Mark Bittman has been, hands-down, the most influential food writer in America. He worked as a star food columnist at the New York Times. He’s written 16 best-selling books and cookbooks, including How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and The Minimalist Cooks at Home.
His latest book is Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. It isn’t a cookbook. You won’t find any recipes in it. Instead, it’s an ambitious and clear-eyed survey of the past, present and future of agriculture.
From the advent of farming over 10,000 years ago to the rise of industrial agriculture and hyper-processed junk food, Bittman somehow manages to synthesize thousands of years of history into a thoughtful and convincing argument for radical change within our modern food system.
And although it isn’t a cookbook, we wouldn’t say the book is a departure from his past work — it’s the culmination and the crowning achievement to a life dedicated to teaching people how to cook, and eat, ethically, healthfully and with pleasure.
Acres U.S.A. There’s this popular narrative that agriculture really went off the rails in the post-war era, with the widespread use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. But, really, agriculture has been creating problems, essentially, from day one. In the book, you cite the historian, Jared Diamond, who called agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” Was agriculture fatally flawed from the beginning?
Mark Bittman. It kinda depends on your perspective, because, let’s say — we don’t how many people were on Earth when people started doing agriculture, which is about 10,000 years ago, but let’s say there were 50 million. I mean, it could be 5 million; it could be 100 million. It’s somewhere in that range. There’s now seven, going on ten, billion. Very few of those lives, between then and now, would have been possible. Those incremental lives would not have been possible without agriculture. If there are hunter-gatherers, everybody’s a hunter-gatherer, there’s a really small number of people that could live on the Earth.
So, if you value seven billion lives — and I think most of us do — if you value the right of “we seven billion,” because chances are we would’ve not gotten to be alive—then it’s not such a bad thing. It’s just that, at every turning point—and it did cause difficulties from the beginning. It wasn’t good—it may not have been a good decision for that generation or for the next 20 generations, or whatever, but it was a good decision for us because we get to be here. But the thing is that, at many turning points between and now, better decisions could’ve been made, and they weren’t. Maybe worse decisions could’ve been made also, but the decisions that got made, got made.
And, certainly, things have gotten progressively worse after World War II. They got progressively worse after World War I. They got progressively worse after the Civil War. There’s been this cascading worsening of the effects of agriculture, and we’re now sitting at a place where we have the ability to do things better. And the question is: Are we gonna do things better, or are we gonna keep reinforcing the bad decisions that have been made?
Acres U.S.A. In the book, you cite geologist and author David Montgomery, who’s a friend of this show and who’s been on this show, and you cite him when you’re talking about the role of soil health in sustaining civilizations. Some civilizations throughout history appear to have had more of a knack for it than others. Talk about some of the triumphs and failures of agriculture throughout history. I think you offer a really beautiful synthesis of the history of early agriculture that I think is really important for us to understand.
Bittman. David’s probably better at this than I am. I’m not saying I’m not answering your question; I’m just saying there are better experts than me.
But [when] you look at Sumer, which was one of the first civilizations in Mesopotamia, and they were thriving — their population was increasing, their wealth was increasing, they had art, they had math, they had all kinds of science, interesting things, commerce — and they kept expanding and expanding, and they stopped paying attention to soil health. And when they stopped paying attention to soil health, the canals filled with silt, the irrigation systems were inadequate, the soil itself stopped yielding.
One of the things about agriculture is — I’ll come back to this, but one of the things about agriculture is that it provides more food, at least initially. By providing more food, it supports population growth. And farmers, as you know, like to have children because they’re free labor. This is not necessarily the case, but historically it had been the case.
But, with more food came more people. With more people came more people to work the land. With more people to work the land came more food and so on. But you and your listeners know this better than I do: the land can only produce so much before it needs to rest or be fed or whatever. You can’t just keep withdrawing capital from your soil.
If your population’s growing and your territory’s not expanding and you’re not fallowing or otherwise allowing your soil to replenish, your yields go down, and suddenly you’re screwed. You have more people with less production and unhealthy soil to boot, so your civilization literally collapses, and that has happened repeatedly. So, the most successful civilization — I think it’s fair to say the most successful, consistent civilization in history was probably Egypt or maybe China, and both really mastered sustainable agriculture for literally thousands of years, for different reasons.
China is kinda hard because there have been different dynasties and it geographically has been amorphous, but Egypt was this pretty well-defined place that, for 3,000 years, managed to not only sustain itself but thrive enough so that it could waste money — technically, it’s a waste money to do public works projects, like build huge tombs for one guy. The pyramids are really cool and we’re glad they’re there, but I hate to think that people were worked to death or starved as a result of building those pyramids.
But there was this guy who David probably came across early in his career. He and I have only talked once, so I don’t know him well, but there was this guy named — I can remember his first name. I think it might’ve been Walter. But, anyway, his last name was Loudermilk, and Loudermilk always talked about — and he was like in the ’30s.
And he always talked about “agricultural suicide.” And by “agricultural suicide,” he meant that process that I just talked about, of increasing the population and expecting your soil to just yield more and more and more. And it’s an impossibility. It defies the laws of physics to expect your soil to just permanently yield more. And we’re up against that a little bit now. It’s not one of our major—yield is not one of our major problems in U.S. industrial agriculture, but depletion of soil is one of our major problems. And again, you and your listeners know this way better than I do, but if you go to corn and soybean states and you look at that soil, that is really awful-looking soil. That is like dead soil that exists for one purpose and that purpose is to grow corn or soybeans. And it can be chemically doused year after year after year to keep it up.
I don’t know how long that can go on, ’cause every year there’s more topsoil depletion, and every year there are fewer natural nutrients in that soil. But, so far, yield is not really our major problem. I do think that soil health, in general, and soil depletion are big problems here.
Acres U.S.A. You write in the book—and this is a quote: “Agriculture has had a dark side: It’s sparked disputes over land ownership, water use and the extraction of resources; it’s driven exploitation and injustice, slavery and war. It’s even, paradoxically enough, created disease and famine.” There’s a lot to talk about there, but slavery in particular has been intertwined with agriculture for thousands of years. Why are those two things so closely linked throughout our history? I think this, in particular, is a really informative lens for looking at sort of how agriculture has developed into what it is today.
Bittman. If you argue that the two most successful — from an accumulation-of-wealth point of view — civilizations in history have been Rome and the United States. Both of their wealth was founded on slavery. That’s kind of an interesting thing. Slavery in the modern era really tracked the westward movement of sugar. That was really a kind of parallel development, that, as sugar moved west, slavery moved west: from the Far East, to the Middle East, through the Mediterranean, through the Atlantic, through the Caribbean, and North and South America. Sugar is very, very land intensive, so it uses up land quickly. Cane is very nutrient demanding and it’s labor intensive, and it’s labor no one wants to do. No one voluntarily does sugar labor — almost no one. So, if you wanted to produce sugar — and the world became addicted to sugar really, really fast — then you wanted to have slaves if you could. And that development was really, really parallel.
Sugar and slaves came to the New World together. Sugar wasn’t the only thing and slavery wasn’t the only thing. There were these kind of nefarious triangles between the so-called “mother country,” countries in West Africa, and countries in the Caribbean and in North and South America, but sugar, rum, molasses, tools, slaves, weaponry, manufactured goods in general, that sort of triangle lasted for, what, 300 years? Even more.
I’m not actually in the habit of sitting here, just citing sources, but there’s a book called The Half Has Never Been Told, which is a story by a guy named Edward Baptist — just such an amazing book — about the foundation of wealth in North America, and it’s not just Mississippi, which was once the richest state in the country and is now the poorest, and that’s not a coincidence.
The wealth of this country was built on the backs of enslaved people, and even on the backs of non-enslaved, but underpaid and nearly enslaved, Asians and indigenous people and so on, who were brought to this country to build its wealth. But slavery was really the foundation of wealth in the United States, and that’s all about agriculture. That is 95 percent about agriculture.
Acres U.S.A. Another issue that you mentioned in the book is famine, and the Irish Potato Famine is maybe the most famous one in the West, but it’s hardly unique. As you say in the book, “hunger is not a symptom of underproduction but of inequality of abusive power and wealth.” What do you famines tell us about some of the structural failures of agriculture?
Bittman. The thing is that the Irish Potato Famine was the first modern famine and that’s why it’s most famous. In this sense, what we mean by modern is that it’s not really a shortage of food; it’s a lack of political will — or, in fact, it’s starvation as a political tool or as a weapon of war.
So, the British did not engineer that famine, but they did not engineer the end of it, either, which was in their power to do. And so when there were famines in pre-modern history, the government’s job was to make sure that surplus was distributed to the poor. Whether the government did its job or not was questionable, but no one would have debated otherwise.
Successful governments built surplus and distributed it to poor people and helped poor people when they were starving as a result of famines. The rate of famine increased dramatically with more successful agriculture, because famine was being used as a tool — at first, mostly by the British. It’s not that they initiated the famines, but they took advantage of them.
And so it wasn’t only Ireland, but India and then later — of course, Stalin used famine to try to eliminate huge numbers of peasants. Mao used famine for the same kind of reason. The great famines were not — in a way, the British are left off the hook, because the famines with the most impressive numbers, if you’re going to measure their horribleness by net deaths—no one even knows how many tens of millions of people died in the Soviet Union and in China as a result of famines that were pretty much engineered by Stalin and Mao. Or, again, the famines may have started as the result of unintended consequences of something else, or as the result of environmental disasters, but the governments then subsequently used them to eliminate perceived enemies.
So, it’s funny, Amartya Sen, the philosopher, said that all famines are now political, by which he meant they’re not agricultural any longer. There’s more than enough food to feed everyone in the world right now, this minute, and at every given minute. There’s enough food and then some to feed everyone in the world. If your brother or sister somewhere else in the world is starving, and you have the option to feed that person, you also have the moral necessity to feed that person. And if you don’t, that’s a political decision. That’s not an agricultural decision.
Acres U.S.A. So, what are the political decisions that lead to one billion people in the world being underfed?
Bittman. The biggest political decision is to allow a world in which some people can eat ten times a day if they want to, and other people have to worry about whether they can eat one time every ten days, and that’s a decision about income equality. That’s a decision about the global north having spent 500 years stealing resources, money, people, etc., from the global soul, without adequately reimbursing them, and continuing to ignore the responsibility that we have to the people in the world that we have effectively impoverished.
I feel oddly quote-y today and I don’t quite know why, but I’m pretty sure it was Franz Fanon who said: When you go to Europe and you see the incredible beauty that is there in Western Europe — and it’s undeniable: the art, the architecture, the parks, the natural beauty that’s been preserved and son on — what you’re seeing is the result of the transfer of wealth from the colonies back to the north. Imagine the British Museum without the stuff that the Brits stole from other countries. There wouldn’t be anything there to look at.
I don’t know how you turn this ship around. I think fairness is a real question for all of us to answer: What do we owe the people who are really responsible for our national wealth? What do we owe the people who gave their riches so that we could be wealthy? And that includes indigenous North and South Americans. That includes, obviously, Africans who were brought here as slaves. That includes all of the colonies of Western Europe that were exploited for the benefit of the global north. A lot of it is about agriculture — not all of it, for sure, but a lot of it has been about agriculture.
Acres U.S.A. I want to transition a little bit and talk about the origins of monoculture farming. I’d love to hear you talk about what drove the transition from small-holding, biodiverse farms to massive, single-crop operations? Really how did that evolve into what it is today?
Bittman. I mean, there’s an argument that it started 500 years ago, 700 years ago with the closing of the commons, the consolidation of power by the nobility, especially in Western Europe, the development of cash crops and of an economy that was dependent on surplus and on growing more than you needed of a given crop, regardless of what the crop was. So, if you could’ve made a decision, would we’d rather grow a variety of crops and make sure that everybody eats well, or would we rather grow a much smaller variety of crops and make sure that some number of people can profit from the surplus of those crops?
Well, the second choice was, in retrospect, the choice that was made. That’s the choice that’s still being made. If you ask the question — and I like to ask this question — what is food for? Or what is agriculture for? And the logical answer is it’s to feed as many people well as we possibly can. You might add while minimizing the impact on the environment, minimizing the impact on other species, treating labor well. You might add all of those things, but the primary answer—what’s the point of agriculture? What’s the point of food? The point of food is to feed as many people as well as we can. That’s not what’s happened. What’s happened is the point of agriculture, the point of food, has been to make money for people who own the land and the means of production around agriculture.
So that, again, arguably started even before the plague in Western Europe, but let’s say in the 1200s, 1300s, 1400s that really started. But if we look to the 1900s and the post-Civil War Era in the United States — and monoculture and industrial agriculture were not invented in the United States, but really this system was perfected (and there’s air quotes around that “perfected”) in the United States in the last 100, 150 years, and then been exported to the rest of the world.
If we look at that, that’s really where monoculture came about or was perfected, and it was driven first by killing indigenous Americans and throwing them off their land, but then consolidating that land and redistributing it for free (or nearly free) to white European males, who would then go settle that land. But big, big swaths — unmanageably big parcels of land that almost had to be or begged to be grown one crop at a time.
It was originally wheat and then later corn and soybeans. Obviously, there are many more crops, but the primary crops of the United States at this point are corn and soybeans. And then that was further accelerated by the development of the tractor, the development of hybridized seeds, and you might even see it, say, especially in the development — it’s not especially because the tractor is just as important, but chemical fertilizer and chemical pesticides. Those are all almost precisely concurrent inventions of the late 19th, early 20th century. And we would’ve seen monoculture take over even sooner, but wars sort of got in the way.
But the Dust Bowl was a symptom of this process really accelerating. The Dust Bowl is almost another good example of a political famine, although it didn’t really result in a full-blown famine, and, arguably, with the defeat of Hoover and the election of 1932, you saw the government actually starting to do its job. Roosevelt did help and Congress did pass legislation that helped to repair the Dust Bowl and helped some people recover. It wasn’t enough, it wasn’t soon enough and so on, but we didn’t see millions of people die as a result of the Dust Bowl either, and that could’ve happened.
Acres U.S.A. What would you say have been the environmental and social consequences of monoculture farming?
Bittman. That’s the last question you get to ask, actually, because the answer to that is that’s it. That’s where we’re at. Sometimes people say if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing, which of the — I’m sorry to bring it up, because it’s such a stupid question, but it would be to end monoculture, because monoculture is the root of everything that’s going wrong in agriculture right now.
Acres U.S.A. And I think that’s the sort of idea of the question. Maybe people don’t understand why it’s a bad idea.
Bittman. Farmers ought to understand why it’s a bad idea.
Acres U.S.A. I guess another way of asking it is: Why is biodiversity important within an ecosystem?
Bittman. Well, but the thing is that monoculture is bigger than just discouraging biodiversity. It’s not just encouraging; it’s making necessary chemical fertilizer, chemical killers (which we call pesticides), and I think it’s obvious, but everybody should take a moment to remember that the suffix “-cide” means “kill,” so homicide, suicide, fratricide, pesticide.
Pesticides were developed in parallel with chemical warfare — again in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, and their job is to kill. It’s really impossible to create a poison that you’re going to spread on the land or in the air and expect it to only kill the critters or fungi or whatever, herbs that you want it to kill. It’s gonna kill more broadly than that.
Pesticides have their impact on us. Rachel Carson wrote about this, what, 75 years ago? 70 years ago? The poisoning of the environment. Loss of topsoil. Depletion of resources. Climate change. Just the production of chemical fertilizer alone is two percent of the total of greenhouse gases. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s just that one thing.
If you integrate all of the functions of monoculture, of industrial agriculture, because they’re pretty much synonymous, you have the second leading — arguably first, but we can concede second — cause of greenhouse gas production in the world, it’s industrial agriculture. So there’s that.
And now we haven’t even talked—we’ve talked for half an hour and we haven’t even mentioned sort of arguably the biggest consequence of industrial agriculture today, which is a public health crisis that directly results in the death of more than a million people in the United States alone every year. The biggest killer in the United States is chronic disease — way, way bigger than COVID, even at COVID’s worst. And the biggest driver of chronic disease is bad diet. And the reason we have bad diet is monoculture.
So, if you’re saying, what are the consequences of monoculture, you have to throw one of the biggest public health crises ever into that mix. So it’s a lot.
Acres U.S.A. Well, yeah, let’s transition to that, because I think it’s clear our health is really compromised, in no small part by the hyper-processed foods that you’re mentioning—junk food. Kind of define what we mean by “ultra-processed” or “hyper-processed,” and how do they come to sort of sit at the center of our diets? You mentioned monoculture, but I’m also interested in why we like them so damn much. Why do we keep picking them up? There are biological reasons for that that you describe in the book.
Bittman. We are hardwired to eat salt. We’re hardwired to seek sweet foods. We’re hardwired to look for fatty foods. As foragers, those are all desirable traits. We will evolve out of those traits if we live long enough. I don’t mean “we” as individuals. I mean “we” as a species. But that’s not happening fast enough. We don’t need to eat — if you’re a hunter-gather, you’re a forager, you come across a bush of berries, you are going to eat those berries until you get sick, until you can’t eat another one, because you’re hardwired to do that and you don’t know where your food is coming from tomorrow. The food engineers use our tendency to eat as much salt as we can, as much sugar as we can, as many fats as we can — fats are great ’cause they’re super high calories, and we used to have a problem getting as many calories as we wanted.
The triumph of agriculture is to give us all the calories we could possibly want. The tragedy of agriculture is that it gives food marketers the incentive to get us to eat more calories than we need, more calories than are good for us and in forms that are actively bad for us. Food is engineered to get us to eat as much of it as we can. The foods that are made to do that are largely made as the result of monoculture — corn and soybeans being are leading crops. They are also our leading ingredients — corn and soybeans and sugar, much of which is made from corn in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. It’s not that high-fructose corn syrup itself is any worse than sugar; it’s just that it increased the supply and therefore increased our consumption.
All of this combines to cause the chronic disease that’s making us ill. I want to be clear that it’s not — it’s that it’s making us ill; it’s not that it’s making us obese. Obesity is a symptom, but you can be sick from overeating or from eating the wrong kinds of calories without being obese and you can be obese without being sick. The problem is not that America is fat. The problem is that America is fat because we have a bad diet and we’re also sick because we have a bad diet. It’s not that obesity is the problem. Obesity is the symptom, a symptom.
Acres U.S.A. A lot of people have this ongoing discussion about how to change eating habits, looking at it as kind of a behavioral engineering problems. The Blue Zones sort of model talks a lot about that, that it’s about a series of nudges that lead you to make the right choice, as opposed to you relying on willpower, let’s say.
Bittman. Here’s how we know that’s wrong. 60 percent of the calories in the United States today are in the form of ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods make us sick. If you look up the definition of “food” in the dictionary, it’ll say a substance that provides nourishment, but that doesn’t tell us much. But if you look up “nourishment,” it says nourishment is something that makes you grow healthy. So 60 percent of the calories in our diet don’t make us grow healthy; in fact, they make us grow sicker. And so they’re closer in dictionary definition to “poison” than they are to “food.” Someone’s eating that 60 percent, either all of us are eating precisely 60 percent or some of us are eating less than 60 percent and some of us are eating more than 60 percent, which, of course, is what’s true.
It could be that 60 percent of us are eating 100 percent of those calories, but it’s not that. It’s spread out. In fact, the sort of notion that it’s poor people that are eating junk food? It’s really not. If 60 percent of the calories are junk food, then way more than the 10 or 20 percent of the population that qualifies as poor are eating some portion of our diet in the form of ultra-processed foods that are bad for us.
So, it’s not just about behavior change, because that 60 percent is out there. And if we all decided to eat well en masse tomorrow, there’s only 40 percent enough well calories for us to eat. We would go hungry, in fact. This is such that the calories that are made available to us, the majority of them are making us sick. So it’s not just a matter of willpower. Of course, for those of us with more time and more money and better education and a lot of “willpower” can make the decision to eat better and we can afford to do that and we can pursue that as one of our avocations or even one of our vocations.
It’s our job to eat well. We do that. But not everybody can do that. In fact, there aren’t enough calories even if everybody did have the ability to do that. There aren’t enough available calories comprising good, real, close-to-natural food. So that’s an agricultural question. Agricultural is political. It’s decided by policy. And what’s available in the market today is decided by policy (or lack of policy). Willpower can change that, but, actually, we’re better off exercising that willpower—not in change our diet but in changing the political system or in changing the policy.
Acres U.S.A. Listening to you just now and reading your book, I was reminded of a Homer Simpson quote about alcohol that might also apply to agriculture — “It’s the cause of and the solution to all our problems.” And it seems pretty clear we’re not gonna willingly return to a hunger-gatherer existence. So, the question becomes: How do we take this broken thing we call farming, and create something that bolsters health in us and our communities and in our landscapes?
Bittman. Right. So, how do we do that? I don’t know, but we need to move in that direction. In the course of — I’ve learned a lot since I finished — I finished writing Animal, Vegetable, Junk more than a year ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then. I’ve learned a lot in the dozens of podcasts and interviews that I’ve done (like this one) since then. And someone really smart said to me: “You build a road by starting to walk on it.”
We can’t see the end of the road towards a better food system or a better society, but we can see the first steps. And I think it’s important to take the first steps and to see where they lead us, and then to say, “Okay, what are the next steps?” I have my pet first steps that I can easily outline, but I wouldn’t even say that they’re necessarily the right first steps, but they’re definitely part of the conversation. If I had my druthers, they’re the first steps I would take. But I’d listen to arguments that there are other first steps. The important thing is we have to do something. We have to move towards a better food system, or we’re never gonna get there. We don’t need to see the end in order to start, and we need to start.
Acres U.S.A. You write that the global food system must become sustainable and equitable for all. Where do you see that happening, and why is the U.S. likely to become a late adopter of these better practices? You mentioned a city in Brazil as being one particular example of something that you’re encouraged by.
Bittman. Brazil had a very active pro-food workers’ movement and even pro-food government for a while, and guaranteed adequate nutrition to every citizen, established restaurants with a sliding scale where 100,000/day were fed with good food that they could afford. Did a land-reform program that gave away as much land as the country had given away in its entire previous history, over the course of just a few years. Established organic farms, subsidized organic farms, subsidized family farming, subsidized the use of that food in school systems and elsewhere. It did great work.
Then the government changed and all of that stuff started to fall apart. I think what that shows is that if there’s a popular movement that supports better food, we’d better be a part of that popular movement and we’d better make sure that our representatives are behind that popular movement. When they’re not, it’s really hard to make change.
So, right now, the most interesting thing, I think, in food is happening in Andhra Pradesh, which is a state in India. India has big states. It’s like 60 million people, most farmers. And what is happening there is the farmers are mostly in small villages (1,000 people or less) and people are going from village to village, teaching their fellow farmers how to farm without pesticides, using natural fertilizer, natural methods of increasing yield of poly cropping, the opposite of monoculture and so on, and the government is supporting that. So the number of farms in this program now is probably close to a million. It was in excess of 600,000 when I finished writing the book. It’s growing really fast. And the predictions are that almost every farmer in the state—and, again, we’re talking tens of millions of people—will be farming naturally (for wont of a better word), without chemical fertilizer, without chemical pesticides, by 2030.
Again, if the government stopped supporting it—you’d need a popular movement to make sure that still happens, but that’s an example of the kinds of things that can move agriculture forward.
Acres U.S.A. Corporate agriculture is becoming increasingly mechanized and technology obsessed. People like Bill Gates have this vision for farming without farmers. And yet peasant farmers are still producing most of the world’s food. I think it’s like 70 percent or something like that. What will (or should) the future of farming look like? Do you envision like a peasant-farmer future, or do you envision some sort of hybrid of that and GMOs, CRISPR technology? What do you see?
Bittman. Well, I think there’s no reason to ignore good technology. There isn’t a farmer in the world who doesn’t want a small tractor, at least. We have to measure the impact of the tools that are used in farming, and decide which ones are more harmful than they’re worth? GMOs, up until now, have been more harmful than they’re worth. The tractor, up until now, has been more harmful than it’s worth, but we can certainly envision a better tractor that is more beneficial than it is harmful. So, of course we integrate technology into farming. I think the future is—again, I’m not claiming to know. I think that I know what would be good to do in the next two years. I don’t claim to know what things are gonna look like in 50 years. No one can predict anything like that. Anyone who says they can is lying.
But I think there’ll be more farms. I’d like to think that we’d restore dignity to farming. I’d like to think that no one owns more than 500 acres or whatever kind of limit we want to put on land use. I’d like to think that land is restored to the people who were shut out of the great land giveaways of the 19th and 20th centuries. I might’ve said this already, but I’d really like to see dignity restored to farming.
There are a lot of people who would like to and would farm and would do it well, given the opportunity, but there is very little opportunity for someone with no money and especially someone saddled with student debt, which so many young people are now. There’s very little opportunity for people to even buy five acres in most of this country and start farming, let alone 50 acres, which is probably a more realistic and viable number, or 500 acres, on which you can build a really beautiful, multi-functioning, several-family, several-generation kind of farm. So few of those exist as even models that it’s hard to point people to them and to say, “Look what a great job this group of farms is doing.” There aren’t even enough of them for us to all visit really.
Acres U.S.A. Maybe there’s no ideal farm, but you do cite one farm in the book that you think is a particularly strong example of what you’re talking about. It’s Full Belly Farms. What did you see when you visited there?
Bittman. Full Belly is a 500-acre farm. They’re on their third generation. They were hippies or whatever. They were ’60s people. They’re on their third generation of farmers. It’s a couple of families. They do every single thing right. They tick every single box. They prioritize soil health. They prioritize biodiversity. Needless to say, they don’t use chemical fertilizer, chemical pesticides. They try—I’m not sure whether they’re successful at this point or not—to be completely close-looped, not bring in any compost but make all of their own soil amendments. They do bring in fuel, of course, so they’re not closed in that sense. They’re not a horse-driven farm or an entirely solar-driven farm. They do rely on solar power. They have many full-time employees who receive decent wages and benefits.
As I said, they tick every box. The problem is they’re almost unique. There might be a dozen farms like that in the country. Although, if there are, I don’t know them. And to make a difference, we’d need to see thousands of farms [like that]. They make a difference in their community. Don’t get me wrong.
To look at national impact, we should be looking at: How do we create 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 farms like Fully Belly? That’s one answer to your question about how do we change the future of farming is creating what are considered medium-size farms—say, 50 to 500 acres—run by one or more families, one or more generations, that do most things right and supply food to their communities. Most of this country, the populated parts especially, are well-ordered and have enough resources, have enough soil, to provide at least 50 percent of their own food, even the Northeast, which is, climate-wise, probably the most disadvantaged populated part of the country. I’m not counting Montana, but not that many people live in Montana, so it’s not that big an issue.
How do we get those kinds of farms that can support their regions? The long-term answer is land reform. That’s not a short-term answer, because I don’t think it’s happening any time soon, but it’s a discussion worth having, and it’s gonna have to happen at some point.
Acres U.S.A. There are so many books that are out and available on how broken our food system is, so I’ve read a lot of those books, and I’m familiar with a lot of the terrain. I will assert that I think this book stands out for me as being a particularly strong presentation of sort of the history of agriculture and food, and it’s really impressive in that sense.
But, for you, you’re familiar with that same shelf of books on our broken food system. What compelled you to want to sort of add to the literature there? What were you bringing to the conversation that you thought was essential?
Bittman. Well, thanks for saying that, Ben, first of all. If there are three sections of this book, roughly — past, present and future — the present is the part that’s about our broken food system, and it’s the shortest part of the book because I felt like that had been said adequately by many people. Most of us know this story.
Although, I will point out that, in the course of this conversation, you often chose to focus on the present, because it still needs to be said. The question of what’s wrong with monoculture is very much a present question.
To talk about what’s wrong with our food system sorta sounds like, oh, there’s a lot of fast food and we’re kinda getting fat and da-da-da-da-da. And that’s all true. But if you tie the present to agriculture, you’re making a link that isn’t often made in today’s media. And if you’re saying the problem is not willpower or personal behavior, making changes in our lives, the whole sorta Michelle Obama kinda mantra, but the problem is: What are we giving people to eat? What are we supplying? That is a bit of a different analysis of the present, and my analysis is rooted in the past.
I think that the very first thing you and I talked about was how did we get here, and we didn’t start again your choice, ’cause you figured this out, ’cause you get it — we didn’t start in 1950. We started in 1250 or whenever it was we started. How we moved forward is a big part of the story of Animal, Vegetable, Junk, the decisions that were made, and I think it’s important to say, “Here’s what’s happened in history. Here’s where it got us. How do we move forward?” And seeing how decisions were made or decisions were allowed to be made by us not exercising our collective power, has led us to a place where we are really destroying ourselves.
It doesn’t mean that we knew everything 200 years ago and we should’ve made a different decision. We might’ve made different decisions, but we — and it’s not us, obviously — didn’t make different decisions. But we also didn’t have the information then that we have now. Now we have all the information that’s in this book and in the whole shelf of books you’re talking about, and in 1,000 other books that explain this in different ways, from different perspectives, and that cover the gamut from climate change to income inequality to race and gender discrimination—on and on and on down the line.
We see these things in a better light than we’ve ever seen them before. How do we make decisions moving forward? And the last third of Animal, Vegetable, Junk, or the last whatever several chapters, is about how we move forward. And that I think also distinguishes the book, or I’d like to think that distinguishes the book.