Mark Bittman’s Animal, Vegetable, Junk is one of the more disappointing books I’ve read recently. It purports to be a history of food, and in particular how our food system got to be so broken. But its analysis is facile and uncompelling, and I ended up more frustrated than enlightened by reading it.

The first part of the book, about food systems in older times, is fine. My instinct while I was reading it was to think that it was retelling some really commonly well-known stuff about e.g. the development of wheat and corn and such-like; but on reflection, it’s possible that maybe everyone doesn’t know about einkorn and teosinte and all that, so hey.

But as the book gets up through more modern agriculture, it starts taking a really annoying primitivist turn. Because the thing is, the food system today is incredibly broken, right, and Bittman does a good job of identifying major ways in which that’s true, with enormous swathes of agriculture devoted solely to corn ‘n’ soybeans, with basically all other edible plants as a kind of sideshow. But so as Bittman identifies mechanization and a focus on hyper-efficiency as sources of major problems, he’s not wrong, exactly, but he’s also not reckoning with the benefits of those things. Like, ideally what you want to do is chart a path that will get you all the good stuff from the scientific, big-business approach to farming, while mitigating or eliminating the harms where possible. But Bittman… doesn’t do that, he just says, “so that’s bad, and we should go back to peasant farming,” which is kind of a terrible solution.

But so in doing that, his view of what the harms of modern agriculture are end up getting very weird. He takes it as bad that there are fewer farmers, for instance. And while “90% of family farmers were forced out of their farms into other occupations” sounds bad, “we were able to produce food with only a fraction of the labor it took before” sounds good, and there’s no way to have a modern prosperous society with a large fraction of people doing subsistence farming. Similarly, he talks about what he sees as the illusion that mechanization leads to progress, noting that after farmers spent a bunch of capital on tractors and what-not, they enjoyed a short boom in profits, but then their profits fell down to previous levels. Which, yeah, that’s how competitive markets work—nobody gets to extract major profits for long. (Areas where producers do continue to command large profits, like in big tech companies, are usually markets that lack sufficient competition for one reason or another.) That doesn’t mean the mechanization was bad; the point is that now the farmers are able to produce food more cheaply and with less labor, and consumers get the benefit of that.

The book isn’t all bad; Bittman does identify some of the ways in which the drive to improve efficiency has been genuinely problematic, by imposing externalities like pollution and carbon emissions; by driving toward terrible labor conditions in food production; by steering food toward branded shelf-stable junk products that can be made from that cheap, ubiquitous corn. But it’s hard to pick out the real problems from the non-problems, and his proposed fixes are not meaningfully workable. There’s a big problem in our food system, and Bittman is doing good work in highlighting that fact, but it’s not clear that he’s the right person to really think through the problem with the rigor it needs. Not recommended


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