Feb. 08 2021

Mark Bittman's Book Connects Industrial Agriculture to Illness and Ecological Crisis

Mark Bittman, Columbia Mailman School lecturer and best-selling author, previewed his new book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal, which chronicles changing agricultural practices, from hunting and gathering to GMOs and ultra-processed foods, and how they have shaped human society and public health.

Best known for his best-selling cookbook series, How to Cook Everything, and his insightful editorials on food systems for the New York Times and elsewhere, Bittman teaches a course on the food justice movement for MPH students in the Department of Health Policy and Management, which hosted the recent book launch webinar. Michael Sparer, the department’s chair, introduced Bittman; MPH student Christina Abraham moderated a discussion. (Watch the video below.)

While the pandemic rightfully gets all the headlines, chronic disease remains the leading cause of death, globally. And the leading cause of chronic disease is diet. “Covid will be conquered while diet-related chronic disease remains largely ignored,” said Bittman. Food too, is ignored, he added. “Not ignored in the sense that we don’t think about it—almost everyone is always thinking about it. But ignored in the sense that we don’t value it properly.”

We think of malnutrition as the result of too few calories. Another contemporary version of malnutrition affecting wealthier countries comes from an excess of calories, including those that lack nutrition or what Bittman dubs “de-nutritious.” These are the ultra-processed foods we know as junk food. Doritos, anyone? This form of malnutrition is on the rise around the world and has stimulated the growth of chronic diseases, which in turn, make people susceptible to opportunistic infections like COVID-19.

How did this happen? The answer is the long and sordid history leading the development of industrial agriculture: colonialism, land theft, genocide, and slavery perpetrated by Europeans. Once grown for local sustenance, crops became part of a system of global trade for profits. “Capitalism birthed industrial agriculture,” said Bittman.

The discovery of synthetic fertilizer, mechanized farming, pesticides, and hybrid seeds further supersized the food system. Today, a crop like corn is a major component of animal feed, junk food, even gasoline in the form of ethanol. Due to the so-called renewable fuel standard, 40 percent of the corn grown in Iowa is grown for ethanol, not food.

Industrial agriculture isn’t just bad for our diet; according to Bittman, it is also wrecking ecosystems, “poisoning our water, land, air, and people, hastening the climate crisis and leading to the outright extinction of millions of our fellow species.” This system is also responsible for the torture and death of billions of animals raised for human consumption.

The only way forward, he argues, is to replace industrial agriculture with agroecology, a food justice movement that supports biodiversity over monocrops and promotes the conservation and restoration of ecosystems. On an individual level, he said we can reduce our consumption of meat and buy more local and organically produced foods, while supporting policies to improve school lunches, regulate junk food, protect the environment, and implement fair wages and conditions for food workers.

“The solutions are not as simple as a vaccine,” he said. “They’ll take far more work and time and way more dramatic solutions. Yet it’s all going to be worth it. If we make the necessary changes, we’ll be living in a much-improved world.”

Watch the video: