Animal, Vegetable, Junk: Book Review
Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal (2021), Mark Bittman, a unique food history focusing on the shift from local control of food for the benefit of the farmers and locals to global food monocultures and expanding junk food choices in the name of economic growth—and super profits for the few. Another look at profit-driven capitalists aided by government and sustained by propaganda and bought-off “professionals.” The modern world economy is unsustainable in multiple ways; just add this one.
There are a number of groups worth mentioning; specifically, economists, big business owners, marketers, government institutions and individuals, and scientists and other professionals that support non-sustainable products and processes for profit. I’ve written about most of these in more general ways and will soon write a blog on non-sustainability—I’ll save my rants for that one.
A key point Bittman makes is most systems (like a car) are reductionist systems, where the whole is equal to the sum of its parts: “A reductionist worldview sees every system like this. But some systems are more complicated. In these—the global economy, animal bodies, weather—interactions are unpredictable and hard to quantify. These form a whole that’s different from the sum of its parts. And when these complex systems develop problems, they’re difficult to diagnose, let alone solve. The food system is complicated. Its components are multifaceted. And it’s in rough shape: It’s developed into a profit machine that ignores the way its components interact and depend on one another. It’s not fair, resilient, or sustainable. It doesn’t even do a good job at what should be its primary purpose: providing nourishment. (In reality, the current food system’s primary purpose is to profit its owners). … A survivable society must be cooperative, with goals of equality, justice, and judicious treatment of the earth” (p. 289-90).
“You can’t have a serious conversation about food without talking about human rights, climate change, and justice” (L. 94).
“It’s our job to push the government to deal with threats to our collective immoralism to climate change to chronic disease. But just when we need it most, government has been largely dismantled. And what’s left is impotent at best, malicious at worst. … To quote philosopher Max Roser: ‘Three things are true at the same time. The world is much better; the world is awful; and the world can be much better” (p. 299).
Introduction. People started farming and “land became the foundation of wealth” (L. 66). The modern result of industrial agriculture spawning junk food and maximizing profit.
Part I: The Birth of Growing
Chapter 1: The Food-Brain Feedback Loop. Animals usually have fixed diets throughout their lives. Humans turned to flexible and opportunistic food, based on season, location and climate (“dietary flexibility”). The process included hunting and gathering in groups, leading to social behavior and better communication. Cooking increased choices because many foods cannot be eaten (or easily digested) raw. Farming started in Eurasia; nearly all large animals useful for domestication were here. Farming was “history’s biggest fraud” according to Yuval Harari; a “catastrophe” sail Jared Diamond. [There are tradeoffs to settled farming, many that showed up later.]
Chapter 2: Soil and Civilization. “Healthy soil serves as a living pantry for plants” (p. 21); versus “suicidal agriculture” by soil degradation. Soil replenishment is not difficult, including plants that replenish by fixing nitrogen. Farmers used terracing to prevent erosion. “There are four major ways in which a field can be planted repeatedly and still have its nutrients replenished: fallowing, planting cover crops, rotating crops, and fertilizing” (p. 22). Soil needs nitrogen. Animal droppings let bacteria convert nitrogen to ammonia. Legumes (e.g., beans, peas and lentils) add nitrogen to soil through microbes in the roots. Altering corn and soybeans works. Compost works, as does turning out ruminants in a field.
Chinese farmers developed row crops, seed drill, and plow. They cultivated fish and ducks on rice paddies. The Pacific Northwest developed complex societies without agriculture. Mesoamerican was not that fertile. Aztecs used slash-and-burn farming for a few years, then fallowing for multiple years. Here “three sisters” of corn, beans and squash were planted together. The four major early civilizations were Sumer, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica. Soil erosion probably destroyed the Mayans about 900 AD.
Chapter 3: Agriculture Goes Global. “By 1300, nearly half of the world’s population lived in China and India, and most of the lasting post-Greco-Roman innovations—agriculture, scientific, mathematical, and industrial—had been developed in Asia” (p.37). “The Islamic world was advancing farming so quickly that some historians refer to the period as the Muslim (or Arab) Agricultural Revolution” (p. 37).
“Through experimentation, record-keeping, study, and innovation, Asia had steadily advanced agriculture. A variety of crops were raised far from their origins: sugar came from India and citrus from China. Millet and rice were planted widely, and farmers developed new breeds of crops and livestock, many of which were more productive and drought-disease-, or pest-resistant” (p. 37). Calendars were better as was irrigation. Were Muslims originators or just rediscovering Roman techniques? For example, they did fix Roman water systems. In any case, many new crops moved to Europe in part through the Muslim conquest of Iberia (Spain and Portugal). Trade expanded, which explains some innovation.
Substantial advances were made in the New World: dams, aqueducts, canals, record-keeping (leading to writing), cross-breeding of crops. Not so much progress in Europe; feudalism is not that productive, in part because of the indifference to the peasants. Most budgets focused on food, with stunted farming and social systems. Food shortages were common. A warming climate later in the Middle Ages increased population and traders expanded markets. Then the Crusades caused an interest in eastern goods: spices, sugar, rice, new fruits (and later coffee). Too bad about the black death and other plagues. Farm land was increasingly enclosed, replacing communal lands; good for landowners, not farmers. Animals also represented wealth and raised to feed the wealthy. Monoculture was expanded, depleting the soil.
By the 14th-15th centuries, wealth and capital (plus money and banking) were more modern). War and conquest were increasing. Spices and other goods traveled the silk road, which closed when the Ottomans conquered Byzantium in 1453, except Italian city-states like Venice could trade through the Red Sea. Ferdinand and Isabella unified Spain and expelled the Moors by 1492; both Spain and Portugal expanded exploration. Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and continued on the India. Major results included sugar and slaves.
Sugar started in New Guinea and cane made it to Asia some 8,000 years ago. Europeans found it produced in the Middle East and North Africa during the Crusades. Problems include massive amounts of water and labor, plus cane quickly depletes the land. Spain and Portugal grew it on islands west of the Mediterranean like Madeira. Further south was the Canary Islands, and so on. Columbus stumbled on Caribbean islands. Columbus claimed these for Spain, then Spaniards brought sugar and slaves. This became the triangles of trade: tools and supplies from Europe, slaves from Africa, sugar back to Europe. Some would be shipped to the American colonies to made molasses and rum, which was shipped to Europe. Coffee, teas and tobacco were other products brought into Europe, but none was produced in the quantities of sugar—and it just kept rising. Brutal global food production became established. New World foods followed Columbus. Spanish brought horses, cattle, and pigs to the New World. These “exchanges” enriched the Europeans, while decimating native-Americans—killing off perhaps 90% mainly through disease, and destroy their cultures.
Bittman blames Cartesian logic (mind-body dualism) for the rationale. Matter was sentient (basically, educated white men) and “extended.” Extended includes everything from rocks to animals, even humans (women, uneducated men, and savages), that is, “inferior.” This explains racism, sexism, destroying the earth, and slavery. [Normally, Descartes is not considered evil.]
Chapter 4: Creating Famine. Potatoes: hundreds of varieties and more bred from them in the Andes. They are hardy and don’t require much attention. Europeans first used them for animal fodder and the Irish sharecropper. Landowners used the best land for cattle and corn. Potatoes worked until the Irish famine of the 1840s; the British refused to give much aid and millions left or starved. Products were shipped around the world. “The maximum productivity for maximum immediate profit was the goal. … Food security … is a symptom of inequality, of abusive power and wealth” (p. 54-5). Ireland was a system with no resilience. Starting in 1847 Britain provided free soup kitchens, actually an effective way to avoid death and disease. Free markets have multiple limitations.
Before the East India Company, the Mughal Empire had a major manufacturing market in clothing shipped to Europe, using a workforce of artisan weavers. The East India Co. forced India to deindustrialize (with taxation) to protect British textiles. Under British rule, India suffered multiple famines—about 30 a century. Britain restructured the peasant economy, forcing the growth of cotton. China was reasonably successful in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) with peasants owning land and working hard. Britain demanded tea from China, which was taxed by Britain (providing about 10% of Britain’s revenues).
In West Africa, “farmers grew a dozen different life-sustaining grains, among them millet, teff, sorghum, and fonio, as well as yams and a wide variety of leafy greens. These plants were indigenous, hardy, and tolerant of temperature change, drought, and even infertile soil” (. 63). In Kumasi, Ghana: “The combination of indigenous crops and a strong regional economy of craftspeople trading iron, pottery, and cloth had created a robust society” (p. 63). Europeans destroyed these networks, with mining and monoculture, especially cocoa and coffee; peanuts in Senegal. The results were poor for the Africans, who had to import food and suffered from hunger and potential famine. Similar stories of other French colonies of Niger and Gabon and claimed African “idleness.”
In American colonies, only white males could claim land, irrespective of who lived on it. The same held after independence. After the Erie Canal US land under cultivation increased 400 %; immigration also increased.
Chapter 5: The American Way of Farming. Human and animal waste as fertilizer is sustainable. Chemical fertilizer increases yield short-term. “Science” [using reductionism] had emerged not so much as a tool for understanding how to farm, but as a framework for contorting nature into shapes that squeezed out the most profit. … This instinct to subdivide complex systems dominated scientific inquiry, and it advanced a framework that attempted to reorganize nature into deceptively simple components. … It ignores the complicated ways in which parts interact with one another” (p. 70-1).
Humboldt’s guano (from Peru) was high in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. British Corn Laws in 1815 protected landowners with tariffs on imports of cereals; repealed in 1846. Guano worked in Britain for a while; eventually, Britain shifted to imported food as farming collapsed. America exported cereals and other farm goods—especially wheat (later corn and soybeans) and meat using industrial agriculture. Meat packing, especially after refrigerated shipping, was a major industry in Chicago and other Midwest cities. The South grew cotton, relying on slaves.
“Abraham Lincoln and his new Republican Party hustled to implement their interpretation of manifest destiny” (p. 80). The Homestead Acts gave settlers 160 acres for a small filing fee. The transcontinental railroad went from St. Louis to San Francisco and the railroads given some 180 million acres. Wealth was accumulated by white men. Attempts were made to give land to blacks (e.g., General Sherman’s Field Orders) without success (overturned by Andrew Johnson—a former slave owner and racist). Dept of Agriculture (USDA) established in 1862; Morrill Land Grant College Act was passed in the same year. [Texas A&M was a land grant college and more home for 36 years.] “The companies that would become Cargill, Pillsbury, and General Mills began building networks of grain elevators connected to those railroads and coordinating trades and global shipments. … Homesteaders became a permanently indebted class and a kind of cross between DIY industrialists and serfs. … Agriculture, along with railroads and finance, became a primary source of the nineteenth century’s greatest fortunes. There were dozens of ways to get rich in agriculture, but farming itself was rarely one of them. Grain mills, elevators, heavy equipment, processing plants, transport companies, and more were growing rapidly, and milled flour was now worth twice as much as cotton” (p. 85-6).
Farming as an extractive industry: “It’s industrial-era agriculture that relies on machines to systematically take more out of the earth than can be replaced” (p. 86). The USDA concentrated on the “business” of agriculture, not a focus on farmers; food as nourishment, not at all. “The goals of American agriculture were as simple as they were cynical: increase surplus and create capital. From its birth, the USDA was designed to harness the political and economic power that comes with being an agricultural powerhouse” (p. 88).
Part II: The Twentieth Century
Chapter 6: The Farm as Factory. Five characteristics of factories: “Large-scale production, specialized machines, standardization of process and products, reliance on managerial (rather than artisanal) expertise, and a continual evocation of ‘efficiency’ as a production mandate” (p. 91, quoting Fitzgerald, Farm to Factory). John Deere’s steel plow was important because of the difficult sod; part of the machinery process and the ‘American system’ of manufacturing. “The new system also treated humans as interchangeable” (p. 92). Enter Frederick Taylor’s scientific management on farming (“agricultural engineers”). This included the steam tractor, then gas-powered tractor (efficient by1892—lighter, cheaper, safer). Then combines merging multiple harvesting processes into one machine. Expensive machines led to consolidation and increased monoculture (including machines designed for one crop). Small farmers were annoying: debt-ridden, behind in paying, bankruptcies. Farming serviced global markets.
Governments and business got land out of the public domain (e.g., Homestead Acts) for greater supply and taxes; plus, immigration for more farmers. Wheat was important, but hard on soil. “Policy, machinery, and finance were all combining to make farms bigger. … Farms generated new, sometimes hidden, and often extreme costs: pollution, exploitation of workers and animals, soil degradation, and resource depletion” (p. 97-8). Farms for local communities were needed. Fritz Haber developed the technology to produce nitrogen (ammonia) for artificial fertilizer and industrialized by BASF. Haber also produced chemical weapons like mustard gas. (Haber’s wife killed herself over the poison gas.)
“Cover crops, crop rotation, and manure would go the way of horse-drawn plows as chemical fertilizers were used wherever farmers could afford them. Along with the tractor and soon-to-be developed chemical pesticides, the new fertilizer was to determine the course of agriculture in the twentieth century and beyond” (p. 101). Britain and Germany went from agriculture to industry. During World War I, Britain could depend on the Atlantic for imports. A surprising result was the people in starving countries like Denmark improved their health. Hunger drove Russia out of the war. American wheat boomed. Tom Campbell became the World’s Wheat King with free land (from an Indian reservation) and millions in Morgan loans—pioneering industrial agriculture; also putting small farmers (on the “agricultural treadmill”) on the endangered species list. Major beneficiaries were equipment makers, chemical producers, and seed companies—think General Mills, Cargill, Deere, and DuPont. They all wanted to deal with big farmers (“Financing tied farmers to equipment, chemicals, and seed producers—and bankers as well” (p. 107)). Farmers did poorly during the 1920s; that was before the Dust Bowl hit.
Chapter 7: Dust and Depression. A suicidal food policy was Joseph Stalin forcing collective farming, without the needed equipment and “taxes;” collective farming meant commodity crops like sugar, beets and cotton, useless for subsistence. Produce was exported, a success for Stalin. Four elements were: “First, Stalin and his regime executed policy with the express goal of breaking the peasantry. The state itself was essentially built upon a ‘protracted war with the peasantry.’ Second, although the famine was not caused intentionally, it was willfully manipulated once it began. Third, Stalin used hunger as a punishment, terrorizing people who threatened his power and deporting millions of people to Siberia. Finally, in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, this policy developed a genocidal quality” (p. 111). Some 7 to 12 million people starved to death. “Food availability had no correlation with onset of famine. Political freedom did” (p. 111). A similar story in Mao’s China to turn it into a steel superpower.
Drought and high winds are the ingredients from the 1930’s dust bowl on the Great Plains. The buffalo grass that had stabilized the soil was gone, replaced by wheat and soil depletion. Farmers got no relief from lenders, forcing foreclosures, nor government. FDR wanted to fix agriculture, passing the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, introducing income supports to farmers (that continue in changing form): limiting production paying farmers to stop planting and parity prices. A big problem not fixed was over production. The government incentivized it. Machinery, seeds, chemicals and interest all cost money. Later programs included the Soil Conservation Service to train farmers in better techniques, including soil scientists. Cattle were bought by the government, butchered to food for the hungry. Work Progress Administration employed farmers to perform manual labor. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees, etc. [My father was part of the CCC in the 1930s.] Wheat was planted by 1938 as weather improved.
What about long-term goals: healthy communities and economies or “exploit every resource imaginable, including humans, so that flour millers, tractor manufacturers, fertilizer producers, banks and so on could sap farmers’ income?” (p. 120). Social Security and Fair Labor Standards excluded farming and domestics—in part, became it helped black people. This was true of most New Deal programs. “That the Department of Agriculture served big business better than small-time farmers was hardly news. Nor was it surprising that Black farmers suffered most under the department’s policies” (p. 121). Millions of blacks migrated north. International Harvester developed a mechanical cotton picker in 1948.
California originally had major haciendas. This real estate was transferred to developers and speculator and railroad companies when the state entered the US. Farming was important, mainly using imported water from various rivers. The Bureau of Reclamation was founded in 1902. The big project was Hoover Dam, started in 1931. California is big on fruits and vegetables and a dairy-producing state. These needed seasonal manual labor and migrant workers were exploited. Chinese workers were the primary group in the 1890s; also, Japanese and Filipino, then Dust Bowl “Okies.” There was a labor shortage during World War II, and the US and Mexico reached an agreement for seasonal workers (Bracero Program); abuse was widespread. This program ended in 1964 and migrant labor became “illegal.” Farm workers organized under Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
Chapter 8: Food and the Brand. “Using yield as the only metric, American agriculture was a roaring, overflowing success. The American farmer was growing a superabundance of wheat, corn, sugar, rice, cotton, and later soybeans. … Such levels of surplus all but guaranteed cheap food. But more increasingly, the surplus was used t invent new versions of foods: industry learned to process and manufacture almost everything, from butter and cheese and ketchup to breakfast cereal and bread and burgers” (p. 129). Time-savers, convenient and affordable, benefitting middlemen. Railroads transported cattle in the 1880s, which improved with refrigerated railcars and meatpacking (with four major firms) became the second leading industry in the US by 1900. With railroads, foods went from local to “processed, preserved, packaged, and shipped” (p. 136).
White Castle was founded in 1921, with a standard for quality, buildings, menu, and sacks for takeout. Milk is not essential but promoted because of a substantial surplus. Solutions included cheese and processed cheese (James Kraft). Henry Heinz invented his form of ketchup, using bits of rejected tomato during canning: boil, seasoned and bottled, added food colorings. Heinz added more sugar. He lobbied for the Food and Drug Act of 1906 to ban preservatives used by competitors. The Act required labeling but did not ban any ingredients (“freedom of choice”). Processors added sugar to just about everything. Then it was all branding. Campbell started marketing to kids in 1904.
United Fruit and Standard Fruit were banana kings and got US protections, stocking wars, regime change and overthrew the Guatemala government in 1954. They owned millions of acres globally. [Banana (2007) by Dan Koeppel tells this story.]
Edward Bernays wrote Propaganda because he turned his World War I experience for the Office of Public Information (“psychological warfare”) to marketing: “Public relations.” “Bernays deployed a tried-and-true operation of defining goals, allocating resources, strategizing, and finally determining the best course of action” (p. 143). This worked well for food branding. Add technology like packaging and standardization.
Canning started with Nicolas Apert’s invention in 1804 to feed Napoleon’s army. Advances kept coming, like tin cans and can openers. Home refrigeration started with real “ice boxes.” Mechanical refrigeration started in the 20th century, beginning with meat packing, then homes after World War I. Clarence Birdseye developed the technology to freeze food; Birdseye was acquired by General Food in 1929. Factories were churning out home products like vacuum cleaners and washing machines, and consumables previously made at home like soap. Full service (self-service) grocery stores opened up like the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea, founded in 1859 as a retail tea company. They converted to a grocery store chain, using store-brand factories, centralized ordering of goods, large warehouses and trucks. Sales were for cash. Piggly Wiggly opened in 1916 in Memphis. Owner Clarence Sanders cut costs (including labor) to reduce prices and brand the stores. This was enhanced by national ad campaigns by producers. Service declines, as did quality (and actual value was questionable, given processed versus whole foods).
Chapter 9: Vitamania and the “Farm Problem.” “One by one, vitamins were isolated and named, and by 1948 thirteen were deemed essential” (p. 150). The FDA encouraged enriching white bread as the solution to vitamin deficiency, rather than whole grain bread. Jusus von Liebig declared that proteins, fats and carbs were the “dietetic trinity” of eating. Then the calorie was defined as a measure of heat. Bittman called this “the simplistic approach and: “nutritionists began addressing the symptoms of malnourishment rather than the causes” (p. 152). Whole grains made up the bulk of calories since agriculture and reasonably nourishing: the bran or outer layer has fiber and some vitamins and minerals. The germ is most nutritious; the endosperm is mainly carbs and the making of white bread. White bread was easy to process with steel roller mills invented in Budapest and powered by steam, then electricity. Chlorine and other chemicals made it even whiter.
Scientists like Elmer McCollum could be bought by business to promote products they know are harmful. Physicals of men entering World War II were found to be vitamin deficient. The “solution” was to fortify white flour even more (the military would buy only “enriched flour”).
Ellen Swallow Richards created home economics (she graduated from MIT in 1873 in chemistry). Big business turned it into a marketing machine, how to adjust to processed food (“efficiency”). The USDA established a Bureau of Home Economics in 1923: “It was trying to educate young consumers about nutrition while supporting unhealthy, post-agricultural products that encouraged home cooks to ignore real, nutritious foods. That conflicting mission mirrored that of the USDA as a whole” (p. 158).
Britain controlled the seas, allowing imports from the New World. The Axis could not; high food costs and shortages were the result. About 20 million people starved, mainly in China, although millions did in the USSR. More Japanese soldiers died of starvation than in battle. Post-war Europe was in bad shape, given destruction and death. The Marshall Plan provided food and supplies. Surplus wheat went to Europe. Later, “food for peace” started as federal law (PL 480). Grain also went to South Korea, Taiwan and India. That was not helpful to local farmers in those countries. GATT institutionalized these grants and loans.
In the US, the GI Bill encourage more to go to college; farm consolidation continued and “petrofoods” produced (given fertilizer, pesticides, farm equipment and products like corn) fructose corn syrup and ethanol. Hybrid corn took over the market (eventually to 95%) beginning in 1935. Planting required a license (they were patented). They lack both resilience and adaptability to local conditions, but yields were high. Surpluses increase in part because of government price supports.
Chapter 10. Soy, Chicken, and Cholesterol. “The soybean is productive, almost incomparably nutritious, and nitrogen-fixing. Grown in rotation with other crops, soy helps keep soil alive. It contains two and even three times the protein of most other beans and grains … as well as fiber and micronutrients” (p. 169). It’ mainly feed to animals, but most cereals are fed to animals.
Chickens were first grown by slaves as the only meat they were allowed; it does have the best conversion ratio. The commercial broiler industry was started by Cecile Steele with 500 chicks in 1923; soon it was thousands and millions across the state (Delaware) and beyond. Jesse Jewell and John Tyson ramped up operations as “integrators,” controlling all aspects of the process using farmers as independent contractors. Drugs paved the way beginning with antibiotics in the late 1940s. Deregulation in the 1980s meant chickens were even more cramped. Meat is first used for “value-added parts,” then the rest for nuggets and other junk food.
“McDonald’s has become a leading symbol of everything that’s gone wrong with food” (p. 172). It started in California with Dick and Maurice McDonald with car service, low prices, and limited menu: burgers, fries, shakes, soda; big volume with specialized workers. Ray Kroc bought them out in 1961. Now there are hundreds of thousands of fast-food joints around the world.
The SBA gave almost no loans to minorities; Nixon made this a priority (for political reasons). Much of this went for franchises, including fast food and auto dealers especially for the inner-city. This helped McDonalds more than the franchise owners or inner-city residents. Their diets (where whole foods were difficult to get) caused health issues.
Technology meant “deconstructing food into its components began in the thirties, accelerated during the war, and took off in the fifties. … Food was broken down and recombined into novel forms … Trix or Cheetos were outright inventions” (p. 176). Velveeta was a cheese product that would keep at room temperature, with cheese about half the volume. Then Mac and Cheese, Cheez-Its, Doritos; calories, sugar and fat mainly from corn and soybeans. Branding worked: television, packaging: Tony the Tiger meant Frosted Flakes. “As supply grew, overeating became official policy. And processors had free rein to market their foods” (p. 179). Heart disease was considered normal.
Chapter 11. Force-Feeding Junk. Reductionism took hold again about nutrition: nutrients of categories of fat, carbs, etc., not the benefits of whole food. High-fructose corn syrup was created by a specific milling process used by Archer Daniels Midland. ADM got Congress to require ethanol in gas and subsidize it. Sugar prices rose thanks to price supports, leaving corn syrup as the sweet choice: soda, salad dressing, tomato sauce. Salt also went into most processed foods, like corn syrup in unhealthy amounts. Processed food is engineered to be addictive (e.g., sugar stimulates dopamine).
“The food industry became the junk-food industry. Sixty percent of the calories we eat are in ultra-processed food. Sugar, salt and fat were added to just about every processed food” (p. 191). Strategies followed tobacco: advertising to focus on the young, obstructing research and lie about results. Bernays developed strategies for both tobacco (1929 “torches of freedom”) and bananas (Chiquita Banana). General Mills used Betty Crocker. Babies used to nurse until they ate what their parents ate; then formula and multiple baby foods—all processed. Leo Burnett followed Bernays creating the Green Giant, Tony the Tiger, and the Marlboro Man. The FTC never recovered from the Reagan administration “knee-capping.” Advertising had to be “false and deceptive” to be banned, rather than just “unfair.”
Chapter 12. The So-Called Green Revolution. This spread industrial agriculture around the world. Peasants wanted control of their land to grow what was needed for their locale (“food sovereignty”). McArthur transferred ownership of Japanese land to those that tilled it. Similar programs happened in other Asian Tigers, creating the “Asian Miracle.” [Note that manufacturing for export was the second key to the Asian Miracle.] China collectivized the land disastrously. The US wanted industrial farming and hawked machinery, seeds and chemicals to do that. William Gaud of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) coined the term “green revolution” in 1968, based on hybrid seeds starting in Mexico in the 1940s. Norman Borlaug was part of the effort. They ignored what was traditionally grown to be replaced by cash crops for global sales. Food production doubled, winning Borlaug the Nobel Prize in 1970. The great yields did not result in better lives as industrial farming causes destruction, including indigenous food and cultures. It was great for big business and investors. Growth varied by region for different reasons. The Mexican standard was the three sisters of corn, beans and squash. The Mexican government bought the new wheat for a third above world market prices, other countries paid more. It was called the “great grain robbery.”
The most successful developing country in ag was China which did not use green revolution methods. Rather it was land reform, irrigation and subsidies paid to peasants. Peasants could grow their own food and sell it locally. In most developing countries, the benefits did not help the local farmers much if at all. Industrial farming requires larger plots, equipment and chemicals, out of bounds for peasants. Many peasants fled to cities. Too bad the investments did not go into helping peasant farming, reducing poverty and increasing fairness.
“Reagan … decreased price supports and eliminated antitrust policies, moves whose generosity might have surprised even the greediest businessmen. A major wave of mergers and acquisitions followed and, despite ‘free market’ rhetoric, corporate power increased. … Most contemporary tellings of the decline in American farming and rural communities start here” (p. 209).
“The North American Free Trade Agreement, which purported to level the playing field by eliminating as many tariffs and regulations as possible, allowing wealth to flow more easily between countries” (p. 210). NAFTA eliminated protective trade laws; this allowed subsistence farmers (remembers the three sisters and vegetables in general) to be moved off their land (sustainable land with few chemicals and little use of oil and gas) to be future factory workers and US investors move in. The Green Revolution called for monoculture requiring big farms, expensive machinery, seeds, and chemicals. Great for efficiency and Mexico’s trade balance. This perspective considers the peasant farmers as the commodity of cheap labor.
“Two million farmers we rut out of work, unemployment rose, emigration soared and income stagnated. … Twenty-five years later, the US supplies Mexico with 42% of its food. … In place of subsistence production, Mexican industrial farms now produce berries and tomatoes for North America. … High-paying manufacturing jobs moved from the States to Mexico, where wages were lower, crippling US labor unions. NAFTA also brought junk food to Mexico. … It’s difficult to see a path toward change, given a global economy that allows corporations to run roughshod over national borders” (p. 211-2).
[Note that economists and politicians can defend the NAFTA and Green Revolution decisions, emphasizing growth, efficiency and modernization. They could claim that the Bittman analysis focuses on what they would call “externalities” or “unintended consequences.”]
“Monoculture works by killing just abo
ut everything except the main crop, because you can’t keep huge crops of corn healthy without pesticides. … DDT was synthesized in 1874 but largely ignored until it was found to be an effective pesticide, in 1939. … From the end of the war until the mid-seventies, more than a billion pounds of the pesticide had been sprayed or dusted. … Insects became resistant” (p. 213-4). Damage continued up the food chain, add to air pollution and kill soil microbes. [Pesticides would kill 90% of Swainson’s hawks in Chile quickly.] Monsanto patented genetically engineered seeds, requiring farmers to license them and buy new seeds every year. This included seeds impervious to Roundup. Pesticides increased anyway. It all raised farmer costs plus physical damage like cancer. Monsanto lost cases and a couple of billion dollars, plus class-action suits.
Part III. Change
Chapter 13: The Resistance. “Mainstream economic thought would have us believe that unlimited economic growth in every sphere, including agriculture, is synonymous with a healthy society—even if that growth means unmitigated environmental destruction … The agri-food complex has full license to steadfastly avoid paying for ‘externalities’—economic jargon for unintended consequences of business, such as environmental damage or disease. … Environmental damage from agriculture had always been observable. … When populations were smaller, the losses were tolerable” (p. 221-2).
“Barry Commoner, originally a biologist, developed the ‘Four Laws of Ecology.’ … Everything is connected to everything else. … Everything must go somewhere. … Waste, from human to nuclear, cannot be made to disappear. … Nature knows best. … There is no such thing as a free lunch … every gain has a cost. … (add) sociologist John Bellany Foster’s Commoner-inspired Four Laws of Capitalism: … The only lasting connection between things is the cash nexus. Every relationship is about money. … It doesn’t matter where something goes, as long as it doesn’t reenter the circuit of capital. Producers will always ignore the damages caused by production. … The self-regulating market knows best. … It doesn’t matter what you sell as long as it’s profitable. Nature’s bounty is a free gift to the property owner. … Capitalists believe that nature exists to be exploited by humans, a tenet perfectly in tune with Western religion. … Capitalists may understand that resources are finite, but they choose to ignore that fact” (p. 222-3).
“George Washington Carver did not train farmers as dutiful consumers of the products of agribusiness. He helped them be more independent, sustain their soil, and better feed their families” (p. 223). Rudolf Steiner (early 20th century) promoted “biodynamics,” using waste products for the soil rather than chemical fertilizers. There are others promoting the techniques used by developing world farmers that sustain the soil. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring exposing the dire effects of massive pesticide use. “She was attacked for being anti-science, alarmist, even pro-bug…. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz said she was ‘probably a Communist.’ … She popularized the wisdom that humans’ impact on the environment is often unintentional and unforeseen, but we must still recognize it and at accordingly” (p. 227-8). DDT would be banned by the US in 1973.
“Institutional racism had made Black Americans … the most landless group in the country. … The civil rights movement did little to address economic and land justice for Black people. … Black farmers were at a major disadvantage, and never more so than when dealing with the USDA bureaucracy. … Agricultural cooperative made it possible for Black farmers to find communal success” (p. 228-9). “In 1967 Fannie Lou Hamer formed the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, Mississippi, to organize southern farm workers … creating communities around local economies and political structures” (p. 230). The USDA’s Office of Civil Rights reported substantial USDA racism. Reagan’s response was to shut down the Civil Rights office. A later class action suit for black farmers resulted in a 1999 settlement over a billion dollars.
The USDA was given the right in 1936 to buy food from farmers and give it away to families and school lunch programs. These were replaced by food stamps and food banks, plus expanded school lunch programs and added breakfast programs in 1975. Industry was fine with this as it sold more food.
“In general, ultra-processed foods contain far more calories than are justified by their nutrient levels, calories largely derived from corn, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup; soy, in the form of extracted protein or oil; and wheat, in the form of white flour” (p. 238). Best advice is eat moderate amounts of real food, especially fruits, vegetables, and grains. The more recent USDA has been more moderate and even more or less recognize organic farming.
Chapter 14. Where We’re At. “The food system is broken. But the truth is that it works almost perfectly for Big Food. It also works well enough for around a third of the world’s people, who have the money to demand and have at a moment’s notice virtually any food in the world. … Although it’s immoral and cruel, and overseen by mostly immoral and cruel people—only a few of whom were sadistic masterminds—the system is largely the result of incremental decisions” (p. 243). “Producers raise nearly seventy billion livestock worldwide, using a quarter of all ice-free land” (p. 244). About 80% of fresh water is used for agriculture. A couple billion people could face water shortages by 2025, maybe 5 billion by 2050. Both California and Texas pump massive amounts of water.
The good stuff: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and water. Limited amount: fats extracted from vegetables, meats, dairy, seafood, eggs, coffee, tea, alcohol. Bad stuff: ultra-processed food, industrial produced meat, junk food. “high-yield monoculture in every way runs counter to the way nature establishes things” (p. 251). About a pound a person a year of pesticides is used, six billion pounds. Limited research has been done, but the results could not be good. Bittman points to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO): chickens, cattle and pigs, mainly in low-regulation states. Feed lots can hold 30,000 cattle or more. “The industry has the power to define cruelty” (p. 255). About a third of CAFOs don’t have permits. Water treatment plants are needed nearby. 80% of antibiotics are fed to these animals. Viruses can spread wildly.
Fishing methods can be horrible; anything can be caught in a net--bycatch; environmentally damaging fish farms, aquaculture. Land grab: millions of acres in the US are owned by foreign investors for food production. “Eight of the ten worst-paying jobs in the US involve food” (p. 261). New Deal laws excluded farm workers. “In the US, undocumented Mexican workers make up 80% of the farmworker population” (p. 263).
Chapter 15: The Way Forward. Lots of examples of modest steps to solve various problems. I suppose that’s inevitable; many dedicated people working at the local level to improve farming, food and the environment. It’s the “bottoms-up” approach that moderates often use. La Via Campesina (“peasant way”) uses “agroecology” and practices it, integrating ecology with farming—partnering with nature. One goal is to get peasants onto the land; then, compost, cover crops, rotating crops and multi-cropping (like the three sisters). “Much distribution remains decentralized, and subsistence and small-scale farming thrive in most of the world; many people grow food sustainably” (p. 265).
Industrial farming is not going away. The best ideas are to reduce the most harmful effects; regulation is a good idea, like making companies pay for externalities, including better wages. Many countries do regulation; even the US does a modest amount (mainly not very effective). The EU bans antibiotics for farm animals. The US is more likely to use court cases; unfortunately, this is after severe damage has been done (e.g., cancer). Local individuals like Alice Waters do this and that (she tries to improve school lunches). [Ditto Michelle Obama.] Calling out companies with really bad practices can work: bad publicity counters branding. Treating workers better makes for a more stable work force. Undocumented workers are a problem [probably less so under a Biden presidency]. Another idea is community-supported agriculture (CSA) where restaurants pay local farmers. SNAP pays for about 10% of US households. It could be better, like improving access to whole foods.
Chile has been aggressive (this is recent, long after Pinochet) in regulating food, including junk foods called “black label” foods and adding taxes to junk. Researchers claim fallowing the least productive 10% of large-scale farms (creating “prairie strips”) would increase overall production and reduce harmful effects. Various grassroots movements strive for sustainable farming.
Conclusions: We are all Eaters. A car is a system, just a collection of standardized parts. “A reductionist worldview sees every system like this.” (But complicated systems exist: “the global economy, animal bodies, weather—interactions are unpredictable and hard to quantify. … When these complex systems develop problems, they’re difficult to diagnose, let alone solve. … The food system is complicated. … It’s developed into a profit machine that ignores the way its components interact and depend on one another. It’s not fair, resilient, or sustainable. … A survivable society must be cooperative, with goals of equality, justice and judicious treatment of the earth. … Growth and GDP are terrible measures of well-being” (p. 290).
“Technology is agnostic. Like science in general, when it’s used in the interest of a broad community, it can work wonders. When it’s used as a profit machine, it can have side effects that are both good and bad” (p. 292). “We are now in the Anthropocene: the era in which humans have changed the face of the earth and will determine its future” (p. 296). “It’s our job to push the government to deal with threats to our collective well-being, from corporate immoralism to climate change to chronic disease. But just when we need it most, government has been largely dismantled. And what’s left is impotent at best, malicious at worst…. (Max Roser): ‘Three things are true at the same time. The world is much better; the world is awful; and the world can be much better’” (p. 299).