Mark Bittman never does anything in a small way. His cookbooks typically run some 600 pages and have titles like "The Best Recipes in the World," and his 10-book “How to Cook” series includes "How to Cook Everything Fast," "How to Bake Everything" and "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian." They’re so packed full of recipes that just five of Bittman’s books take up a whole shelf in my bookcase.
But Bittman’s latest book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2021; $16.80 Amazon price) isn’t a door-stopper tome. It doesn’t even have recipes. But what it lacks in size — though it is over 300 pages — it more than makes up for as a call to arms about what’s wrong with our food system and how dangerous it is to both our health and our planet.
“Big Ag has a huge role in greenhouse gas emissions, even rivaling those of the oil and gas companies,” said Bittman, talking about the impact of emissions on global warming. “The top five meat and dairy companies combine to produce more emissions than ExxonMobil, and the top 20 have a combined carbon footprint the size of Germany. Tyson Foods, the second-largest meat company in the world, produces twice as much greenhouse gas as all of Ireland.”
Bittman, who recently founded The Bittman Project with the ultimate goal of creating a road map that leads us to a healthier food system, says he can envision a positive way for us to go forward. But first he explains how we got to where we are and how deadly it is.
Junk food, born in America, has spread throughout the world, and though Bittman, who has written 30 cookbooks, says he doesn’t typically like to use statistics, he offers some whoppers. Two-thirds of the world’s population lives in countries where more people die of diseases linked to being overweight than ones linked to being underweight.
“The global number of people living with diabetes has quadrupled since 1980, and since 1990 deaths from diabetes-caused chronic kidney disease have doubled,” he writes, adding that both global sugar consumption and obesity have nearly tripled in the past half-century.
American fast food chains increased their international sales by 30% from 2011 to 2016, and the international fast-food market is expected to approach $700 billion dollars by 2022.
In all, it sounds depressing, particularly when you realize that as far back as the early 1900s, Upton Sinclair, author of “The Jungle,” was also warning about our unhealthy food system.
It’s essential, says Bittman, that we have a just food system, one ensuring everyone has access to nourishing, wholesome, sustainable and affordable food.
He points to Roosevelt’s New Deal and the benefits it still provides us today, including Social Security. We can do the same with food, he says.
“Food needs to be grown in a way that’s sustainable and protects the land,” says Bittman. “And that the industries that involve food provide more dignified and well-paying jobs in food and farming.”