“A history of food, from sustainable to suicidal”

“A brilliant and insightful explanation of the food system. Bittman’s writing is succinct and entertaining, and his recommendations are spot on.” –David Kessler, MD, former FDA commissioner

Mark Bittman’s new book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk, is best described by its subtitle, A history of food, from sustainable to suicidal.  Bittman starts the story at the beginning, nearly 300,000 years ago when humans were hunter/gatherers.  The transition from a hunter/gatherer to an agricultural society began only 10,000 years ago.  It was a long, slow transition that happened unevenly all over the world.  Hunter gatherer societies still exist in the Amazon and perhaps elsewhere.  Where nature was generous, hunting/gathering persisted longer.  For example, indigenous people in California were still hunters/gatherers when Europeans arrived and indigenous people on the East coast had developed agricultural societies.

The conventional wisdom has been until recently that sedentary agriculture is superior to hunting/gathering as a lifestyle and a producer of food.  Bittman and Yuval Harari in Sapiens—the sweeping history of human civilization—disagree.  The diets of hunters/gatherers are more diverse, which makes them healthier and less vulnerable to famine.  If you can’t find what you need in one place, you move to another.  Families of hunter/gatherer societies are small because mothers can’t carry more than one child at a time, so there is no advantage to the large families required by farming.  Women’s role as gatherer is as important as man’s role as hunter, making the family less patriarchal than agriculture societies.  A mobile society has less impact on the land and is less likely to deplete resources, such as water and soil.  Communities were smaller, making them less vulnerable to communicable diseases.

The invention of the plow more than 2,000 years ago was one of the first significant turning points in the development of agriculture.  The plow requires the strength of men to operate, making the participation of women in food production less important.  A division of labor between the genders developed, along with the gender power hierarchy that persists today.  This division of labor was consistent with the need for families to have more children and therefore more farm hands. 

As the population of humans in agricultural society increased, so did the pressure on the land to be more productive.  Farmers knew and still know that the soil requires regeneration if it is to remain fertile.  Such practices as planting cover crops between cash crops to return vegetation to the soil, are not new.  Farmers also knew that leaving land fallow for a season or two enables the soil to recover from the loss of nutrients required to grow crops.  Rotating crops helps to control pests and diseases that are usually associated with one type of crop, but not another.  But the pressure to produce more food as the population increases puts pressure on farmers to squeeze more from the soil than it has to give in the long term.

Mechanization of agriculture

Mechanization was the most significant incremental step on the long road to the dead end that we now face in agriculture.  John Deere introduced his steel-bladed plow in the middle of the 19th century that was capable of breaking the tough sod of the Mid-Western prairie.  Deere mass-produced the steel plow using the assembly-line methods of the industrial revolution.  By 1859 John Deere was making 10,000 plows in a year. 

Although the Deere plow was a significant invention, the advent of the steam and then gas-powered tractor shortly thereafter were the true game changers that started the transition from family farms to the corporate agriculture of today:  “In 1830 it took a farmer and a horse at least seventy-five hours to produce a hundred bushels of corn.  BY 1930 that same task took as little as fifteen hours.  Production grew in parallel, from 173 million bushels of wheat in 1859 to 287 million by the century’s end.  The big difference was the tractor.”

The tractor was only the beginning of mechanization of agriculture.  There are now enormous machines, such as harvesters that cost half a million dollars and more.  Family farmers can’t afford to buy these machines.  They aren’t useful to small land-holders because huge farms are needed to pay for the cost of these machines.  Farmers who tried to stay in the game took huge loans to buy them.  Agriculture is risky business because the climate is changeable and unpredictable.  In drought years, many farmers with small holdings lost their land because they couldn’t repay their loans. 


Corporate interests are in a position to obtain the necessary loans and buy out the small land-holders.  Family farms are a thing of the past.  The romanticized notion of family farms is a fiction. Family farmers understand that destroying their soil is not in the interests of their family. Corporate interests have a short-term perspective when making business decisions.  Therefore, regenerative agricultural methods such as cover crops, rotating crops, and leaving land fallow are also a thing of the past.   

The Green Revolution

The so-called “green revolution” was the response to the destruction of agricultural land.  By the 1930s, the soil in agricultural America was exhausted.  The result of a century of short-term perspective agriculture that didn’t give back to the soil what was taken from it was the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. 

The Dust Bowl

Instead of returning to regenerative agricultural methods, the response was the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Sixty years of pesticide use has bred many weed and insect species that are resistant to pesticides because no amount of chemistry can outwit evolution. In addition to introducing toxic chemicals into the environment, these chemicals exacerbated the trend toward bigger, corporate-owned agricultural lands because chemicals are expensive.  They must be purchased in advance of realizing the income of selling a crop, requiring bigger loans. According to Bittman, John Deere company makes four times as much money from financing these loans as from selling farm equipment. More family farms failed and their land was consolidated into huge acreages owned by corporate interests with short-term goals for higher profits.

The chemical warfare waged by industrial agriculture escalated greatly when Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds were introduced in 1996.  These genetically modified seeds enabled the indiscriminate spraying of the non-selective herbicide, glyphosate on commodity crops.  The seeds are expensive and their patents require that they only be used once.  They greatly increased farmer’s dependence on loans to finance the planting of their crops.  This indiscriminate spraying of glyphosate on commodity crops used in all processed food and animal feed means that we are now eating and drinking food laced with glyphosate, a probable carcinogen.

Chemical fertilizers deliver phosphorous to the soil, needed for plant growth.  Run off from agricultural land pollutes our lakes and rivers, killing fish and making water unsafe to drink or swim in.  Pesticides are indiscriminately killing insects, many of which are beneficial, such as our pollinators.  Pesticides are found in our water, our soil, and our food.  Little is known about the effects of these chemicals on our health or on wildlife, but what we know suggests they are probably more dangerous than we realize.  For example, recent research suggests that chemicals that disrupt our endocrine systems are probably reducing fertility, causing birth defects and contributing to gender dysphoria. 

Consequences of agricultural surpluses

Bigger is not better in agriculture because bigger also means that only a handful of crops are grown on huge corporate farms.  It is more expensive to grow diverse crops, requiring different cultivation methods and inputs.  Huge machines are operated more efficiently on huge plots of land.  Most agricultural land in America is devoted to growing crops of corn, soy beans, and wheat.  So much of America’s farm land is devoted to these commodity crops that they produce huge surpluses that require a global market to sell them to.

The global marketplace for commodity agricultural crops has fundamentally changed many countries.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) forced farmers in Mexico to abandon their small farms and move to cities to take low-paying manufacturing jobs because they could not compete against cheaper American corn.  The diet and health of the Mexican people has deteriorated significantly because they no longer have access to the variety of fruit and vegetables their small properties produced.  Their healthy fruit juices have been replaced by sodas made from corn syrup, resulting in high rates of obesity and diabetes.

Children’s cereals. Glyphosate residues are found in most cereal.

The diet of Americans has also been changed radically by the marketing campaigns designed to sell surplus commodities.  A surplus of milk produced the “Got milk?” advertising campaign that sold milk to adults for whom milk is rarely healthy.  Bittman says that 65% of adults are lactose intolerant, which he knows from personal experience.  He was forced to drink milk until he left home.  He was plagued by indigestion until he was able to quit drinking milk as an adult. 

Far more pernicious, is the advertising campaign that convinced mothers to quit breast feeding in favor of feeding formula.  This insidious campaign used guilt to pressure mothers by making the inaccurate claim that formula is healthier for their babies.  Breast feeding is the primary means that a baby’s immune system develops.  Formula contains higher levels of sugar that sets the stage for life-long eating habits that are not healthy.  High levels of obesity and diabetes begin at childhood and are very difficult to change later in life.  The advertising campaign was global and it did more damage in undeveloped countries where the water needed to dilute formula is often not safe.  Although the health consequences of using formula are well known, the advertising campaign continues to this day.  The New York Times ran a full-page advertisement for formula recently, using convenience as its approach, suggesting that modern mothers should not be guilt-tripped into breast feeding. 

Not the end of the story

We landed in this dietary and environmental disaster zone over thousands of years of small, incremental changes that were imperceptible at the time.  We could not foresee the consequences of the cumulative effect of each small step along the road to this dead end.  And Bittman says we can back out of this dead end in the same way, by making small steps back to regenerative farming.  Bittman’s final chapters are devoted to the many projects all over the world devoted to restoring our agricultural land, our diets, and our health. 

This brief summary of Bittman’s book does not do it justice.  There are a multitude of other important factors to consider, such as the huge contribution that industrial agriculture is making to climate change and the changes in raising animals that are just as unhealthy as how we are growing our plant-based food.  I can’t say that Bittman’s book is a pleasant read, but I assure you that it is important. 

3 thoughts on ““A history of food, from sustainable to suicidal””

  1. WOW. The points made here should be required reading for everyone. I expect they would be eye-opening to most folks who know very little about how to live in agreement with nature and why it’s important to do so. Thank you so much for reviewing this book. I plan to forward the e-mail I received to anyone who I feel would benefit from reading this insightful commentary.


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