Mark Bittman’s new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal tells the story of how food has shaped human history and our society. Bittman is an American food journalist, author of more than 30 books on food, and former columnist for The New York Times. He is founder of The Bittman Project and Special Advisor on Food Policy at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. In this interview, Institute Director Nick Freudenberg asked Mark about his new work.

Nick Freudenberg(NF): Mark, your new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal takes a deep dive into the history of food and farming. What made you decide to take a step back from our day-to-day food fights to looking at its role over the millennia?

Mark Bittman(MB): We – humans – make mistakes. There’s no going back. We know both of these things. But in seeing how we’ve handled decisions about agriculture – who’s made them, what they’ve chosen to prioritize, who’s benefitted and who’s suffered – we can see the importance of these decisions and the processes that make them.

Going forward, starting now, we have to examine decisions about agriculture (and eating – but the first determines the second) with as much care as we can manage, and exercise as much control as we’re able. Think, for example, about a “decision” to produce junk food, to make the majority of our calories junk food: Is that one we’d make consciously? Is that one we should allow multinational for-profit corporations to make without our consent?

So, really, it comes back to day-to-day food fights!

NF: In the book, you describe some of the ways that the development of agriculture set the stage for misery as well as full stomachs. How does this view contrast with the food industry perspective that modern agriculture is an essential foundation for human freedom?

MB: Well, the food industry is a PR machine. Whenever you hear the question “How will we feed the 10 billion?” what you’re really hearing is “How can we determine what people will eat, and how we can sell that to them?” What’s needed is the freedom, the self-determination, the food sovereignty, for people to decide for themselves how to farm in their regions, and what food they produce and eat. It’s not up to the food industry to “feed the world,” but for the people of the world to determine what useful role the food industry can serve in helping us create our own agriculture and diet.

NF: You also write about the resistance to industrial agriculture. What do you think are its greatest accomplishments to date? And its most important limitations?

MB: Right now things are not good; food, like every other issue, is under siege, and one could argue that the corporations have “won.” That’s not quite true, though—as we’ve seen, the United States is still a sort-of democracy, one in which positive change is possible. We’re close to getting a $15 per hour federal minimum wage—not close enough, but it’s within reach, and that is a super-important and powerful advance for food and farm workers.

Congress is about to pass debt relief for African American and other farmers of color, and that could happen by the time this is published – that’s real, and that’s important. (It also points to the linkage between the “food movement” and, for example, the anti-racism movement. Most “movements” are interconnected because we are all part of the same system.) There are five or six other changes that could be happening in the next two years that will not only make real differences but will show the way forward. All that is better than nothing.

At the same time, we have hundreds and thousands of models of how to do things right. CSAs are oversubscribed; farmers markets are open year-round and even during the height of covid – or especially then – were more popular than ever. Hundreds of thousands of young people are seeing agroecological farming as a noble profession (which of course it is). Regional food systems have been demonstrated to be far more resistant than long-chain ones.

There are even more encouraging things going on internationally, from Japan to Chile to Mexico to India to (even) France.

But there is a long way to go. It would be silly to be “optimistic.” Still, we can be hopeful, and energetic.

NF: Today activists are mobilizing on food and health, food and the climate emergency, food and the workforce, food and racism, and more. From your view of the history of food, how do you think these struggles are connected? What advice do you have for those seeking to find common ground across these issues?

MB: Oops, I started to answer this in the last question! The short answer is this: People need, and need to exercise, power. Fighting for the right to vote, and exercising it, is a primary goal. Pushing elected officials to do the right thing is another. Seeing that the struggle for a living wage, for a clean environment, for a life without oppression, for equal opportunity, is all the same as the struggle for nutritious, affordable, accessible food – that’s important. No matter what work you do, there is a place to join this all-inclusive fight – the fight for good food is key, but it’s a part of a bigger picture. You can’t “solve” food without “solving” income inequality, racism, the housing and student debt crises, the environmental disasters staring us in the face, and so on.

NF: You recently launched The Bittman Project. Can you tell us about that? How does the book fit into this?

MB: Our question – those of us involved in The Bittman Project – was: Can we launch something that will look at all aspects of food? Farmers need to appreciate that their food gets eaten; cooks need to understand that their food is grown. It’s not as simple as that, but what we’re talking about here is that “food” begins with controlling land and ends with preparing it for you to eat. It has consequences all over the place and isolating those consequences – talking about cooking without talking about farming, or where and how food is processed and sold, or what it costs, or the impact it has on our health, on that of other species, on the environment – that’s a mistake. You have to look at all of those things together. That’s what we intend to do, that’s what we are doing, at The Bittman Project.

NF: Thanks so much Mark. I am really enjoying reading your book and find that putting our current food situation in its deeper history can help clarify where the food justice movement can go next.