Toward a Just Food System

Toward a Just Food System

A vision of a food system reliant on small family farmers producing local food ignores the necessity of addressing major problems at scale.

An agricultural worker in Florida in February 2021 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal
by Mark Bittman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021, 384 pp.

“Get big or get out.” It’s a statement that lives in infamy in the history of American agriculture. Ascribed to Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, it marked the moment when farm policy took a catastrophic turn by throwing family farms to the agribusiness wolves. It’s an idea so callous that it’s been seared into the minds of generations of aggrieved small farmers, food writers, and activists and repeated in scores of food and farming tracts, including Animal, Vegetable, Junk, the new book by the prolific cookbook author and former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman.

But there is scant evidence that Butz actually said it. Some of our finest food writers, including Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, Ted Genoways, and now Bittman, all attribute the claim to Butz. But others, including Wendell Berry, Tom Philpott, and Catherine Friend, pin the blame on Ezra Taft Benson, the chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under Dwight Eisenhower, which would mean the fatal dysfunction of the nation’s farm policy started at least a decade earlier. But Benson probably didn’t say it either. We could find no firsthand, contemporaneous accounts of either Benson or Butz saying these words and were unable to locate any newspaper articles reporting it. While so many authors use the quotation, they cite only each other or nothing at all, and not one is able to give a date and location.

The appeal of this rural legend is that it feels correct. It fits common complaints about the American food system and implies a clear solution: hitting reverse on a half-century of failed food policies by going small and local. With his latest book, Mark Bittman wades into the debate about our troubled food system and falls back on this canonical story. Like the authors mentioned above, Bittman argues that farmers producing “real food” have been undone by corporate forces and their government enablers, leaving rural America damaged, the environment despoiled, and consumers sick from gobbling down ultra-processed “junk.” But Animal, Vegetable, Junk is also a story of how food and farming have always been remade and reinvented. It’s an expansive, ambitious book propelled by Bittman’s claim that “Food not only affects everything, it represents everything.”


The book develops over three acts.

The first section is a grand historical tour of humanity’s relationship to food. Starting with our earliest nomadic ancestors foraging for food before developing tools, domesticating animals, and eventually establishing settled agriculture, it sweeps across continents and millennia. In a style that will be familiar to readers of Yuval Noah Harari or Jared D...