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 Diamond, Bittman’s panoramic history shows how food and farming have been central to the rise and fall of entire empires and civilizations, as well as the trajectory of their laws, customs, hierarchies, systems of labor, and technological and scientific innovations. Bittman writes about the accomplishments and failures of the massive agricultural and irrigation projects of vast ancient civilizations, often built using corvée labor and despotic rule, in mostly descriptive rather than judgmental language. This history documents the myriad forms, from miniscule to impressively large, that agriculture has taken.

It’s only when Bittman turns to colonial British and then American agriculture that his real target becomes clear: the current capitalist food system and its grotesque scale, labor exploitation, and harmful consequences to human, animal, and planetary health. This is the focus of the second—and strongest—part of the book.

It was capitalism that drove the colonization of what is now the United States, and Bittman traces how a settler-colonial society displaced thriving indigenous communities and their food cultures and replaced them with cash crops dependent on slave labor and small-scale farms and ranches. Much of this was the direct result of first colonial and then federal policy, perhaps most evident in the land grants given to white farmers to produce food and settle land during westward expansion.

Yet, surprisingly, it is precisely these yeoman farmers who become both the protagonists and the victims in Bittman’s story as it enters the twentieth century, with their antagonists the large corporate actors and “get big or get out” government policy. In Bittman’s telling, “honest farming” was set upon by industrialization and a single-minded focus on profit and productivity. It was a race to the bottom: farms grew ever larger investing in labor, machinery, and petrochemical fertilizers to stay competitive, forcing smaller farmers off the land. If we put aside for now the question of whether small family farms are a desirable or natural model, Bittman is mostly right. The past century did see the massive industrialization of agriculture, much of it driven by a partnership between agribusiness and government, primarily channeled through the USDA, resulting in massive monocropping and the advent of factory farms.

For Bittman, the failings of Big Agriculture are most visible in its impact on consumer health and habits, seen in the emergence in the twentieth century of “junk”—after animals and plants, a “third type of ‘food’”—composed of “engineered edible substances, barely recognizable as products of the earth.” Here again Bittman is mostly right. Convenience, marketing, technology, and the low food prices made possible by standardization and economies-of-scale production have hooked Americans on far too much meat, fat, and sugar.

The question, of course, is how to fix these many interrelated problems. How do we challenge corporate power, the legacy of decades of federal policies, the content of the American diet, the ecological impacts of agriculture, and the many forms of injustice—against labor, farmers, people of color, indigenous communities, and even animals—generated by the American food system? The third section of Animal, Vegetable, Junk tackles this question and ends up with a familiar answer: small family farmers producing unprocessed food with agroecological principles. However, when Bittman wants to show how the current food system is actually being challenged, he unexpectedly reaches for large, institutional efforts, including the Fight for $15 movement started by fast-food workers, major corporations like Taco Bell and Walmart embracing slightly more sustainable practices, school lunch and food education programs in countries like Japan and Sweden, and municipal and federal soda taxes around the world. This is the tension at the heart of Bittman’s project: on the one hand, a vision of the food system’s problems being solved by reversing “get big or get out” and, on the other hand, the realities of addressing major problems at scale.

There is another, related tension in Animal, Vegetable, Junk: between food’s past and future. Bittman, especially in the book’s first section, shows that “real,” “natural,” and “small” are not neutral descriptors; they are politically loaded concepts that take on particular meanings in different contexts. And yet he insists that fixing farming requires it to be closer to “the way nature establishes things.” To the extent that agroecology, which he recommends as an alternative to conventional agriculture, means “a set of practices that integrates ecological principles into agriculture,” we think this suggestion has merit. Crop rotation and minimizing chemical pesticides, for example, are eminently sensible suggestions, and have been widely endorsed, including by grassroots farming organizations and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

However, American agrarianism often uses the rhetoric of “nature” to conflate agricultural practices with economic and social relations. Bittman, writes, for example, that “agroecology supports farming as a dignified way to live, creating grounding, family-oriented, life-giving work.” This proposition, which naturalizes single family units owning and operating independent farms, is reminiscent of the agrarianism of Wendell Berry, whom Bittman cites with approval. Berry argued that family farmers, when freed from immediate market pressures, are naturally more interested in an ethic of care and sustainability than extractive agribusinesses. (Elsewhere in the book, it bears noting, Bittman laments the “fading” of “the dream of the American family farm.”)

This theory that family farms are inherently more environmentally sustainable than other farms is empirically questionable, and it says little about whether the ethic of care extends to workers who sell their labor to family farmers, and less still about the long history of farm owners using patriarchal authority to exploit the uncompensated labor of their dependents. Organizing farming around private property relations and heteropatriarchal family units is certainly neither natural nor the only way to organize sustainable or even agroecological agriculture.

It’s instructive to compare that fantasy to some of the pre-Columbian indigenous societies that Bittman also cites for more natural approaches. Agriculture in the Americas prior to colonization was tremendously varied. Many indigenous agricultural systems were grander in scale than settler-colonial farmsteads and involved the coordinated labor and expertise of large communities; all were organized around radically different conceptions of property, stewardship, and kinship, and much of it was more ecologically sustainable than colonial agricultural practices. In the agricultural systems common to the native peoples of what is now the northeastern United States, to give one example, farming was usually women’s work, and it fortified matriarchal kinship structures.

By contrast, British settler-colonial farmsteads used the labor of a single family, and the farms were the legal property of a patriarch. What distinguished New England colonial farmsteads from Algonquin agriculture was not a proximity to nature, but, rather, a politically enforced system of property relations that allowed land to be owned, exploited, traded, and inherited. And as the management of those landscapes went from indigenous agriculture at various scales to smaller-scale settler-colonial farmsteads, it often became more extractive, driven by different notions of what should be produced and how, and by the fact that some farm products were destined for markets. When settlers exterminated buffalo and replaced them with cattle, first on the open range and then on enclosed ranches, soil, biodiversity, and indigenous foodways all suffered. It is odd to conclude from all this that agriculture should more closely resemble the settler-colonial ideal of small family farms than what it displaced. 

 

Bittman’s focus on “real food” at times verges on technophobia. He is correct that processing has introduced some harmful substances into our diets, and that this is driven by capitalist pressures to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and create markets for novel products. But he does not explain how consumers can determine what level of processing is ecologically or nutritionally acceptable. (His examples of dubious food include items as varied as baby formula, ketchup, and fortified bread.) How, then, to weigh legitimate concerns about food additives and processing against the tangible benefits they may offer? Consider enriched flour, which may contain the by-products of steel manufacturing, making it a more complex technological product. But enriched flour has also all but eliminated a variety of harmful vitamin deficiencies that were endemic in the nineteenth century and caused diseases such as pellagra.

And even if something is less “real,” can we necessarily assume it is more harmful? For instance, Bittman writes that “Although vegan burgers laudably offer an alternative to meat, one that’s produced without animal suffering, they are still an ultra-processed food, and as such they fail to address monoculture, chemicals, extraction, and exploitation.” But surely one of these foods is far less harmful along all these metrics than the other. Specifics matter when comparing food production methods. And it seems a stretch that “real” farming, especially under capitalism, can exist without some forms of exploitation, be it of labor or animals.

Worrying about the “realness” of food distracts from whether there is a system in place to guarantee universal standards of food safety for everyone in society. Complex synthetic preservatives may often be to some extent unhealthy, but compare them to common adulterants found in the swill milk of antebellum New York City that sickened thousands of children: rotten eggs, chalk, and disease-ridden wastewater. Rotten eggs are arguably more natural than potassium sorbate, a common anti-mold preservative found in today’s dairy products, but we would rather eat the potassium sorbate. A blanket dismissal of preservatives and additives obscures the shared challenge of New York then and the United States now: government capacity to remove harmful food from markets.

Government capacity requires scale, standards, and universal goods. These are, in fact, industrial values. It’s not a coincidence that the industrialization of the food system wrought social movements that hungered to use industrial infrastructure to improve the lives of the working classes. The small farmers who huddled under the populist banner at the turn of the twentieth century sought the nationalization of railways and their equitable regulation. Those efforts produced federal interventions that, in turn, made railroads an important site for early labor and civil rights battles. Labor activists also organized workers in sprawling slaughterhouses and agitated there for better wages and working conditions, all of which benefited workers and consumers alike. What often united the otherwise disparate interests and approaches of populists, socialists, progressives, and labor organizers a century ago was a belief that, even as they sought to break up the big players through trust-busting, there was political potential in industrial goods and mass-scale production.

It lacks folksy down-home charm, but a view of industrial food spaces as rippling with political potential is more in line with the activists that Bittman praises in his book’s later chapters. Fast-food restaurants and fruit and vegetable farms depend upon intense labor exploitation, but they are also critical sites for organizing workers and building working-class political power. Formations such as the Fight for $15 and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers suggest that the future of working-class power in the United States will depend on a resurgent left organizing through—rather than against—industrial food systems. Those movements and organizations center wages and working conditions above food and farming aesthetics.

These priorities may not be easily wedded to an agroecological, family-farm agenda that Bittman candidly admits would make food more expensive. More expensive food would put pressure on grocers and restaurants to reduce labor costs, even as it would drive up workers’ bills. Bittman also contends that people eat unhealthy food because it is cheap, so making food more expensive does not necessarily bode well for the public’s health or access to the sort of high-quality nutrition he champions. In the meantime, a food movement centered on transforming industrial food spaces into equitable workplaces would have an immediate political constituency of tens of millions of workers, while a constituency for justice-oriented, agroecological small farms would need to be assembled and cannot be assumed.

 

The solution is perhaps to stop treating big and small as mutually exclusive. A just food system may need to be pluralistic and pragmatic about scale, incorporating both big operations that efficiently mass-produce some foods and small operations that do not. Recent research suggests that small farms tend to be more biodiverse than large conventional ones and can be highly productive. They are also vital to healthy rural communities. There should certainly be more such farms and more access to farming as a livelihood to a diverse range of people, including populations historically excluded from farming. And reviving indigenous foodways, justified as much by redressing historical harms as by ecological concerns, requires large land-back schemes that respect tribal sovereignty.

But all of this requires massive policy interventions. To start, we need to make farmland more affordable and mitigate any accompanying food access problems, which may have less to do with farming per se than with broader fights for land rights and a living wage. Similarly, restricting the production of meat or ultra-processed foods, which Bittman recommends, would require tremendous political effort and would likely be opposed by many consumers. Achieving such a goal requires political organizing across multiple constituencies and perhaps compromising some foodie ideals, like championing plant-based meat alternatives. And fighting against the greatest harms of monocrop agriculture might require pushing for an end to subsidies for crops that become ethanol and animal feed rather than human food. Indeed, returning to Bittman’s own agrarian ideal, it is unclear how exactly small farms and agroecological practices would be incentivized, regulated, or enforced. Bittman seems to take farmers hewing happily and sustainably to his model as an article of faith, but the history in his book suggests otherwise. In reality, it would likely require a major bureaucratic effort to regulate everything from food production to food quality standards on a greater number of small farms.

Meanwhile, supporting the development of some small farms need not preclude larger farms that are controlled by teams of workers using industrial technology to efficiently manage vast and ideally polycultural landscapes. Both approaches could be paired with producers and processors organized around industrial models—such as plant-based meat alternatives and cellular agriculture—as well as community-based urban farming projects that work to expand food access and autonomy while decreasing their environmental footprint. Worker-owned farms, community-based agriculture, and food tech businesses could find stalwart allies in restaurant, grocery, and other food service workers. All of this requires an alliance that will stretch across the pastoral and the industrial.

We are currently witnessing a broad-based, resurgent call for social democracy in the United States. It is clearly at work in advocacy for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. The left has an unusually wide window to propose big programs; calls to go small are out of step with the political moment.

Bittman’s diagnosis is incisive in many of its particulars. Few mainstream authors are as resolutely determined to hold capitalism to account for its many crimes against food and farming, and this means that Animal, Vegetable, Junk will introduce politically vital concepts and analysis to a large popular audience. That deserves praise. But as insightful as it is about the past and present, it fails to deliver a compelling vision for the future. When he flies the banner of “real” and “natural” food and family farms, by now clichés of American food writing, Bittman distracts from the most important lesson we draw from his book: that food and farming are the very substance of political action and, therefore, have been remade again and again throughout human history. The upshot of that realization is that we need not be confined by cramped and nostalgic agrarian definitions of what real food and farming are. We are free to reinvent them both, and we invariably will.


Jan Dutkiewicz is a Policy Fellow at Harvard Law School and a Swiss National Science Foundation–funded postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University in Montreal.

Gabriel N. Rosenberg is an Associate Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies and History at Duke University, the Duke Endowment Fellow of the National Humanities Center, and a Visiting Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.


Lima