Mark Bittman is a food writer who doesn’t like food very much—at least not the way it’s been produced over the last 12,000 years. Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal covers the evolution of agriculture from the age of man to modern industrial farming, but it’s no sunny tale of human ingenuity.
In his view, human greed sluiced through the capitalist system has created an intolerable modern food system that is poisoning both humans and the planet, breeding poverty, slavery, war, and every other bad thing one could conceive. There’s a blurb from Mr. Global Warming himself, former Vice President Al Gore. Inside the jacket flap are quotes from Malcolm X and Naomi Klein; the table is being set for an astringent left-wing repast.
After some brisk chemistry and history lessons (soil needs nitrogen, civilization was a mistake), the reader is deposited at the end of the last Ice Age, when agriculture began to take root. Bittman, a long-time New York Times journalist, insists “no collection of events had a greater impact on early civilization than the development of agriculture”—and those impacts were virtually all bad.
After a lot about “monoculture,” tractors, and wheat prices, the book gets more politically radical and, perversely, more interesting. Bittman’s extended excoriation of cheeseburgers is entertainingly puritanical: “many are, in fact, disgusting.” “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair is blessedly cited only briefly, but the text offers stomach-churning horrors of a different sort, like sentences that begin, “To paraphrase Frantz Fanon…”
Some of the windmill-tilting is bracing. (I never understood why humans drink cow’s milk, either.) There’s much here a libertarian would like, such as accusations that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the pocket of Big Food and that the Small Business Administration is subsidizing fast-food companies. The Cato Institute would call it corporate welfare. Alas, Bittman is not a big fan of consumer freedom of choice, either.
With this author, everything’s a problem. “The slippery slope might have started with chips and TV dinners and cake mixes, but it reached its nadir with the family outing to a fast-food restaurant.” Nadir? No concessions are
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