Book Review

Chapter 13 – The Resistance

In the final part of Animal, Vegetable, Junk (2021),  Mark Bittman describes the growing recognition of the need to change how we think about and grow food. He also presents a prescription for the future.  Here is my overview of the first chapter in this section in which he talks about the emergence of ideas in the 19-20th century that formed a counter view to the dominant model of industrial agriculture

Industrial agriculture is a form of mining, extracting soil water, elements, fossil fuel, using up riches that developed over eons.  Such a system cannot last, it is not sustainable in the long term.  This was known long ago, e.g. Liebig in the 1800’s pointed out the folly of operating as if the earth is inexhaustible.  Even in ancient times philosophers recognized that the earth’s resources are finite, as Epicurus observed: “The totality of things was always such as it is now, and always will be.”

Mainstream economics teaches that unlimited economic growth equals a healthy society, even at the expense of environmental destruction. Like the fossil fuel industry industrial agriculture is given full license to avoid penalties for “externalities.”

But nature’s capacity to absorb physical and chemical abuse, like that of the human body is limited.

Until the 1950s the limitations of industrial farming were not generally acknowledged, even though they were already becoming clear, for example, the loss of soil.  Iowa, for example, has lost seven inches of topsoil since European occupation.

In the late 1880’s and first part of 20the century a view arose that reductionist thought, the idea that that you can break everything down into components with the whole being to equal the sum of the parts, did not completely capture the totality of nature.

The concept of “emergence” arose, that the whole > sum of parts.

So called “primitives” knew that humans are a part of nature, not above it. Beginning in the 1900’s this view became a philosophical counter-current to the dominant model of industrial growth.

 “Four Laws of Ecology” Bary Commoner  (1971)

  1. Everything is connected to everything else – Newton’s II Law- every action has equal and opposite reaction.
  2. Everything must go somewhere (Lavoisier’s Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy).  Waste doesn’t just “disappear”.
  3. “Nature Knows Best” -work with not against nature.
  4. There is no Free Lunch. Every gain has a cost. As Parmenides said in ancient times “Nothing Comes From Nothing.”

Contrast The Four Laws of Ecology with the Four Laws of Capitalism (John Foster):

  1. The only lasting connection between things is the cash nexus. Every relationship is about money.
  2. Doesn’t matter where something goes, as long as it doesn’t reenter the circuit of capital. Producers will always ignore the damages caused by production  – waste, pollution.
  3. The self regulating market knows what’s best, as long as it’s profitable (e.g., junk food, assault rifles, pesticides).
  4. Nature’s bounty is a free gift to property owners- there is no charge for nature’s contribution. Nature exists to be exploited, as per Western religion.

Limits to growth came to be recognized with the industrial revolution.

Word “Ecology” was coined in 1873.

George Washington Carver (descendant of slaves) at Iowa State College of Agriculture had a mission to help Black farmers improve their agriculture and diets.

He preached traditional polyculture with minimal machinery and pesticides, helping farmers to become more independent, sustain the soil and eat better (rather than become consumers of agribiz products).

Bittman notes: “Many farmers traveled long distances to see him. He walked them through his plots where he used no commercial fertilizer whatever and where he would show a profit of seventy-five dollars an acre. To cash starved tenant farmers, trying to squeeze a subsistence out of fifteen or twenty acres, seventy five dollars was a fortune. ”

Rudolf Steiner championed the use of waste products as fertilizer and soil enhancers and warned that the repeated use of chemical fertilizers would destroy the soil.  His methods were referred to as “biodynamics”:  all nutrients should come from the soil of the home farm which he called a living organism.  His holistic approach drew from spiritual traditions rejected by traditional science.

Albert Howard, starting in 1905, spent two decades in India, sent as imperial botanist to teach local farmers modern agriculture.  He soon discovered he had a lot more to learn than to teach.  An Agricultural Testament (1940) introduced the Law of Return, that all organic material including human waste should be returned to the farm, what was taken out of the soil in one form should be returned in another.  “The process of growth and the process of decay balance one another.” Howard argued that when organic matter is recycled through composting no mineral deficiencies of any kind occur, that diseases and pests are symptoms of flawed practices. The rule should be mixed farming – many species of plants/animals living together.

Eve Balfour co-founded the Soil Association in Britain (1946). The Living Soil (1943) describes the first three decades long experiment comparing organic and conventional agriculture, focused on the connection between soil and human health.

The “New style” of sustainable farming (in reality the old style) spread by word of mouth.  Organic farming had arrived (or returned) and push back against industrial agriculture began.

Rachel Carson (1958) observed that the spraying of DDT devastated wildlife at a local bird sanctuary.  Silent Spring (1962), a peer review book with unassailable science, was attacked for being anti science, alarmist, threatening the food supply.  Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz said she probably was a communist.

Carlson railed against the lack of federal regulation of DDT.  She argued: “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poison…it is surely because our forefathers…could conceive of no such problem.”

As she predicted, scientists soon found DDT resistance in insects. The chemical’s subsequent ineffectuality plus public concern led manufactures to retreat from US market.  DDT was banned outright in 1973 although it still used extensively elsewhere, (a critical tool for battling malaria).

Few books of our time had a greater impact than Silent Spring.  Carson talked about humans as part of nature, not in a separate class above the rest.  “This is a book about man’s war against nature, and because man is part of nature it is al so inevitably about man’s war against himself.”

Race Class and Food

The Civil Rights movement in the US in the 1960’s documented racism in farming-  Bittman details (see pp. 228-230) how the proportion of Black farmers declined through the 20th century,  with minorities receiving less government assistance from agencies like the USDA, and how minorities in general had poorer nutrition.

(1968) CBS documentary “Hunger in America” argued that class rather than race causes hunger.;  the poor don’t eat healthy, whether they are Black, Latino, White or Native.

By the end of the 1960’ the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movements and a small but significant trend towards vegetarian and organic food coincided with a growing concern about both the quality of food and the relation between diet and disease – with a recognition that chronic illness results from excessive consumption of fat and sugar.

“Diet Related to Killer Diseases”  1976 hearings in US congress led to a statement of dietary goals recommending a reduction of fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt and decreased consumption of meat.  Industry representatives used political pressure to water down recommendations, eventually to nothing.  Vague and changing guidelines led to succession of fads,  e.g. a  focus on “Antioxidants”, oat bran, fiber, various vitamins and minerals, “new and improved” processed foods and away from the basic common sense that a moderate whole food diet is best.

Mandated nutritional labeling- was an advance, but by implying that food is just the sum of its ingredients you could conclude that a banana and serving of Oreos are equivalent.

Nutritional Labeling 1973 FDA allowed labels to make health claims if backed up with accurate nutritional facts.  Useful, but gives impression that food is just sum of its components  “a calorie is a calorie”.

2009 labels were revised to report added sugars and daily % for sugar, a line for trans fats (since banned) saturated and unsaturated fat, also the recommendation that sugar make up < 10% of daily calories ( the average American consumes double or triple that amount).

Labeling has lots of benefits but also is an opportunity for marketing, with endless health exaggerated claims.


As many people came to distrust mainstream food, particularity the level of pesticides, many started to turn to “organic” food.  It was recognized that this designation needed to be verified.  The 1990 Farm Bill included Organic Foods Production Act and the new USDA “organic label”:  “grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, without GMOs or radiation”.  Animals have to be raised on organic food with no antibiotics or growth hormones and are supposed to be kept in “living conditions accommodating their natural behavior”.  There are many levels of organic: e.g., “made with organic”- contains 70% organic ingredients,  with the remaining 30% containing no synthetic fertilizer or GMO.

“organic” was codified in the narrowest possible way, even though it was originally intended as a broad philosophy of food and the human relation to nature.

The “organic” designation became another marketing gimmick: e.g., organic cane sugar is still sugar.  There is “organic” junk food, you can buy off season “organic” grapes from Chile.

Traditional small organic farmers couldn’t afford the time needed for certification or the extensive record keeping required.  For example, farmers who really tend their soil and rotate crops have to do an impossible level of paperwork compared to monoculture farming.  Certified organic is usually still industrial agriculture,  perhaps better than traditional but not really organic in the broader sense.

There is no requirement that “organic” is high quality food.  Organic junk food is still junk.

Imported USDA organic is supposed to meet domestic requirements but inspection is inadequate, it may not even be genuine organic.

Still, many affluent consumers have “gone organic” believing that organic = good,  non organic = bad.

Organic is big business: worth $1 billion/year in 1990, $15 billion by 2005, $50 billion today.  Big Food has absorbed 66/81 of the large organic processors- e.g., Cascadia Farms,  Muir Glen, Annie’s sold out to General Mills.

“Organic” is now just part of the larger food system.

Book Review

Animal, Vegetable, Junk

Animal Vegetable Junk was published in 2021 by Mark Bittman , a well known author and journalist focused on everything food.  This latest book provides an expansive overview of the history of agriculture, from the time humans transitioned from hunter gathering to the present.  It is important book for everyone who eats, and is of special interest to anyone interested in gardening or small scale farming.

Some notable reviewer comments:

“The climate crisis, COVID-19, and the recent reckoning with systemic and institutional racism have all revealed the many cracks in our global food system. In this thorough and revealing book, Mark Bittman discusses how we got to this point when reform is so essential, and presents the solutions to improve how we grow, distribute, and consume our food. A must read for policymakers, activists, and concerned citizens looking to better understand our food system, and how we can fix it.”—Vice President Al Gore

“There is a saying: ‘Humans are what they eat.’ Yes, what isn’t our food connected to? Food is crucial for our survival, our health, our welfare, our land, our laws, our energy supplies, our water, and almost everything else. Mark Bittman’s thought-provoking, wide-ranging new book will open your eyes to the crisis facing our food system, and to the world impact of every bite that you eat.”—Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse

“This is the perfect book for this moment in time, and Mark is the perfect person to write it”—Alice Waters

“In Animal Vegetable Junk Bittman takes us on a journey to show how the mechanistic, reducitonistic industrial paradigm got us to this nightmarish place in agriculture and food. We can and must change the food system. Dr. Vanana Shiva

Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war…Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.  Naomi Klein

From the Introduction:

‘Until a century ago, we had two types of food: plants and animals.  But as agriculture and food processing became industries, they developed a third type of “food”, more akin to poison, “a substance that is capable of causing illness or death.”  These engineered edible substances, barely recognizable as products of the earth, are commonly called “junk”.’

‘Junk has hijacked out diets and created a public health crisis that diminishes the lives of perhaps half of all humans. And junk is more than a dietary issue:  The industrialized agriculture that has spawned junk, an agriculture that along with its related industries, concentrates on maximizing the yield of the most profitable crops has done more damage to the earth than strip mining, urbanization or even fossil fuel extraction.  Yet it remains not only under regulated but subsidized by the governments of most countries.’

If terrorists stole or poisoned a large share of our land, water and natural resources, underfed as much as a quarter of the population and seeded disease among half,  threatened our ability to feed ourselves in the future, deceived, lied to, and poisoned our children, tortured our animals and ruthlessly exploited many of our citizens  we’d consider that a threat to national security and would respond accordingly.’

Animal Vegetable Junk begins with a fascinating historical account of humanity’s transition from a hunter- gatherer mode of subsistence to agriculture. To our ancestors innovations such as growing crops and herding animals held a promise of greater security and abundance. Thus began our never ending chase after progress which some would argue has always proved illusive.  Every advance brought unforeseen problems that could only be solved with further innovation.

Bittman goes on to tell the story of the rise and fall of empires, beginning around 3000 years ago,  largely as a function of their food production ability.  He describes in succession the great civilizations of Sumer, Eqypt and Asia and Mesoamerica, each dependent on different staples and models of agriculture.

Bittman then describes how agriculture begins to “go global” in the middle ages.  By the 1400’s wealth and capital were emerging in the modern sense, increasing pressure to grow and borrow and to monopolize trade routes.  War increased as monarchs looked for cash flow. Spice became major a commodity, imported via “silk road” trade routes with countless middlemen.  Monarchs like Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain were motivated to fund exploration in the hope of direct access to foreign ports. Columbus was looking for India but found America.  Vasco de Gama got to India via Cape of Good Hope.  Exploration brought a mix of colonialism , imperialism and capitalism as two intertwined products — sugar and slaves proved a source of great wealth.

Subsequent chapters walk though the evolution of agriculture through to the modern era.  The journey to the present is a truly astonishing tale, one I highly recommend to all of us in the Echo Valley garden community. I found myself saying “Holy Sh*t, I never realized that! almost every second page.”  I may record a chapter by chapter synopsis just to cement the story in my mind.

The final section of the book entitled Change describes the current situation and where Bittman thinks things should go from here.  It consists of three chapters:

13. The Resistance
14. Where We’re At
15. The Way Forward


Mole Asks

Mole Asks: Packaged Seeds Shelf Life

Mr MoleHow long will seeds bought from a seed supplier (e.g., Wescoast Seeds) last? If you want to purchase say herb seeds to plant in spring, is it ok to buy them now, or better to wait until the new year?  Thanks.

Mole Asks

Mole Asks: Play Sand?

I have read that carrots can keep well if stored in sand. My question: is the sand sold at building supply stores (e.g. Windsor) called “play sand” food safe? It is supposedly clean and pure for sandboxes. Thanks.

Mark Stevens replied:

Dear Mr. Mole.

This is a very interesting question. Very…..
I have used this “Play Sand” for years on the heating table where I start all the young seedlings. It’s comes dry and in large sacks to spread over heating cables for germinating seed starts.
I would have to say that as “play box sand” it would have to be clean and safe for young children to have around them. But I don’t know that for sure.
The quest for clean sand then continues…………


Where Are We

I know it’s out of fashion
And a trifle uncool
But I can’t help it
I’m a romantic fool
It’s a habit of mine
To watch the sun go down
In Echo Valley
I watch the sun go down

From nine to five
I have to spend my time at work
My job is very boring
I’m an office clerk
The only thing that helps me pass the time away
Is knowing I’ll be back in Echo Valley someday

(apologies to Mark Gane, Martha and the Muffins)

In The Valley Kitchen

The Age of Raisin

This is my second try at sourdough raisin bread.  The dough is a mix of bread flour and whole wheat.  After the dough was mixed I spread it out  and brushed with melted butter and Kahlua syrup (Kahlua that has been cooked down a bit to thicken).  Then I sprinkled a layer of raisins and cinnamon and rolled in all up for bulk rising.  After four hours I formed the “boules” and let them rise a wile longer in their bannetons.  The bannetons went to their sleeping quarters (a large tightly covered plastic box) and were put outside for a nice long retardation rest.  In the morning the loaves were baked. If only the smell of the buttery-cinnamon bread baking could be made into a spray.

The theory behind layering in the raisins, Kahlua syrup and cinnamon instead of just mixing it together is that the layers will allow the bread to achieve maximum rise when fermenting and that the final bread will have some unevenness with surprise bursts of cinnamon or sweetness here and there.  More experimentation required.

In the Garden In The Valley

All the Way From Brussels!

December and we are still in the garden picking beautiful Brussels Spouts.

Some people like roasting these in the oven.  But, forget about them for ten minutes and you’re left with Brussels Cinders.

I like a sort of hybrid steam-roasting in a large covered skillet.  I put the sprouts in with a small amount of water and heat on medium high with cover on being careful to stop before the water is gone.  Then add some butter and saute until the sprouts get brown and nutty.

In The Valley Kitchen

Sylvia’s Pickled Carrots

In case you were wondering……

The word carrot is first recorded in English circa 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, itself from Late Latin carōta, from Greek καρωτόν or karōtón, originally from the Indo-European root *ker- (horn), due to its horn-like shape.

Only 3 percent of the β-carotene in raw carrots is released during digestion: this can be improved to 39% by pulping, cooking and adding cooking oil. Alternatively they may be chopped and boiled, fried or steamed, and cooked in soups and stews, as well as baby and pet foods. A well-known dish is carrots julienne. Together with onion and celery, carrots are one of the primary vegetables used in a mirepoix to make various broths.

Carrots:  Secret Life of:

Flowers change sex in their development, so the stamens release their pollen before the stigma of the same flower is receptive. The arrangement is centripetal, meaning the oldest flowers are near the edge and the youngest flowers are in the center. Flowers usually first open at the outer edge of the primary umbel, followed about a week later on the secondary umbels, and then in subsequent weeks in higher-order umbels.


Historically Speaking…

-Pennsylvania Dutch settlers smoked dried and shredded carrots in their pipes hoping that carotene would mimic the stimulating properties of nicotine without being addictive.  For nearly a century it was believed that carrot smoke improved night vision.

-Heydrich Drumph an out of work farm hand secured a government grant to start a large scale carrot farm on the outskirts of Bavaria in the 1820s. He had chemists extract the orange pigment and develop a line of cosmetic tanning products marketed as “Drumph Tan”.  Unfortunately orange tans did not prove popular and the enterprise declared bankruptcy after a year when Drumph quietly disappeared along with the remaining company assets.  Several thousand barrels of orange tanning cream also disappeared as operations shut down and could not be located by creditors.  Their fate remains a mystery.

ref.  Mole’s Believe it or Not Archive of Astonishment


Fall Soup

Tasty fall soup for this bout of colder than necessary weather.  Home made chicken/vegetable stock with Echo Valley squash and potatoes and some just picked kale,  blended with hand blender.  Toasted sourdough croutons/Echo Valley Organics garlic with 24 month Parmigiano and – can’t hurt- a few drops of olive/truffle oil.  Pretty yummy.

In the Garden In The Valley

Garlic Planting in Winter Garden

Lots of hard work this week planting garlic.  Many hands weeding, hoeing, peeling and planting.And now the garlic is bedded down and off to sleep.