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)
- Everything is connected to everything else – Newton’s II Law- every action has equal and opposite reaction.
- Everything must go somewhere (Lavoisier’s Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy). Waste doesn’t just “disappear”.
- “Nature Knows Best” -work with not against nature.
- 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):
- The only lasting connection between things is the cash nexus. Every relationship is about money.
- 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.
- The self regulating market knows what’s best, as long as it’s profitable (e.g., junk food, assault rifles, pesticides).
- 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.