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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 (summarized in next post)
14. Where We’re At
15. The Way Forward

 

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