Animal, Vegetable, Junk by Mark Bittman [8/10]

On my bookshelf squats Mark Bittman’s massive How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, a companion to my life, and the prodigious Bittman has written six related cookbooks. Now, with “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal,” Bittman turns serious, and boy, how dark his intent is. This book is nothing less than an indictment of the entire thrust of humankind’s journey through the world of food and diet. Particularly savage is the tale of modern (read: American) industrial agriculture, which, following in the footsteps of British and other colonial powers, has scrunched the small, traditional farmer, starved and abused farm workers, embraced monoculture, and ended up at our current point of history, in which much of what is eaten is now formally “junk” that makes us sick and kills us. I had read parts of this history and naturally, having turned vegetarian solely to cut carbon emissions, am well aware of the blight of our modern food practices on Earth’s climate, but I had never seen the whole trajectory laid out before. The author is a smooth, engaging stylist and his carefully researched facts are expounded with fairness. His penultimate chapter, “The Way Forward,” begins thus: “I realize that much of this book has been, let’s say, not exactly uplifting,” which describes the impact accurately. His descriptions of what he describes as minor corrective revolutions offered me some cheer but not much. What will be needed, he says, is massive systemic change: “Innovation from industry is not going to fix food and diet, and neither is ‘buying right.'” Compendious and sweeping, Animal, Vegetable, Junk is a must-read for those of us who despair at the food terrain we gaze at.

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