We all gotta eat.
That’s how Mark Bittman — food writer, author and former New York Times columnist — starts his latest book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk,” which traces humankind’s never-ending quest for nutrition, from leaves, roots and carrion to agri-corporations and processed pseudo food.
Bittman is the keynote speaker at this year’s Farm to Fork Festival, hosted by Slow Food in the Tetons. He will speak at an event beginning at 5 p.m. Friday that will also include a Q&A session and food and drink from regional providers.
Bittman’s career spans some 40 years and includes stints as a restaurant critic, cookbook author and writer on other topics, including climate change. Some of his recent, best-known titles include “The Best Recipes in the World,” “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian,” “VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00” and the above-mentioned newest volume, subtitled “A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal.” He also has appeared widely on television as a regular guest on NBC’s “The Today Show,” as a frequent judge on the Food Network’s “Chopped” and as a climate change correspondent for “Years of Living Dangerously.”
Bittman bailed from his New York Times column in 2011 because “I didn’t feel a weekly column was adequate to the test of how we got here food-wise,” he told the News&Guide on Friday, “what went wrong, where we are going.”
He has dedicated himself to writing about the dire straits our food system has navigated itself into and to charting a route out of our perilous situation. He calls “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” his most serious a book to date.
Humans have always appreciated good food and good flavors.
“We are hot-wired to eat sugar and salt and fat,” he said.
But humans also seem hot-wired to make money, and food companies have found they can rake it in by engineering food to “press all our buttons,” Bittman said.
“There is science to food,” he said, “and it’s being exploited. Appreciation of flavor isn’t new, but engineering food for the maximum dopamine hits is a new thing.”
Packaged and processed food dates back about 100 year — a little longer for cake mixes — and has since been perfected in the laboratory. The science hit its stride in the 1970s when the fast-food model caught on across the country, along with microwave ovens and new packaging and processing techniques that brought junk food to its current pinnacle.
“It’s worth saying that part of it is about the supplier,” Bittman said.
Giant agribusinesses grew more and more corn, wheat and soy in more and more efficient ways, more than anyone could even eat.
“So it became imperative for the food companies to use that,” he said, leading to the ubiquity of corn syrup in foods, for example, and feeding livestock grains they weren’t necessarily adapted to eating. “Supply determined what was produced, not demand.”
The bigger issue, Bittman said, is how the food industry has lied to consumers about the healthfulness, or lack thereof, of the food it stocks our grocery store shelves with. It bears a striking resemblance to the wool Big Tobacco pulled over consumers’ eyes for decades.
“But we were lucky,” he said. With tobacco “there was a smoking gun — if you do the right studies you can recognize that tobacco is the cause of lung cancer.”
It took 30 years for that link to be widely acknowledged by the industry, western medicine and the government, but today it is common fact.
“We are just beginning to see the evidence that junk food causes cancer,” Bittman said, “and it likely will take another 30 or more years for that evidence to work itself down through regulatory systems and consumer common sense.
“We have some indications that there are going to be restrictions about the consumption of junk food,” he said, “especially to children. I believe we will cut back on the factory farming of animals and regulate pesticides more heavily. ... We don’t need to grow more corn and soy beans, we need to treat the land better. We may not be able to grow as many crops as we can in a monoculture.”
But growing crops on smaller lots, regionally, factoring in biodiversity and reducing the poisons we put in the soil and on our food will mean healthier food and a healthier planet.