A Bone to Pick: The good and bad news about food, with wisdom and advice on diets, food safety, GMOs, farming, and more

A Bone to Pick: The good and bad news about food, with wisdom and advice on diets, food safety, GMOs, farming, and more

by Mark Bittman

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Since his New York Times op-ed column debuted in 2011, Mark Bittman has emerged as one of our most impassioned and opinionated observers of the food landscape. The Times’ only dedicated opinion columnist covering the food beat, Bittman routinely makes readers think twice about how the food we eat is produced, distributed, and cooked, and shines a bright light on the profound impact that diet—both good and bad—can have on our health and that of the planet.

In A Bone to Pick, Mark’s most memorable and thought-provoking columns are compiled into a single volume for the first time. As abundant and safe as the American food supply appears to be, the state of our health reveals the presence of staggering deficiencies in both the system that produces food and the forces that regulate it. Bittman leaves no issue unexamined; agricultural practices, government legislation, fad diets, and corporate greed all come under scrutiny and show that the issues governing what ends up in our market basket and on our tables are both complex and often deliberately confusing. Unabashedly opinionated and invariably thought provoking, Bittman’s columns have helped readers decipher arcane policy, unpack scientific studies, and deflate affronts to common sense when it comes to determining what “eating well” truly means. As urgent as the situation is, Mark contends that we can be optimistic about the future of our food and its impact on our health, as slow-food movements, better school-lunch programs, and even “healthy fast food” become part of the norm.

At once inspiring, enraging, and enlightening, A Bone to Pick is an essential resource for every reader eager to understand not only the complexities inherent in the American food system, but also the many opportunities that exist to improve it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804186551
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 05/05/2015
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

MARK BITTMAN is one of the country’s best-known and most widely respected food writers. His How to Cook Everything books, with over a million copies in print, are a mainstay of the modern kitchen, and his manifesto on pursuing a part-time vegan diet, VB6, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Bittman's writings on food policy and cooking appear in the Dining, Op-Ed, and Magazine sections of the New York Times.

Read an Excerpt


Big Ag, Sustainability, and What’s in Between

You can eat without farms, but for the last 10,000 years few humans have. For about 9,900 of those years, though, all farms were small and--at least arguably--more or less sustainable. That is, they put back into the earth, in the form of animal and even human waste and plant matter, just about as much as they took out. There were no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and so on, and everything was pretty much what we’d now call organic.

Much has changed. The dominant form of agriculture in the West is industrial, large-scale, fossil fuel and chemical dependent, and heavy on water use. It isn’t sustainable--that is, it uses far more in resources than it returns to the land--and it poisons land, sea, animals, workers, and consumers. It’s used primarily to grow a half dozen crops, among them corn and soybeans, much of which, sadly, are fed to animals, used as fuel (ethanol), or converted into the kind of junk that’s largely responsible for obesity. And despite the fact that there’s enough food produced to feed everyone on the planet adequately, tens of millions of Americans, and more than a billion people worldwide, struggle with hunger.

In short, it’s a terrible “system,” and one that could be improved almost immeasurably if just a little bit of care were taken.

How to Feed the World

It’s been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy spoke of ending world hunger, yet on the eve of World Food Day, Oct. 16, the situation remains dire. The question “How will we feed the world?” implies that we have no choice but to intensify industrial agriculture, with more high-tech seeds, chemicals, and collateral damage. Yet there are other, better options.

Something approaching a billion people are hungry, a number that’s been fairly stable for more than 50 years, although it has declined as a percentage of the total population.

“Feeding the world” might as well be a marketing slogan for Big Ag, a euphemism for “Let’s ramp up sales,” as if producing more cars would guarantee that everyone had one. But if it worked that way, surely the rate of hunger in the United States would not be the highest percentage of any developed nation, a rate closer to that of Indonesia than of Britain.

The world has long produced enough calories, around 2,700 per day per human, more than enough to meet the United Nations projection of a population of nine billion in 2050, up from the current seven billion. There are hungry people not because food is lacking, but because not all of those calories go to feed humans (a third go to feed animals, nearly 5 percent are used to produce biofuels, and as much as a third is wasted, all along the food chain).

The current system is neither environmentally nor economically sustainable, dependent as it is on fossil fuels and routinely resulting in environmental damage. It’s geared to letting the half of the planet with money eat well while everyone else scrambles to eat as cheaply as possible.

While a billion people are hungry, about three billion people are not eating well, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, if you count obese and overweight people alongside those with micronutrient deficiencies. Paradoxically, as increasing numbers of people can afford to eat well, food for the poor will become scarcer, because demand for animal products will surge, and they require more resources like grain to produce. A global population growth of less than 30 percent is projected to double the demand for animal products. But there is not the land, water, or fertilizer--let alone the health care funding--for the world to consume Western levels of meat.

If we want to ensure that poor people eat and also do a better job than “modern” farming does at preserving the earth’s health and productivity, we must stop assuming that the industrial model of food production and its accompanying disease-producing diet is both inevitable and desirable. I have dozens of friends and colleagues who say things like, “I hate industrial ag, but how will we feed the poor?”

Let’s at last recognize that there are two food systems, one industrial and one of small landholders, or peasants if you prefer. The peasant system is not only here for good, it’s arguably more efficient than the industrial model. According to the ETC Group, a research and advocacy organization based in Ottawa, the industrial food chain uses 70 percent of agricultural resources to provide 30 percent of the world’s food, whereas what ETC calls “the peasant food web” produces the remaining 70 percent using only 30 percent of the resources.

Yes, it is true that high-yielding varieties of any major commercial monoculture crop will produce more per acre than peasant-bred varieties of the same crop. But by diversifying crops, mixing plants and animals, planting trees--which provide not only fruit but shelter for birds, shade, fertility through nutrient recycling, and more--small landholders can produce more food (and more kinds of food) with fewer resources and lower transportation costs (which means a lower carbon footprint), while providing greater food security, maintaining greater biodiversity, and even better withstanding the effects of climate change. (Not only that: their techniques have been demonstrated to be effective on larger-scale farms, even in the Corn Belt of the United States.) And all of this without the level of subsidies and other support that industrial agriculture has received in the last half-century, and despite the efforts of Big Ag to become even more dominant.

In fact if you define “productivity” not as pounds per acre but as the number of people fed per that same area, you find that the United States ranks behind both China and India (and indeed the world average), and roughly the same as Bangladesh, because so much of what we grow goes to animals and biofuels. (Regardless of how food is produced, delivered, and consumed, waste remains at about one third.) Thus, as the ETC’s research director, Kathy Jo Wetter, says, “It would be lunacy to hold that the current production paradigm based on multinational agribusiness is the only credible starting point for achieving food security.” This is especially true given all of its downsides.

As Raj Patel, a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, puts it, “The playing field has been tilted against peasants for centuries, and they’ve still managed to feed more people than industrial agriculture. With the right kinds of agroecological training and the freedom to shape the food system on fair terms, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be able to feed themselves, and others as well.”

Yet obviously not all poor people feed themselves well, because they lack the essentials: land, water, energy, and nutrients. Often that’s a result of cruel dictatorship (North Korea) or war, displacement and strife (the Horn of Africa, Haiti, and many other places), or drought or other calamities. But it can also be an intentional and direct result of land and food speculation and land and water grabs, which make it impossible for peasants to remain in their home villages. (Governments of many developing countries may also act as agents for industrial agriculture, seeing peasant farming as “inefficient.”)

The result is forced flight to cities, where peasants become poorly paid laborers, enter the cash market for (increasingly mass produced) food, and eat worse. (They’re no longer “peasants,” at this point, but more akin to the working poor of the United States, who also often cannot afford to eat well, though not to the point of starvation.) It’s a formula for making not only hunger but obesity: remove the ability to produce food, then remove the ability to pay for food, or replace it with only one choice: bad food.

It’s not news that the poor need money and justice. If there’s a bright side here, it’s that the changes required to “fix” the problems created by “industrial agriculture” are perhaps more tractable than those created by inequality.

We might begin by ditching the narrow focus on yields (as Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, says, “It’s not ‘grow baby grow’ ”), which seem to be ebbing naturally as land quality deteriorates and chemicals become less effective (despite high-tech “advances” like genetically engineered crops). Better, it would seem, would be to ask not how much food is produced, but how it’s produced, for whom, at what price, cost, and benefit.

We also need to see more investment in researching the benefits of traditional farming. Even though simple techniques like those mentioned above give measurably excellent results, because they’re traditional--even ancient--“technologies,” and because their benefits in profiting multinationals or international trade are limited, they’ve never received investment on the same scale as corporate agriculture. (It’s impossible not to point out here that a similar situation exists between highly subsidized and damaging fossil fuels and oft-ignored yet environmentally friendly renewables.)

Instead, the money and energy (of all kinds) focused on boosting supply cannot be overstated. If equal resources were put into reducing waste--which aside from its obvious merits would vastly prevent the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions--questioning the value of animal products, reducing overconsumption (where “waste” becomes “waist”), actively promoting saner, less energy-consuming alternatives, and granting that peasants have the right to farm their traditional landholdings, we could not only ensure that people could feed themselves but also reduce agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gases, chronic disease, and energy depletion.

This isn’t about “organic” versus “modern.” It’s about supporting the system in which small producers make decisions based on their knowledge and experience of their farms in the landscape, as opposed to buying standardized technological fixes in a bag. Some people call this knowledge-based rather than energy-based agriculture, but obviously it takes plenty of energy; as it happens, much of that energy is human, which can be a good thing. Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, calls it “relational,” and says, “Agroecology is not just healthy sustainable food production but the seed of a different way of relating to one another, and to the earth.”

That may sound new age‑y, but so be it; all kinds of questions and all kinds of theories are needed if we’re going to produce food sustainably. Supporting, or at least not obstructing, peasant farming is one key factor, but the other is reining in Western-style monoculture and the standard American diet it creates.

Some experts are at least marginally optimistic about the second half of this: “The trick is to find the sweet spot,” says Mr. Foley of the University of Minnesota, “between better nutrition and eating too much meat and junk. The optimistic view is to hope that the conversation about what’s wrong with our diet may deflect some of this. Eating more meat is voluntary, and how the Chinese middle class winds up eating will determine a great deal.” Of course, at the moment, that middle class shows every indication that it’s moving in the wrong direction; China is the world’s leading consumer of meat, a trend that isn’t slowing.

But if the standard American diet represents the low point of eating, a question is whether the developing world, as it hurtles toward that nutritional nadir--the polar opposite of hunger, but almost as deadly--can see its destructive nature and pull out of the dive before its diet crashes. Because “solving” hunger by driving people into cities to take low-paying jobs so they can buy burgers and fries is hardly a desirable outcome.

OCTOBER 14, 2013

Sustainable Farming Can Feed the World

The oldest and most common dig against organic agriculture is that it cannot feed the world’s citizens; this, however, is a supposition, not a fact. And industrial agriculture isn’t working perfectly, either: the global food price index is at a record high, and our agricultural system is wreaking havoc with the health not only of humans but of the earth. There are around a billion undernourished people; we can also thank the current system for the billion who are overweight or obese.

Yet there is good news: increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels, and experts (not hippies!) are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic--perhaps best called “sustainable”--can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production, and, in the long term, become the norm.

Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the Right to Food, is the author of a report entitled “Agro-ecology and the Right to Food.” (Agro-ecology, he explained to me, has “lots” in common with both “sustainable” and “organic.”) Chief among de Schutter’s recommendations is this: “Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just.” Agro-ecology, he said, immediately helps “small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.” Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks. (Calling it a system is a convention; it’s actually quite anarchic, what with all these starving and overweight people canceling each other out.)

Industrial (or “conventional,” even though by most standards it’s anything but) agriculture requires a great deal of resources, including disproportionate amounts of water and the fossil fuel that’s needed for transportation, to make chemical fertilizer, mechanize working the land and its crops, run irrigation sources, and heat buildings and crop dryers. This means it needs more in the way of resources than the earth can replenish. (Fun/depressing fact: It takes the earth 18 months to replenish the amount of resources we use each year. Looked at another way, we’d need 1.5 earths to be sustainable at our current rate of consumption.)

Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellectual--much research remains to be done--and physical: the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization. Many adherents rule out nothing, including in their recommendations even GMOs and chemical fertilizers where justifiable. Meanwhile, those working towards improving conventional agriculture are borrowing more from organic methods.

Currently, however, it’s difficult to see progress in a country where, for example, nearly 90 percent of the corn crop is used for either ethanol (40 percent) or animal feed (50 percent). And most of the diehard adherents of industrial agriculture--sadly, this usually includes Congress, which largely ignores these issues--act as if we’ll somehow “fix” global warming and the resulting climate change. (The small percentage of climate-change deniers are still arguing with Copernicus.) Their assumption is that by increasing supply, we’ll eventually figure out how to feed everyone on earth, even though we don’t do that now, our population is going to be nine billion by 2050, and more supply of the wrong things--oil, corn, beef--only worsens things. Many seem to naively believe that we won’t run out of the resources we need to keep this system going.

Table of Contents

Introduction x

A Food Manifesto for the Future xiii

1 Big Ag, Sustainability, and What's In Between

How to Feed the World 2

Sustainable Farming Can Feed the World 7

Pesticides: Now More Than Ever 10

That Flawed Stanford Study 13

A Simple Fix for Farming 17

Not AH Industrial Food Is Evil 20

Local Food: No Elitist Plot 24

Lawns into Gardens 27

Celebrate the Farmer! 30

Abundance Doesn't Mean Health 33

2 What's Wrong with Meat?

Rethinking the Meat Guzzler 38

We're Eating Less Meat. Why? 43

Banned from the Barn 46

Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others 49

On Becoming China's Farm Team 52

Should You Eat Chicken? 55

A Chicken Without Guilt 59

3 What Is Food? And What is Not?

Make Food Choices Simple: Cook 66

Is Junk Food Really Cheaper? 69

What is Food? 74

Is "Eat Real Food" Unthinkable? 77

Why Won't McDonald's Really Lead? 80

Parasites, Killing Their Host 83

Yes, Healthful Fast Food & Possible. But Edible? 86

It's the Sugar, Folks 94

Is Alzheimer's Type 3 Diabetes? 97

Cereal? Cookies? Oh, What's the Diff? 100

Farmers' Market Values 103

4 The Truth About Diet(s)

(Only) Two Rules for a Good Diet 108

What Causes Weight Gain 111

Which Diet Works? 114

Will China Defeat Obesity? 117

Butter Is Back 120

Can You Eat Too Little Salt? 123

Got Milk? You Don't Need It 127

More on Milk 130

Dietary Advice for the Gluttony Season 133

When Diet Meets Delicious 136

Finding Your Comfort Food 140

The Frankfurter Diaries 143

Bagels, Lox, and Me 146

Why I'm Not a Vegan 149

5 The Broken Food Chain

Dietary Seat Belts 154

11 Trillion Reasons 157

The Right to Sell Kids Junk 160

¡Viva México! 163

Bacteria i,F.D.A.o 167

E. Coli: Don't Blame the Sprouts! 170

The F.D.A.'s Not Really-Such-Good News 173

The 20 Million 179

Fast Food, Low Pay 182

The True Cost of Tomatoes 185

6 Legislating and Labeling

Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables 190

Some Progress on Rating and Health 196

Why Do GMOs Need Protection? 200

Why Aren't GMO Foods Labeled? 204

Leave "Organic" Out of It 207

My Dream Food Label 210

Rethinking the Word "Foodie" 214

Hunger in Plain Sight 217

Can Big Food Regulate Itself? Fat Chance 220

Tobacco, Firearms, and Food 223

Don't End Agricultural Subsidies, Fix Them 227

Stop Subsidizing Obesity 230

Fixing Our Food Problem 233

A Few Final Thoughts

Why Take Food Seriously? 238

Do Sweat the Small Stuff 241

Acknowledgments 245

Index 247

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