Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

An Evening with Mark Bittman: The History and Future of Food

An Evening with Mark Bittman: The History and Future of Food
Aired May 5, 2021

Barbara Stauffer:
I'm Barbara Stauffer, Chief of Community Programs at the National Museum of Natural History. I'd like to welcome you to our program featuring Mark Bittman. It's a great pleasure to have him with us tonight. This program is part of a series called "Evening With," which features Kirk Johnson in conversation with some of the great minds of today.

Before we get started, I wanted to let you know, look for the Q & A box at the bottom of your interface, the Zoom interface. That is where you can post your questions for Mark and for Kirk to ask Mark. We also have closed captioned this program so you'll also find the closed caption button. It's marked CC at the bottom of your interface, and you can use that to turn on and off the closed captioning. Finally, at the end of the program, a survey will pop up on the screen, and we ask that you please fill it out. Your feedback matters a lot. It helps us improve what we do and offer what you want.
So now, without further ado, I'd like to introduce our host for the evening. Kirk Johnson, who is the Sant Director at the National Museum of Natural History.

Kirk Johnson:
Thanks Barbara, and thanks all of you for joining us. As Barbara mentioned, tonight's program is part of our ongoing signature "Evening With" series. For those who are able to join us at the museum in the past, welcome back, and for those just joining us for this series, welcome. In "Animal, Vegetable, Junk," New York Times best-selling author and pioneering journalist, Mark Bittman, provides an expansive look at how history has been shaped by humanity's appetite for food, farmland and the money behind it all and how a better future is within reach. I'm really looking forward to talking with Mark tonight and what I'd like to do now is go ahead and introduce him.

Mark is the author of a whole lot of books. You can get various numbers as high as 30 from my research, including the "How to Cook Everything" series and of course, "Animal, Vegetable, Junk," which we'll be learning about more today. He wrote for The New York Times for more than three decades and became the country's first food focused Op-Ed columnist for a major news publication. He hosted two television series and has been featured in two others, including the Emmy winning "Years of Living Dangerously." Mr. Bittman is currently the special advisor on food policy at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and the editor-in-chief of The Bittman Project.

I'll chat with Mark for about 30 minutes or so, and then we'll take questions from the audience. Feel free to submit your questions in the Q & A box as soon as you have them so we can get through as many as possible. Now, without further delay, please join me in welcoming Mark Bittman. Hey there, Mark. How are you?

Mark Bittman:
We made it work. The problem with calling someone one of the great minds of today, it's all downhill from here.

Kirk Johnson:
Right. You're at the apex. I find your book fascinating because I'm a paleontologist, and I always think about how things in the past affect things in the future. You've taken this deep dive and looked at basically the beginning of human civilization. You didn't go back to Australopithecus, but you basically started with people wandering around and sort of inventing agriculture and then take it all the way to the present and then all the way into the future. I guess my first question for you, is what compelled you to take that approach to food?

Mark Bittman:
I'm not sure what compelled me, but once I started, I couldn't stop. So I think the decisions that we made, our ancestors made, obviously have lasting impact and lasting effect. I'd love to have this conversation going way back some time with you personally, but it just seemed that every time I looked at a significant moment in the past, I could see how we were still living with it.

So obviously the birth of agriculture had a huge impact, but then every few hundred years and with increasing frequency, we've all heard about or thought about how change is happening at an accelerating pace. But the birth of agriculture 5,000 years ago, 3,000 years ago, 800 years ago, 500 years ago, and then ch, ch, ch. At each of these stages, you're seeing group decisions or group occurrences. They're not really decisions because it's not like people said, "Let's do agriculture." It's like little by little people started planting seeds and people started protecting their ground, and one thing led to another. But as those things happened, history changed. Lo and behold, history changed, and we are living with the results of those decisions.

The reason that's important, I think it's not only it's fun, it's interesting to understand it, but it also shows that you don't have an impact so much on your lifetime, you have an impact on the future. The kinds of decisions that we are or are not making now are for our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and so on. We don't know the impact of what we do now will have on the future and how far down in the future. We only know that it's important.

The fact that we're living with decisions or events that happened at a minimum 100, 150 years ago, it's an incredible thing. It just sort of emphasizes, I'm fascinated by how short our lifespans are relative to the overall pace of change and what it takes to move humanity. We know we're not fixing climate change or agriculture in our lifetimes, but we also know that if we don't start now, it's not going to get fixed in the next generation or the generation after that. I just kept getting more and more fascinated with this idea that we really are stewarding the Earth. We are stewarding humanity. We are, for better or worse, stewarding the existence of other species on this planet, and we have to take that seriously.

Kirk Johnson:
One of the things that really struck me reading the book was this sense that somewhere 10,000 or 8,000 years ago, a big chunk of humanity stepped onto a conveyor belt, and they're just carried forward. Once you're on the agricultural train, it's hard to get off. I mean, once you're used to spaghetti, it's going to be spaghetti. In some way it was profoundly depressing because we realized decisions made by Sumerians now impact what we're doing right now, which the momentum of those choices ultimately, and it's a funny thing because you tend to think of farmers as the salt of the earth and all this stuff. But the framing of how you get on these conveyor belts and you just carried along with the current and eventually money gets involved in a profound way and it got involved early. I mean, the Sumerian tablets are all about the accounting of grain sales and things like that.

Mark Bittman:
Right. Well, I mean, it's depressing and empowering at the same time. It sort of means we're responsible for our own lives and what we do personally, but we are responsible for the future also. When I was in my 20s, I thought ... I mean, it's a little embarrassing to say it ... But I thought we were making the revolution. There are other people watching who feel the same way. We were going to change things in our lifetime not gradually, but immediately. Things were just going to get a whole lot better because we saw the light.

Well, in fact, that's not usually how things happen. But we can recognize that our actions will have an impact. We just may not live to see them. Just one other thing on that conveyor belt. You look at agriculture, you look at the start of agriculture and you're absolutely right, it's synonymous with the start of money and stratification of society and prejudice and so on. But it's also agriculture, broad population growth, population growth made necessary, better and more agriculture and that has never stopped. So we went from a population of, you probably know better than I do, 50 million 10,000 years ago on earth to seven billion, which is what, 20 times that.

Kirk Johnson:
Well, the thing that I pay a lot of attention to this. My mother had me when she was 30, and her father had her when he was 50, which means that my grandfather was born in 1879. I knew him. He died when I was three, but I have pictures of me and my grandfather. He was born ... He was 21 years old in the year 1900. I went back just recently and found the census record for ... He was born in a little village called Sutton Veny in the south of England, it's near Warminster in Wiltshire, and it lists his father's occupation as shepherd and his occupation as plow boy. This is 1879 at which point there's just under two billion people on the planet, and he's a total agrarian person and he moves to the States and marries a wife and has my mom, then she has me.

What's so amazing is there's 10,000 years of human history, but the last two generations in my family have seen it go from being two billion to almost eight billion. That's the impact of fossil fuels on food, which I wanted to ask you about because in this long trend, but the conveyor belt suddenly accelerated once we learned how to have the Industrial Revolution and start to use high density fuels.
So what do you think about the combination of, and of course the Haber-Bosch process in the whole creation of fertilizer out of the air. But what do you think about this acceleration of food? You notice a real dramatic trend in the-

Mark Bittman:
Well, it's all in the last 150 years and it's hybridized seeds, it's fossil fuel, as you say, not only fuel powered machinery tractors, of course. But we use fossil fuel to pull nitrogen out of the air and create chemical fertilizer. So hybridized seeds, fossil fuel for mechanization and for fertilizer, pesticides, which are a modern invention as well. All of those things together led to this not only acceleration of agriculture, but acceleration of monoculture; that is of growing one crop at a time, and that reinforced the idea, which is a few hundred years old, of commodity crops. That means, I mean, if you think about it, you know what it means, but just for simplicity's sake, that means growing food in order to sell it, not in order to feed your community, feed your region, feed yourself even. Growing one crop at a time to exchange it for cash and using that cash to buy food and everything else that you need. That's a relatively new concept. Really that plus the acceleration of it is really what's gotten us into trouble.

Kirk Johnson:
I've always been humored by the concept of pork belly futures and things like-

Mark Bittman:
Yeah.

Kirk Johnson:
The fact that they're bidding on the commodity of pork bellies or whatever the other commodity crops are.

Mark Bittman:
I mean, I'm quite sure that you can probably buy vegan burger futures at this point.

Kirk Johnson:
Well, let's dig into this a little bit. I mean, you basically make the argument that food is a looming thing in our lives, and we sort of take it for granted. That we don't even really realize the sort of global significance of food. We're always hungry so we always eat. But talk a little bit more about that.

Mark Bittman:
Well, it's very hard to say ... I have many conversations with people about why food and agriculture is not at the top of our list of concerns because we all do think about food all the time. We're thinking about our next meal, we're thinking about shopping or going to restaurants or whatever, but we don't take food as seriously as we might. Whenever you read a story about the challenges facing the Biden administration, for example, who doesn't make the cut? You hear about climate change, income inequality, COVID of course, the police, racism. Very important things obviously. No one says food and agriculture, and yet we're losing topsoil at an alarming rate, we're poisoning the atmosphere and the land and the water with our style of agriculture, and maybe most important is we're producing food that's making us sick. We have a public health crisis that is largely based on our diet. I have thoughts about why this isn't at the top of our list, but my argument is that it ought to be.

Kirk Johnson:
What's interesting, Michelle Obama picked on that theme as kind of her pet theme by building the garden out in the back of the White House. We see just recently too, if you watched the threat that Biden is going to steal your hamburgers. That was the other one that popped up where food has become a political tool I think as well.

Mark Bittman:
Well, each of those things is a little strange because Michelle Obama was, of course, fabulous as she was and is, not empowered. She was the President's wife, and with all due respect, that's not an elected position and that doesn't have the power that a junior Congressman from Missouri has. She had a bully pulpit of sorts, but it didn't go very far.

We do need to eat less meat. That doesn't mean that Joe Biden wants to take away your burgers. Believe me, if he wanted to, first of all, he'd be the least popular person in the world, which is what the Republicans would like, of course. But secondly, he can't do that, but we do need to eat less meat. The way to do that is to eat less meat. To produce less meat and to eat less meat.

This is true from an environmental perspective because industrial production of animals is in the top five sources of greenhouse gases, and industrial agriculture in general is probably number two. But we just don't have the resources to be producing meat at the rate that we're producing it and of course the rest of the world. 10 years ago, I would say, well, it's not as if the Chinese should be eating like the Americans. Really the Americans should be eating the Chinese. Too late to say that. The Chinese are well on their way to eating like Americans, and there just aren't the resources to support that kind of animal production.

Kirk Johnson:
Your descriptions of these mass production facilities of initially chickens, but later pork and beef, those are those kind of things where if they were more widely displayed, you'd see much more uproar. Just even in the sense of even if you like beef, you like beef from that kind of situation. If you like chicken, you're really wanting a chicken that's been grown in those conditions.

Mark Bittman:
I mean, I read ... I'm not going to gross people out here against their will or without unanimous consent, but I recently read, and it changes the technology and procedures of how animals are raised in slaughter changes all the time. It's constantly being updated. If you read a description of how chickens are handled from birth to death, it's just the most horrible thing you could possibly read.
My contention is that if there were transparency in the industry, which the industry does not want and fights like hell to keep from happening, if there were transparency, if there were webcams in every factory farm and every barn where animals are held by the thousands in excruciatingly horrible conditions, our meat consumption would plummet immediately just from that. If we all knew what was happening in factory farms, it would just gross us out. We would just eat less meat. I'm convinced of that.

Kirk Johnson:
One thing that struck me is you said that how can we feed the 10 billion people who are going to be around in 2050 is the wrong question. What do you mean by that?

Mark Bittman:
Well, first of all, this isn't me talking. I mean, I'm a reporter. I don't do original research so everything I say is attributable and triple fact checked. Sometimes I get things wrong. I can be bad at numbers. I don't have cheat sheets, but the stuff that I say is verifiable. One thing I'll say is that according to the U.N., there are already enough calories on earth not only to feed seven billion people and feed us well, but to feed 10 billion people. That's the truth.

So the question of how are we going to feed the 10 billion is usually a question that's asked by representatives of American big food or industrial agriculture, whatever you want to call it, saying, "We need more business." That's what they're saying. "We need to sell more machinery. We need to sell more chemicals. We need to sell more seeds. We need more business, and then we, America, can export more food so that other countries' regional agriculture can be destroyed, but we can become more profitable." That's the sort of logical extension of much of that.

If you look at the Green Revolution and you read the book, and you know I do, the Green Revolution is touted as bringing the wonders of American agriculture to the rest of the world so the rest of the world can eat. But from the time of the Green Revolution through now, and NAFTA should really be considered a part of the Green Revolution, what we've seen is an ability for America to export cheap food to the benefit of American companies but to the detriment of people who are doing farming all over the world. Mexico is the prime example where agriculture has literally been devastated by the import of cheap American corn. I mean, corn is a Mexican staple obviously, and corn was farmed by millions of people in Mexico, subsidized by the government, distributed locally, grown maybe not organically, but grown well, and those farms don't exist. If you want to look for one of the prime reasons of why there are immigration issues, look no further than NAFTA and the export of American corn and pork and other super cheap products to countries like Mexico.

Kirk Johnson:
But the initiation of the Green Revolution was a different beast. It was more about understanding how to really maximize crop yields initially, right?

Mark Bittman:
Well, look, I will say that the founders of the Green Revolution may have been well intentioned. It goes back to that thing of making decisions. We have more information now than they did then so we can give them the benefit of the doubt. When you look at global yields in the era of the Green Revolution, sometimes they went up, sometimes they didn't. Often they went up because there were massive subsidies at the same time as the so-called Green Revolution. But if you look at global totals, much of the increase in yield was thanks to China, and China was not a part of the Green Revolution. So you're looking at global yield of rice, it's going up. Much of that increase is coming from China, which was off doing its own thing.

Kirk Johnson:
So this is just another example of the conveyor belt really, isn't it? You get started with these transporter trades and away you go.

Mark Bittman:
I mean, I also like to think of it as another example of this ... My alternative title for "Animal, Vegetable, Junk," which would not have sold a single copy. But the thing I like to think about is that we have so much more information and science and knowledge right now than even 100 years ago, it's incomparable. We all have it. It's a cliche to say it, but our phones have more computing power than the Department of Defense did in 1960. We have so much information. We know so much. Ignorance is not an excuse. It was an excuse 100 years ago. It was an excuse even 50 years ago at the time of the Green Revolution. Now we know what works. We know, or at least we know what doesn't work. We have ideas about what works. The question is, do we have the political will, the collective will, to put in place some of the changes that we need to put in place?

Kirk Johnson:
This is the other thing about this whole perception that people sort of say, "It's your personal willpower that determines whether you're obese or not." I read from the book, there's other things at play here that are causing people to not have the bodies that they think they should have.

Mark Bittman:
I mean, this is one of the mistakes of, let's say, it's not that long ago, but the prior generation of public health officials focusing on Let's Do It, Just Say No, the whole trying to change behavior patterns. But it's very hard to change behavior patterns when ... Here's the most interesting statistic I think in "Animal, Vegetable, Junk." Sixty percent of the calories on the market in the United States today are in the form of ultra processed foods, what we routinely call junk food. If 60 percent of the calories out there that exist that are being sold are junk food, how do you balance your diet? How do you fix your diet when less than half of what's available is good food?

Kirk Johnson:
This is the whole concept of food deserts in urban areas where just literally, there's no place to get healthy food.

Mark Bittman:
Well, but when you say a food desert in an urban area or even a food desert in a rural area, you make it sound like there are places where if you or I were there, we couldn't find good food. But it's really an income issue because people with money can find good food anywhere. People with money, if they have to drive 10 minutes or 20 minutes can drive 10 minutes or 20 minutes or now call DoorDash or Grubhub or whatever. If you have money, you can eat well. If you don't have money, it's much, much harder. But because of this 60-40 split that I was just talking about, if everybody in America decided to eat really well tomorrow, we would only have 40 percent of the calories we needed for all of us to eat really well. That's an agricultural and a policy problem. That's not a willpower problem.

Kirk Johnson:
So then how do we subsidize the production of good food? Of non-junk food?

Mark Bittman:
Well, Kirk, I mean, I wish I had an answer for that question, but that is the right ... I'm not saying it's a bad ... It's a great question. I often say let's assume that you need to subsidize the production of food. It's challenging. It has a lot of problems. It costs a lot of money. It requires a lot of labor and machinery and so on. Let's assume it needs subsidization. Why not subsidize good food instead of bad food? I mean, the answer is because the people who are lobbying for the subsidies are the people who are making money from bad food.

I think that's a long-term question as is how do we get land into the hands of people who want to farm it well? How do we teach children what real food is and how to appreciate it? I think those are long-term questions and I'm all for long-term questions. There are some short-term questions to be asked that can be answered sooner, and I think can set us on the path of answering those longer-term questions. It really goes back to where we started. Can we start to make good decisions so that the next generation of leaders or whatever, let's say the next generation of actors, can stand on our shoulders and make better decisions.

Kirk Johnson:
So there is another flavor of urgency that's arrived in the form of climate change. Talk about how climate change is going to make things hard for agriculture and change the game for agriculture. But you also talk about how agriculture itself contributes to climate change. If you look at the what's going on in the Paris Accords and things and look at how much time we have before we need to avoid two degrees centigrade of warming, this is an urgent question. This is a question that needs to be answered in the order of the next decade or so. How have you thought about that in terms of agriculture and food?

Mark Bittman:
I mean, a lot of times people talk about the impact of climate change on agriculture. As you say, my emphasis is to turn that around and say, "Let's talk about the impact of agriculture on climate change." As I said before, industrial production let's say of animals, is in the top five greenhouse gas generators. Let's figure out how to produce fewer animals and how to produce them better.
Industrial agriculture ... We talked about the Haber-Bosch process, the process by which nitrogen is taken out of the air using fossil fuels and converted into chemical fertilizer. Just that process is responsible for 2 percent of greenhouse gases, which is a lot. Cattle alone are in the top 10 generators of greenhouse gas, and it's in the form of methane, which is say 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. These are things we need to address, and climate change is one crisis. Then the way that we're eating, the public health crisis as a result, the way that we're eating, is another. Again, it brings me back to wondering why food and agriculture is not higher on the list of things that we need to grapple with.

Kirk Johnson:
Because there's so much around the storage of carbon and farms. fields and [inaudible 00:28:42]. I mean, there's sort of a little bit, this is like the Green New Deal is. It's you solve one problem by solving the other problem. These problems are so related to each other.

Mark Bittman:
So much stuff is interrelated because if you look at labor, you look at some of the worst paying jobs in the United States are in the food sector. If you look at racism, you look at the fact that 98 percent of all land is held by white people, and most of them are descendants who were given land in the Homestead Act era. You look at climate change, it's obviously related to agriculture. You look at health, it's obviously related to agriculture. It's all interconnected.

If you're interested in us making progress as a society, as a civilization, then it almost doesn't matter where you pick at the thread, the skein of wool or the ball of of string will start to unravel because everything is so interrelated. I mean, of course we don't want to unravel things. We want to ravel them I guess. We want to put things together, but everything is so closely related now.

Kirk Johnson:
Yeah. No. I think that's the issue that you sort of choose the problem you want to work on and start making progress. I'm getting a whole slug of questions from people watching.

Mark Bittman:
I'm seeing that.

Kirk Johnson:
So let me read you a couple questions. Julie Daniels asks, I'm really interested if you think that industrial agriculture can be curtailed somehow or if the horse is out of the barn. It's not "better agriculture" and it harms everything. I think of Aldo Leopold's line, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Mark Bittman:
Well, okay. So we're agreed on everything there. Wendell Berry says, "We built industrial agriculture. We can unbuild it." It took us 100 years to build it. It might take us 100 years to replace it. My point is there are things we can do now that move us in a better direction. Is it a direction that feels like we're dismantling industrial agriculture? Well, maybe not at first, but if there's a road and we start on that road, we can't see the end of the road. But if we know that we're building the road in the right place, in the right direction, that's the important thing right now. We haven't really started. So almost anything we do in the right direction is progress.

Kirk Johnson:
Well, so this next question is one thing in the next direction, which is I haven't read the book yet, but Mark addresses the proliferation of "fake meats," Impossible Burgers, et cetera, and their impact on meat-eating trends. That seems like something in the next direction. It's an alternative to meat. Have you been eating those meats? I have been, and they're pretty hard to tell that they're not hamburger. I tell you.

Mark Bittman:
Well, because hamburger's so bad. The bar is very low. If you're trying to replace a Whopper, the bar is very low. I'm of the school that believes that the perfect substitute for meat is not fake meat, but vegetables and fruits and whole grains and especially legumes, which are the world's most important source of protein. Easy to grow and really good for you and widely varied and so on and so on. I don't think the answer to eating less meat is to produce more ultra processed food. I think the answer, and by the way, meat consumption has not gone down since the introduction of the so-called fake meats. Meat consumption in the United States continues to go up. So what is the service that these fake meats are providing exactly? I'm not sure.

Kirk Johnson:
Interesting. So what about this thing, Epicurious will no longer print recipes with beef? What do you think about that?

Mark Bittman:
It's big news. I mean, I get asked that every day now and I say ... Well, Epicurious ... We all have our own ... I mean, I run a publication too, The Bittman Project, with a publication. We're all looking for little angles of how to distinguish ourselves. I think Epicurious has done a great job by doing that, and I think it's admirable. It's fine. Look, if someone came up with a recipe for meat that didn't yet exist, I'd be really surprised as a person who's written thousands of recipes. There are enough beef recipes. Epicurious has hundreds, if not thousands in their catalogs. It's not that big a deal, but as a, not a public relation statement, as a statement of principle, I think it's admirable.

Kirk Johnson:
Yeah. Well, I mean, you give a little chart of what you should eat less of and they sort of map right onto Michael Pollan's ... What'd he say? Eat .. I don't remember his phrase, but it's basically the same kind of thing. It's like-

Mark Bittman:
Eat food, not too much. Mostly plants.

Kirk Johnson:
Exactly. Your chart pretty much said the same thing there. This is interesting question though. That is a question from Nils Nilsson. Nils says, there's a constant flow of new diets and contradictory information about nutrition. Why is it so hard to figure out what we should eat to be healthy?

Mark Bittman:
It's really not that hard. There is a lot of misinformation and a lot of new information, but the job of big food, it's a similar playbook to tobaccos. It's to deny the reality, it's to confuse us, it's to distract us. If I say the phrase, good diet, the image that comes into almost everybody's head ... Again, it's eat more foods from the plant kingdom, as close to natural as possible, eat less junk food, eat fewer animal products. It's kind of as simple as that. Everything else that seems distracting is just that. It's distracting. Everything that seems an outlier is in fact an outlier. I mean, you could probably say this as a scientist better than I, but if you look at the weight of science, the weight of the studies that have come before, any new study that shows something wildly different is really likely to be wrong.

Kirk Johnson:
Yeah, yeah. No, it's true. It's just a matter of, I think from a personal point of view, it takes a while for you to see change. If you stop eating something that's processed for a couple of weeks, you don't really notice a huge difference. I think people who have those challenges of food, it would be better if you had a very rapid response. If you eat a certain kind of food and drop three pounds in an afternoon or something like that.

Mark Bittman:
Well, sure-

Kirk Johnson:
It doesn't happen that way.

Mark Bittman:
If you eat a real diet, a diet of food that's good for you, your weight will be normal and your health will be better and you should be eating that way for the rest of your life. It's not possible for everyone, but I suspect that it's possible for most of the people in this audience.

Kirk Johnson:
Earlier, you mentioned Wendell Berry and sort of the bard of the farm guy. Is there somebody that's writing in a parallel way to Wendell about regenerative agriculture and sort of how you would just change basic agriculture? Or is Wendell Berry himself writing about that actually?

Mark Bittman:
No, not so ... I mean, he's written what he's going to write and he does continue to write. There are some farmers ... The guy's name is slipping my mind. He just came out with a book. Tom Philpott is a writer who's a farmer who does some really great work. Chris Newman is another one who actually lives and farms in the Washington area. There are people more and more writing about this. Steve Gliessman, who wrote the textbook on agroecology, literally wrote the textbook on agroecology, is a good source for sort of direct information. But few of us are actually going to be farmers. So these issues are, they're not huge popular issues, the sort of down-and-dirty aspects of it.

Kirk Johnson:
What do you make of the celebrity chefs like José Andrés who are really taking the message of food to the public in an interesting and direct way?

Mark Bittman:
Well, I wish there were more people like José Andrés, for sure. There are dozens of chefs who are doing a good job and talking about food in a better way. We used to say it's really a tragedy because chefs know nothing about farming, but more and more they do know about farming or more and more chefs are interested in farming and interested in good food. That's a great thing. It's just that it's hard, once again, it's hard for chefs to really source well for their restaurants because good food is expensive and hard to come by. Chefs are trying to balance a very ... Walk a very fine line or balance a number of things, and that has historically resulted in them underpaying their workers and underpaying for ingredients. So if you throw into the mix that they ought to be paying more for labor and more for food, it's really hard to then say, how do they make a profit? That's the bind restaurants are in right now.

Kirk Johnson:
Yeah. Well, double bind with the pandemic as well because they've got this just a-

Mark Bittman:
Yeah. Well, that's been hard on everybody. Yes, for sure.

Kirk Johnson:
Here's a question about ... Interesting one that refers to a recent Oscar-winning film. Mark mentioned he believed that people would eat less meat if they only watched the process of meat production and slaughter. I wonder if the award winning film, "My Octopus Teacher," is a test of the hypothesis. Will the consumption of octopus go down? Did this happen after the success of the movie, "Babe"?

Mark Bittman:
"Babe," I don't know. Octopi have been getting very good publicity for the last new years because they're so intelligent. Yes, the octopus in that film was super, super cute. But I can tell you, if you have daily contact with any animal or weekly contact with any animal, you're going to eat less of that animal. If you keep chickens, you're going to eat fewer chickens. I mean, it's one thing to grow animals, understand that you're going to sacrifice them for your benefit and do that. It's another thing to be completely removed from the process of growing and killing animals and to divorce your mind from the fact that literally billions are being raised in horrible conditions for our benefit all the time.
So looking at one cute little octopus, sure, you might not eat octopus. Interacting with one cute little chicken, it might sort of change your mind about chickens. But people go to the store and so many have no idea of what our food goes through to get to us in a supermarket. Especially children, but this has been happening for generations so now many of those children are adults, just have no concept of what farming is like, what it's like to raise animals or grow food and how it gets from the land to our tables.

Kirk Johnson:
It's interesting. I have a lot of good rancher friends out in North Dakota who do eat beef pretty much every dinner. I mean, that is a connection. So there are some people that raise the animals and delight in their consumption.

Mark Bittman:
Right.

Kirk Johnson:
Certainly a lot of fishermen are happy to eat a lot of fish.

Mark Bittman:
Yep. I just think we're talking about the difference between people who are actually involved in agriculture in what used to be called animal husbandry and raising animals as if they were widgets in factories. I mean, that's the difference between a real rancher, a real fisherman, whatever, and a manager who's tending a flock of 300,000 chickens for example.

Kirk Johnson:
Unbelievable. Hey, we're about to get hit by Brood X, the Cicada wave coming through Washington, D.C. What do you think about insects as a food source? I know that there have been some developments in Madagascar where they're growing crickets as a protein source and things.

Mark Bittman:
Well, I mean humans have and always have and continue to eat insects. I mean, I don't know that I would say it's only Western Europeans and their descendants that don't eat insects, but we will eat insects because they will first get snuck into the food supply in some cricket flour form and then probably become more acceptable. But I mean, I'm all for it. But yeah, and they can be good.

Kirk Johnson:
Yeah. No. I mean, the right amount of chocolate on top of any insect will solve that problem.

Mark Bittman:
No, but you need to have ant larva. It's really delicious. If you fry anything, that's another ... Anything is good fried.

Kirk Johnson:
I was in the Outback of Australia with a group of Indigenous people and they'd dug out of the ground these things called honey ants, which are these ants that carry a big bead, like a half an inch diameter bead of sweet liquid in their abdomen. It's just like eating a Sweet Tart almost. They would dig down and get bowls of these honey ants. They were quite delicious. Almost like candy I've got to say.
Here's a question from Elizabeth Morris. The largest cohort of American population is the single person household, and it's growing. Cooking and preparing three meals a day alone is driving so much food waste and so much product packaging waste. What can we do to address single-person household eating and its attendant waste issues? That's something I've got to admit I've never thought of before.

Mark Bittman:
No, it's such a great question. Any answer I give is going to be not well thought out. I just want to caution you. I mean, obviously there's something to be said for cooking so that will address the packaging issue. There's something to be said for cooking appropriate amounts of food in advance. A single person who spends some time on Sunday doing some preparation of vegetables and beans and whole grains and so on can eat well and eat a wide variety of stuff all week.

Having said that, I honestly think that 100 years from now, we will have seen the replacement of fast food joints by whatever we want to call them, community cafeterias, community restaurants, whatever, where good food is served on demand to people of all incomes and at almost any time. Look, we have made ... Electricity is a public utility, water is a public utility, roads and transportation are most certainly public utilities. When we recognize how important food is and the impact that agriculture has and that eating has, when we not only recognize it but own it and say, "We want to do this right," we will say eating good food, affordable food, nutritious food, is a right that everybody shares.

How do we build a society that provides that food for everyone? Guarantees that food for everyone? Early in my career I really evangelized cooking, and I still do to some extent, but I certainly no longer believe that the answer for everyone is to cook every meal or to cook every day or even to cook every week for themselves. We need a joint communal effort to make sure that we can all eat well to counter this private effort to make sure that food is profitable, even if it's not good for us.

Kirk Johnson:
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I've been recently doing a lot of shopping, and I've been more attuned to this question of single-use plastics. Have you thought a little bit about the connection between food and plastics? Really saw a lot of it in the pandemic. But I mean, if you go to the grocery store now, you'll see some pretty elaborate plastic contraptions to hold the food from the grocery store to your house.

Mark Bittman:
Yeah. I mean, I think we're beginning to see legislation against that. New York. No more plastic bags in New York. You're seeing clamshells being regulated on many municipal and state levels. So I think we're seeing a reaction to that. Food need not be multi-layered wrapped to be convenient, but a lot of that is marketing. A lot of that single-use plastic and that fancy packaging is really meant to appeal to us and say, "Buy me."

Kirk Johnson:
Yeah. No, exactly what it's all about is a food store. Here's a different question. What advice would you give to an aspiring food writer or food journalist?

Mark Bittman:
Well, everybody I know started out working for free or cheap, including me. The great thing about writing about food or about anything else for that matter is you don't need to go to graduate school. So instead of spending $20,000 or $60,000 a year doing that, you could just live for cheap and start writing your own blog or write for other people or whatever. But I don't think you can expect to make money from the get-go. That's the problem. So the answer is try it and stick with it really. That's the advice.

Kirk Johnson:
For you personally, what got you going in food writing?

Mark Bittman:
Well, I was in my 20s. I was, I wouldn't say impoverished, but not well-off. I wanted to write. No one was interested in anything I was writing about. Eventually I started writing a food column for the local weekly paper in New Haven. I was making $50 a week. So it wasn't nothing, but that was after three or four years of not making anything per week as a writer. So if you're lucky, if you're diligent, if you're talented, things can move. Things can move along. It's not a career ... I've done well for a variety of reasons, but it's not a career I can say, "Oh yeah, go into it. It's going to work out." It's not like going to law school or something.

Kirk Johnson:
What do you think is the prognosis for restaurants coming out of the pandemic? I mean, what's the new normal of restaurants? Can you project-

Mark Bittman:
I don't know. Mom and pop restaurants, single-owner, single-unit restaurants were among the first to go out because these are not corporate and people were living on savings. But they may well be the first to come back also because they're low investment. What I'd like to see is the disappearance of characterless expensive restaurants. I'd like to see restaurants with character, run by people with heart who really care about food. I don't know that my analysis of this is any more sophisticated than anybody else's actually. It's not really my bailiwick.

Kirk Johnson:
Food rather than restaurants I guess is.

Mark Bittman:
Yeah, and I care less about restaurants. Although having said that, I went to a restaurant maskless indoors today for the first time, not a restaurant I particularly love, but I really had a great time. It was really fun. People pouring me water and bringing me food. It's so unusual right now.

Kirk Johnson:
Yeah. No, it's a delight. I was at my first restaurant quite recently. The novelty is staggering after [inaudible 00:50:10].

Mark Bittman:
Right. It's amazing.

Kirk Johnson:
Now you must get this question every single talk you give. But are you a vegan yourself?

Mark Bittman:
No. I don't get it all the time, but that's okay. I eat way less meat. I eat way more vegetables than I used to, but I remain omnivorous. I don't think the future is veganism. I think the future is way fewer animal products, and I hope the future is way less junk food. I think that those two things: fewer animal products, less junk food, those are the key to both personal health and from an agricultural perspective, planetary health.

Kirk Johnson:
Yeah. That makes sense. I would certainly agree with that. What, if anything, in agriculture or food habits and distribution, are you seeing that makes you optimistic about our nutritional and economic future?

Mark Bittman:
Well, there's not a lot. I mean, I am optimistic because I think the federal government right now is at a place where change is possible. So I think there's a window of optimism, but we haven't seen a lot happen yet.

I do think the pandemic awoke many people to the value of local food, regional food, regional food systems, having farms in their area. CSAs are sold out for 2021. They're going to sell out for 2022 before the end of the summer. There are more CSAs and more farmers' markets than ever before. So people with resources, people with money are consistently eating better and better and better. The real issue or our real issue, and this is why food is not high on the list of problems, is that the negative effects of our food system fall primarily on people with less money. So those people have a less loud voice, they have less power, of course, all by definition. Those of us with more money can continue to eat well and find good food and appreciate it and so on. Really the food system does work well for the better-heeled or yeah, that's a fair phrase, better-heeled portion of society.

Kirk Johnson:
Certainly been such a recurring theme in the pandemic is all the wealth disparity is manifested so many ways and certainly in the food disparity. It's certainly been a season where people got back in touch with cooking in a big way.

Mark Bittman:
I heard both things. I heard people say, "Oh my God, it's such a great opportunity. I got to cook, and I really learned a lot." Then I heard people say, "I am so sick of cooking. I can't stand it." It goes back to what I was saying before. I don't think given the pressures of life, given how much it takes to shop and cook and so on, I do think that a different form ... You could think of fast food as our form of inexpensive communal food. Imagine if that form, a cafeteria where you went and ate quickly, maybe there's even a drive-through window and so on, imagine the form doesn't change that much. The content changes from bad to good. That's an interesting idea. It's actually something I'm working on.

Kirk Johnson:
No, that's a really compelling idea actually because there's certainly the mechanism for transferring the food from the kitchen to your car is right there. So it totally exists. So just a few thoughts on sugar.

Mark Bittman:
Well, don't eat too much of it. That's the main thought. My jar of sugar ... I have a moth problem so everything I have is in jars, and my jar of sugar is labeled white death. It's kind of tongue-in-cheek because it's not that extreme, but the dose makes the poison. If you eat a lot of sugar, your chances of developing insulin resistance and metabolic problems, including diabetes, do go up. So there's nothing, maybe not nothing wrong, there's little wrong in eating some sugar even daily. But if it gets past a couple of teaspoons, a quarter of a cup a day, you're probably eating too much.

Kirk Johnson:
So what's the healthy sweetener that you would recommend for people who want to hit their sweet tooth?

Mark Bittman:
I mean, a banana. I mean, it's really, really hard and you do need to retrain ... Sugar is addictive. I mean, if it's not physically addictive, it's close to it. The jury's still out on that, although people would argue that the jury's in and it is addictive. You need to retrain your taste buds in any dietary change.
I know we're starting to run out of time so I want to just say that our food preferences are shaped when we're young. So if we train our children that Tony the Tiger is their best friend and McDonald's is the most fun place to eat and Pepsi is the best beverage on Earth, they are going to grow up believing that and we as adults are going to have trouble unbelieving it. We need to retrain our taste buds. If we want to raise healthy adults who are not conflicted about food, who naturally tend toward eating sound diets, we need to teach about food in our schools. We need to teach children well and teach them what good food is and where it comes from. We need to limit the ability of rapacious marketers to start selling junk food to children who are barely old enough to talk. So that's my little soapbox for the day.

Kirk Johnson:
The concluding sugar soapbox. Mark, it's been a great hour chatting with you. I really enjoyed the book and hope it does well and sells widely and a lot of the insights are taken up by people who read it because you're onto something. This concept of the ever-accelerating conveyor belt of food going in the wrong direction needs to see some changes pretty soon. So thank you so much for your time today. Really appreciate it.

Mark Bittman:
Well, thank you. You're a great interview, Kirk. I'd love to meet some time, and thank you all who spent this hour with us.

Kirk Johnson:
Yeah, no. Any time you get in Washington, D.C., come by the museum and see me. We can show you many forms of previous food [inaudible 00:57:04].

Mark Bittman:
Okay. We'll do that.

Kirk Johnson:
Excellent. All right, folks, this concludes tonight's virtual program. Please join me in thanking Mark and the team behind the scenes that's made today's program possible. After this webinar ends, you'll see a survey pop up asking for some feedback about the program. Please take a moment to respond. We are very interested in hearing what topics you might be interested in seeing in future programs. Again, thank you to our participants, our donors, and to you, the audience. See you later.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar with food journalist Mark Bittman in conversation with Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History, Kirk Johnson, aired May 5, 2021. It was part of the An Evening With series. Watch a recording in the player above.

Description

Award-winning food journalist and former columnist for The New York Times Mark Bittman says, “You can’t have a serious conversation about food without talking about human rights, climate change, and justice.” In his newest book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal, Bittman tells the story of how food has driven human history, and explores food’s effect on our planet and its impacts on climate change. 

In conversation with Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History, Bittman discussed how history has been shaped by humanity’s appetite for food, farmland, and the money behind it all — and how a better future is within reach.

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Grade Level
9-12
Topics
Social Studies