In critical food systems scholarship, Mark Bittman has found fertile ground for reform. Rooted in the history of fields and pursuit of nation building, Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal provides a counterweight to the framing of food systems as a collection of stagnant, guaranteed, or technocratic tools and policies. The author argues instead that our current food environment is the result of calculated, concentrated power—from colonial control to corporations—directing what we grow and how we eat, in a system that demands “of agriculture not food for people, but goods for market” (54).
By focusing on the historical examples of food processing (section 8), nutritional guidance (section 10), and pesticide use (section 13), Bittman highlights the promotion of dissected facts devoid of their contextual housing. The author discusses how science has been manipulated over time to distance consumers from food and privilege larger agri-food enterprises in their path to profits. As scholar Rebecca Tsosie (2012) writes in Indigenous Peoples and Epistemic Injustice: Science, Ethics and Human Rights, “In a public policy sense, science becomes a tool to effectuate a particular set of interests” (1141). Animal, Vegetable, Junk outlines how researchers, such as Rachel Carson, have been dismissed or discredited because their findings don’t fit within the prevailing narratives of the industrial food system.
A common thread that binds the work of this book is the need to truly recognize the right to food as a fundamental human right. As the author notes, exploitation of bodies, fields, and cultures is now inherently tied to the way we consume food. Bittman shows the intertwining of food systems with social justice, structural racism, environmental degradation, and a converging global (mal)nutrition crisis. Looking to movements like La Via Campesina and the work of agroecologist Steve Gliessman, Bittman highlights how resistance to the current corporate system offers a pathway to better futures. Place-based research and Indigenous ways of knowing are central to reconnecting with the earth, and Bittman looks toward agroecology as a way of recoupling community and centering food on a rights-based framework.
Throughout “The Way Forward” (section 15), Bittman outlines many great examples from around the world where agroecology is thriving and emerging as part of both institutionalized policies and community-driven practice. Agroecology is the intimate connection between social and ecological justice as it pertains to food systems. Akin to the calls from civil society and findings included in the recent report on Agroecological and Other Innovative Approaches by the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE 2019) at the Committee on World Food Security, the recognition of agroecology as a holistic approach to food system transformation has gained traction in recent years.
A limitation of the book is that the author asserts that agroecology is less likely to be co-opted than other terms. Bittman states, “It’s a clunky term, but perhaps its unsexiness is an advantage: It’s not likely be co-opted as quickly as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ were; it’s hard to imagine ‘agroecological’ power bars or potato chips, though stranger things have happened” (266). However, the risk of co-optation reigns largely outside of the marketing apparatus that is so intimately connected to consumers. While it doesn’t make for simple slogans on a packaging label, the risk of ripping away the social components from technical science practices is omni-present in the debate on how agroecology will or can be implemented into public policies. As seen in Anderson and Maughan (2021), the use of problematic narratives and the division of this holistic approach into digestible bits can eat away at the core of agroecology. Reductionist views of food systems risk reproducing similar outcomes to current agricultural models while retreating transformation away from the root cause and back toward the silos of symptomatic solution building.
In addition to many place-based community initiatives listed in the book, documentaries such as Gather (2020), Kiss the Ground (2020), and The Biggest Little Farm (2018) center on food systems and highlight how transition happens in real time. Paired with more assertive trade and agricultural policies that prioritize food sovereignty and Indigenous sovereignty, agroecological practices could take us down a path that bridges where we are with what we could actually achieve.
Animal, Vegetable, Junk joins a growing call to action for food system change. Although portions include relatively dry and hard-to-digest content, Bittman’s ability to connect with a broad readership makes this book extremely relevant. In addition to providing a critical overview of food systems development, Bittman’s work can act as an essential point of reference for policymakers. Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal is a critical guide that provides the necessary history often missing in teaching tools for policy development or agricultural practices. With the Food Systems Summit of 2021, this book could create a moment of pause for the reader by extending space for reflection.