Food has played an important role in human history and evolution. By eating more and higher quality calories, our brains grew larger and we became more clever and thoughtful about finding and growing our food.
The journey of food and the need to eat has impacted everything from slavery and colonialism, to famine and genocide. Now industrial agriculture threatens public health and exacerbates climate change.
KCRW’s Joanthan Bastian speaks with renowned food writer Mark Bittman about his latest book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal.” They look at how food has shaped our past, and whether we can shift its impact in the future.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: In your book, you use food as a frame to go back through time and talk about how humans develop. How did you think that would be an important way for us to understand how far we've come as human society?
Mark Bittman: “Why not food? It's the most important thing there is. You could argue about food versus oxygen. But obviously, we're not here if it's not for food. So food is the determinant of how we use land. It’s where we live. … Labor began as agricultural labor.
I think this happened after years of saying, ‘You can't fix society without fixing the food system, and you can't fix the food system without fixing society,’ and talking about the links between food and everything else. It just dawned on me that this has always been the case, that food started it all rolling, and it has never stopped being one of the most powerful influences.”
You start one of the early chapters with “the food-brain feedback loop.” What is that?
“It basically describes the process by which we came out of the trees. We started to eat a more diverse diet. No one really knows this, but the presumption is that by eating more and higher quality calories, our brains grew bigger. And as our brains grew bigger, we were capable of being more clever and more thoughtful.
We were able to find more food, we became better at finding food. And as we became better at finding food, our brains grew bigger still. And that process continued for a couple hundred thousand years, until we … outlasted the Neanderthals, and we became the primary Homo sapiens species that we are.”
Can you expand on the idea of caloric intake and brain size?
“I'm not sure it's so much the amount of calories as the quality of the calories. … There were a number of changes that took place in our bodies relative to the bodies of our more ape-like ancestors. Those animals spent a lot of time chewing, and a lot of time converting green and woody substances into digestible foods that could then be made into amino acids and protein.
When we came down from the trees, and especially when we started to hunt, we started to eat more directly. So foods that were higher protein sources. And so I think it's a lot about protein consumption, that’s larger brain size or more acute thinking abilities. And that just continued and continued and continued over the years.
We eventually were able to hunt better. We were eventually able to cook. And that meant that we had even more food sources at our disposal, because a lot of foods that appeared to be edible are very, very hard to chew, or very, very hard to digest, unless they're cooked. So control of fire was a huge thing in determining the direction our diets took. And diets generally took, especially until the advent of agriculture, better and better directions.”
PHOTO: Mark Bittman is a food journalist, former columnist for the New York Times, and author of “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal.” Photo by Jim Henkens
Where does the story go from these early agrarian societies and agriculture spreading around the globe?
“I'll go back to the formation of agriculture and its responsibility for forming civilizations. … When there was agriculture, there started to become surplus. And when there was surplus, there started to become people whose jobs were not farmers. Until that time, there really wasn't anyone whose job didn't have something to do with food.
But once there were surplus, you could have priests, builders, accountants, scribes, politicians, managers, traders, and all the things that we now consider professions or jobs. That's a big change. And the fact that you started to grow food and make laws and civilization, that started 10,000 years ago, and maybe was consolidated by 2000 years ago. That was a big, big jump.
... The next thing that's especially of interest to North Americans is the 13th to 16th centuries. And the easiest way to explain this, I think, is to start by saying that it takes more land to feed people who are dependent on animal products than it does to feed people who are more oriented toward vegetarianism.
So the higher populations of Asia are largely explained by the fact that there were more cultures dependent on plants in Asia than there were in Europe. The technology was just as advanced. In fact, the Chinese sailed to Africa, which is a much longer voyage, long before the Europeans sailed North America.
But in a way, the pressures of population, trade, capitalism, and the new economy of the 15th, and especially 16th, centuries in Europe really forced the issue and forced Europeans to go exploring and looking for new lands, for agriculture and for other reasons, as well. But primarily, or at least very importantly, lands for agriculture. And you can only imagine the amazement of Europeans when they started to explore North America and saw the size and the richness of this continent, and the relatively small population of indigenous people here. And sadly, an indigenous people that were able to be conquered in order for the Europeans to take over.
But a lot of that was about agriculture too. Europeans bringing their agricultural systems here, their ways of land ownership here, their ways of land distribution, and their willingness to steal land from other people, and to kill if they had to do it. That was all the story of the 15th and 16th centuries, and that continued. As we know, it continues now, but that was the foundation of this country, in particular.”
Where do we see the story taking us next, especially in the United States?
“I think the most significant thing, one of the defining things, of the United States right now happened in the post-Civil War period. ... In 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, the Homestead Act was first enacted. … All the land west of the Appalachians was given away to white males and to railroad companies, which, of course, were run by white males also. But land was given away in relatively small chunks — 160, 320, or 640 acres was basically given away to those men who wanted to leave the East or wanted to leave Europe and become farmers. ... That was an early determinant of wealth in the United States. And land ownership, obviously, is associated with wealth, and the fact that land was stolen from indigenous people and given to mostly white men was a tremendous transfer of wealth, and one that affects the way we define wealth in the United States today.
It goes without saying there were never reparations for the millions of Africans who were brought here against their will and enslaved. There were some promises made to free men, ex-enslaved people, about giving them land. And Reconstruction had a lot of promise, also, about making this a more equal country. But those promises were betrayed.
And we went from 1860 till now without addressing the issue of who gets the land to farm. And what we've seen in that intervening time is the consolidation of that land that was given away by the federal government, consolidation of land that was owned by white men, into, largely, corporations that are owned by white men.
If you want to talk about addressing inequality in the United States today, you have to talk about addressing who's farming the land, who owns the land, and what are their goals in farming the land. Now we're at the place where you can see why I think food is such a determinant of what is happening in society.
We haven't even gotten to the point of mentioning the public health issues that swirl around food, or the fairness issues, or the accessibility issues. We're still just talking about land and farming, and already we're talking about the determinants of what our country looks like right now.”
So even in that earlier period in American history, the fact that the land was controlled by primarily white men created this natural food segregation. And there were different ways that food was distributed, or how it was marketed. Can you use that as more of a springboard to talk about some of these inequities?
“Farming was transformed from an activity where people were growing food for themselves, their neighbors, their regions — to an activity where people were growing food to ship and sell elsewhere. And that started to happen early on. The building of the Erie Canal, and the first railroads, and all of that made this possible.
You start to see farmland go from growing a variety of crops to … commodity crops. And commodity crops are what has been encouraged, supported, and even subsidized by the federal government since before World War I, but especially beginning in World War I. And those commodity crops are not really food for people, those are food for industry.
So the extreme example is growing corn for ethanol. Less extreme, but still egregious, examples are growing food, growing corn to feed animals, which are then raised industrially. Or even worse, in my opinion, growing food to turn into hyper processed food, which barely qualifies as food and which ... is poisoning or making ill a large percentage of our population today. And, of course, the percentage of population that is most susceptible to being made ill by marketing of junk food are people with less money.”
Can you talk about the huge production and sale of processed sugar, and how the push of the low-fat diet has produced huge health problems?
“The 20th century just saw the conversion of food into food products in a large way. A lot of the products that we think of as food were actually invented in the 20th century. I'm not just talking about Twinkies, but frozen dinners and canned soups and a host of other things, to the point where, by some estimates, 60% of our calories are now in the form of ultra-processed food. By ultra processed food, I mean food you couldn't make yourself. Food made from ingredients that are not found in anybody's kitchen. Food that our grandmothers wouldn't recognize.
So sugar is a big part of that for sure. And sugar is probably the biggest culprit in causing diet-related chronic disease, which is our country's biggest killer, and … way bigger than COVID. But highly processed carbohydrates of all kinds are bad for us. And every year, there are more and more food products, food-like substances, whatever you want to call them, unidentifiable food-like objects … and every year, our diabetes rates go up, our cancer rates go up, our diet-related diseases go up.
… COVID killed around 300,000 Americans in 2020. We recognize that as a crisis. We dealt with it, given the limits of the administration, as best we could … but 1.5 to 1.7 million Americans die of diet-related chronic disease. This is the National Institutes of Health number. And we don't call that a crisis. For some reason, we're willing to live with that. And if I can have any impact on that number, on the way we think about that number and say, we have a dietary crisis here whose foundation is really in agriculture, because we can only eat what we produce. And we people have no control over what gets produced, processed, and sold. We have very little control over our diets. That's what has to change. And that is big stuff. That's not like, ‘Shop at your farmers market,’ although that's a good idea. That's like, we need fundamental change in the way we think about food.”