Bittman’s Food Manifesto

There is a good opinion piece by Mark Bittman on The New York Times website, entitled A Food Manifesto for the Future.

His ideas mirror many of the things that other sustainability and food activists are talking about, including many things I’ve covered here on the blog. I think most of his points are very much on target. There are, however, some places where I disagree, at least a little. I’ll take them one at a time.

  • End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition. The story is similar for other crops, including soy: 98 percent of soybean meal becomes livestock feed, while most soybean oil is used in processed foods. Meanwhile, the marketers of the junk food made from these crops receive tax write-offs for the costs of promoting their wares. Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.

While I couldn’t agree more that this kind of grain “farming,” especially the subsidizing of these crops, and processing is really terrible, and that ending it is an extremely important step in the right direction to fixing what is wrong with our food system, I am also a farmers’ advocate. We need to be very aware and very careful that, in fixing these problems, we do not unnecessarily attack the farmers who make their living off growing corn and soy. They were not the engineers of the system, but rather turned to growing corn and soy as a way to keep their farms and support their families. The system was only made possible because of terrible governmental practices (as always, you are the devil Earl Butz) and corporations that are more than happy to take advantage of anything they can to save a dollar. THOSE need to be the sectors that take the brunt of the burden when this kind of change comes to be.

  • Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages. Markets — from super- to farmers’ — should be supported when they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food rather than junk food. And, of course, we should immediately increase subsidies for school lunches so we can feed our youth more real food.

In general I agree with this idea, although I would argue that subsidies aren’t really as wonderful as we would like to assume. When subsidies are used to pad pockets unduly then they are only a burden. On the other hand, when subsidies are used to protect farmers from bad growing seasons or bad markets, then they are well placed to actually make a difference.

  • Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating. Meanwhile, the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Food-related deaths are far more common than those resulting from terrorism, yet the F.D.A.’s budget is about one-fifteenth that of Homeland Security.)

I agree about the USDA, but I’m no big fan of the FDA. I think that their mission is a noble one, but I think that, in practice, the FDA is nothing but a huge lumbering beast that accomplishes very little. Giving the FDA more power will solve nothing when they refuse to address the instances where they already fail at their job.

We also must address the issue of informed consent amongst the buying public. The USDA and FDA have made it very clear that they stand against customer choice when it comes to raw milk. Consumers who are informed about the benefits AND the risks of raw milk and still want to have access to it should NEVER be thwarted by government agencies who’s concern is almost solely focused on transnational food systems. When consumers know their farmers and producers, they have the tools to make better choices about where and what to buy than an agency operating from a distance.

  • Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry. The concentrated system degrades the environment, directly and indirectly, while torturing animals and producing tainted meat, poultry, eggs, and, more recently, fish. Sustainable methods of producing meat for consumption exist. At the same time, we must educate and encourage Americans to eat differently. It’s difficult to find a principled nutrition and health expert who doesn’t believe that a largely plant-based diet is the way to promote health and attack chronic diseases, which are now bigger killers, worldwide, than communicable ones. Furthermore, plant-based diets ease environmental stress, including global warming.


  • Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.

Again, yes. Except that I would add that restaurants shouldn’t be ignored in this kind of system. Restaurants that feature whole foods, especially traditionally prepared, should be rewarded. Many times restaurants such as these are better able to preserve foodways that we are quickly losing. We must also find a way to better support small-scale producers of all things from ground whole flour to natural preserves to fine, traditionally made hams.

  • Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster. This isn’t nanny-state paternalism but an accepted role of government: public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to our health — including the sacred cheeseburger and fries.

This is the one I have the hardest time agreeing with. I can see the taxing of marketing. But I have a hard time getting behind taxing foods just because we don’t value them. Especially when those taxes will fall most heavily on the poorest people and people who don’t have access to fresh food. MANY things about the food system would have to change prior to something like this being acceptable and effective.

  • Reduce waste and encourage recycling. The environmental stress incurred by unabsorbed fertilizer cannot be overestimated, and has caused, for example, a 6,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is probably more damaging than the BP oil spill. And some estimates indicate that we waste half the food that’s grown. A careful look at ways to reduce waste and promote recycling is in order.

Wholeheartedly agree.

  • Mandate truth in labeling. Nearly everything labeled “healthy” or “natural” is not. It’s probably too much to ask that “vitamin water” be called “sugar water with vitamins,” but that’s precisely what real truth in labeling would mean.

Again, couldn’t agree more.

  • Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution.

Yes, yes and yes.

Changing the food system is a complex issue that will take the concerted efforts of many different groups of people. But that should never discourage us from tackling the problem.


2 thoughts on “Bittman’s Food Manifesto

    • We are lucky that this movement is so large and prominent here now. I know I see more because I’m looking for it, but it seems like people are talking food sustainability everywhere I turn these days. Oprah just had a show about going vegan for a week and she had Michael Pollan on talking about our food system. She even somehow got her cameras inside a Cargill slaughterhouse and meat packing plant, which hasn’t ever happened before. Now, I don’t like Cargill at all, but I was very impressed that they allowed the cameras in and that they do seem to be doing things better (at that one particular plant) than most.

      Hopefully SA will follow soon behind.

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