Last week, we brought you part one of our interview with influential food writer Mark Bittman. Three times a year, ICE publishes The Main Course, our school newsletter full with interviews, articles and school news. For the Winter 2012 issue, we sat down with Mark Bittman, the lead food writer for the New York Times Magazine and an opinion columnist for the New York Times, for which he began writing in 1990. Last week, DICED shared a look inside what his career has been like. In this installment, we are sharing his answers to tough questions about the food system and where our food comes from.
You talk a lot about the need to eat less meat and you are a vegan before 6pm yourself. Is meat the biggest problem the food system has right now?
It’s one of the biggest problems. The easiest way to describe the situation is to say the two biggest problems are animal products and junk food. If I had to say what’s the single biggest problem, I could say “big food,” I could say the stronghold that big food has on America, but it doesn’t answer anything. If I had to pick two things to change, they would be CAFOs—concentrated animal feeding operations—because I think that if we had stricter laws on the treatment of animals, and better controls on the use of antibiotics in animals, better waste disposal systems, better environmental controls, it would make meat much more expensive, and if we made meat much more expensive, then sustainable meat and meat raised non-industrially would be more competitively priced. As a result, I think we would start to move in the direction we need to move anyway, which is that we would eat less meat and pay more for it. If we ate 90 percent less animal products than we do now—which we may do in 50 or 100 years, it’s not going to happen in a year—that would be a really good thing from every single perspective, except of course the perspective of the people who profit by us eating as much as we do now.
Statement number two is the soda/obesity/diabetes issue—and you might add, soda/obesity/diabetes/heart disease/gout, maybe cancer, issue. The way I see of solving that is taxing soda, followed by taxing junk food. And I’d like to see that money used to subsidize public health measures like making fruits and vegetables cheaper and more widely available. That’s as simply as I can put that.
But I want to add this because I’m really happy about it: I was in Pittsburgh the other night; I spoke before 1,800 people, and said, ‘I think the two most important things are regulating CAFOs and taxing soda,’ and they applauded. A year ago, no one would have applauded. The soda tax is going to happen, and it’s going to change things.
You are very vocal about the need for change in your writing.
Yes, and will continue to be. That’s my job and my passion. I’m lucky that they intersect.
But what is the true feasibility of changes like that? Because it’s easy to feel powerless. You think of big ag, you think of lobbyists, you think of politicians, etc.: the changes seem to be hard to actually come.
Well, it’s early days. We’re impatient. We’ve seen good things happen and, let’s remember, in my lifetime, we’ve seen great strides for minorities; we’ve seen the establishment of Medicare; we’ve seen tremendous strides for women. How long have people been advocating for change in food? You could say Rachel Carson, Frances Moore Lappé, absolutely they were. But how long has it been since food has been in the news every single day? How long since people began talking about it all the time? Since The Times gave somebody an op-ed column on food? Twenty years ago, it would have been a joke. Five years ago, it would have been inconceivable. Things are changing.
So you pitched the idea of your op-ed column?
I pitched it and the answer was yes in five seconds: ‘Yes, that’s a good idea; what would you do with it?’ There was a discussion, it took us a couple of months to figure out the logistics. But it was a done deal, almost immediately. Not to single me out: there are now more than half as many farmers’ markets in the United States as there are McDonald’s, that’s a big change. Young people are getting involved in farming, that’s a big change. I could sit around and tell you why things suck—it’s very easy. And mostly I sit around griping, I don’t sit around saying things are getting better. But there are signs that things are getting better. It’s not like the whole thing starts moving gradually towards the better; little pieces are being pulled out and moving forward, little pieces at a time. The obesity thing, the environmental stuff, the healthcare, the results of obesity, the results of raising—what is it, six billion animals a year in the United States? The impact of that stuff is incredible! It’s just awesome. So you have to chip away at it. You can boil it down to one issue: you have to discourage the consumption of bad food and encourage the consumption of good food. Disincentivize bad food; incentivize good food: that’s the single issue. Everything else comes out of that.
‘Good food’ sometimes feel like a two-tiered system, where there are still the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’
Right. Five percent of the population, or maybe 10 percent, has moved on to another kind of diet and is eating well and eating pretty healthfully. That kind of diet is probably affordable by the majority of Americans; it’s just that most people don’t know how to do it. But yes, it’s the best-educated people and in many cases, the people with the most money who have moved on to a better diet. And that’s too bad, because it’s seen as a privilege. But it doesn’t have to be a privilege anymore than education has to be a privilege. Of course the more we de-fund things, the harder it’s going to be. As we de-fund public education, then people have less of a chance of learning how to deal with food in good ways; there used to be home economics, for example. Everybody should know how to cook. The problem is that it’s become, ‘Oh, if you’re going to learn how to cook, it’s because you want to be a chef,’ which is ridiculous.
Next week, we’ll share how Bittman implements this outlook on food in his cooking and his writing. Stay tuned for more.