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Now reading The State of Food: Part II

The State of Food: Part II

Mark Bittman on GMOs, farms, raising healthier kids, and establishing a minimum drinking age for soda.

(This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.)

How do we go about encouraging cooking on a national level?

I have a lot of ideas, and ideas are cheap, but humor me. We could bring back home economics in school—that would be a start. We could start with nutritional literacy in school—that would be an important thing. We could start a civilian cooking corps. We could have ten thousand people employed to teach cooking in ten thousand locations around the country. This would take federal funding, of course, but not all that much, and it’s a pretty good idea.

We could have soda taxes or the like in places where a soda tax would actually make money. And then that money could be spent in countering the consumption of junk food. Part of countering the consumption of junk food would be subsidizing fruits and vegetables and teaching people how to cook them.

You could give away or sell cheap local fruits and vegetables in schools. Everybody in the United States has access to a school, so by doing that you also address the so-called food-desert problem that people talk about so much. You could have cooking classes in schools and libraries and post offices. There are public places that everybody has access to and we could use these places for access to food.

It will be argued, correctly, that some people are never going to cook, some families are never going to have a member who can cook—so I’d like to propose that, just as we have communal swimming pools in some cities, we have communal kitchens. They would be nonprofit organizations where good food would be cooked locally and could be purchased as inexpensively as possible because it would be subsidized. I know that this sounds like communism, but so be it.

Do you see any significant positive change in terms of food in the U.S.?

I think significant positive change is what the Obamas put in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Sadly, it didn’t fund the fairly strict nutritional standards it encourages, so it’s a struggle for a lot of school systems to implement. That said, the changes have eliminated some junk food, and the required percentage of whole grains in food being served in the lunch program is another really nice change.

We all know from our own personal experiences that it’s very hard to change our own eating habits, and that means that it’s key that children learn good eating habits. If we can teach children how to eat well, we’ll have grown-ups that eat well.

I hadn’t realized before reading your latest book, A Bone to Pick, and one of your New York Times opinion pieces in it, that junk food is advertised on school buses.

I think that it still is. The crux of that piece is the question of how you limit the marketing of junk to kids if the marketers are able to claim that it’s their First Amendment right to do that marketing.

There are a lot of decisions that we make because we think children are irrational or not yet fully formed grown-ups. And, of course, we know that fully formed grown-ups don’t always make rational decisions. But kids, we don’t even expect to make rational decisions. That’s why we don’t let them drink alcohol; that’s why we don’t let them, in theory, take drugs. We don’t stop kids from driving until they’re sixteen because they’re too short; they don’t drive because they’re too dumb. We don’t let them vote; we don’t let them join the army. We don’t let them do lots of things, and some of this is because they’re physically immature, but most of it is because we just don’t think that they’re capable of making reasoned decisions until they’re of a certain age.

We all know that we form many of our habits when we’re young, and we also know from our own experience that it’s hard to change habits. If you’re going to allow marketers to teach children that sugary foods are a way to be happy, you’re allowing those habits to be formed. The result: unhealthy grown-ups who have habits that they want to break but have a lot of trouble breaking.

It’s really the equivalent of saying smoking cigarettes makes you really cool. When you’re fourteen and you want to be cool, you should start smoking cigarettes. We don’t allow that anymore. We stopped that, and that was a very wise thing for us to do. We need to do the same thing with junk food.

So what kinds of things can we do to make it harder for kids to drink Coca-Cola? I can think of two offhand. One is you don’t market it to them. You put restrictions on the ability of marketers to target young people. Now that seems to be a First Amendment issue and that’s a struggle, but it’s a struggle that we have to be involved in. The second thing is you make it harder for young people to buy sugar-sweetened beverages. I suggest we start discussing carding kids when they go to the counter to buy a Coke. In other words, you have to be sixteen to buy a Coke, because we don’t think that you’re able to make a decision about how much soda you can drink until you’re sixteen. Really it should be twenty, but I’m compromising because it’s such a far-fetched idea. But it’s not a wrong idea, it’s a right idea.

A lot of people are switching to sugar alternatives such as agave or stevia. What do you think of that? 

The whole thing about agave juice or any of that is total nonsense. No sugar is better for you than any other sugar. It all raises your blood sugar levels and it all causes insulin to be secreted into your bloodstream, so most of these things are pretty much the same. Maybe there are trace elements of something marginally beneficial in one or another, but that’s all beside the point. Your body recognizes and treats all sugar pretty much the same.

Children used to never, ever, ever get Type 2 diabetes. It’s bad when a chronic disease that was limited to fairly few adults is now something we have to worry about with children, and that is a result of eating too much sugar, especially sugary beverages as well as things like sugar, which may or may not include highly processed foods like white flour. It’s not entirely clear that your body actually knows the difference between a cookie and a piece of white bread.

It’s not like sugar is the enemy, because sugar in moderate quantities is not that harmful. I don’t want to walk around saying that sugar is the enemy, but we eat many, many times more sugar than we used to, and we have so much more diabetes. It doesn’t mean that you can’t eat any sugar or that as soon as you eat sugar your body gets damaged; it simply means that too much sugar is bad for you, and I think most people would agree about that.

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What would you like to see happen in terms of GMOs in the next few years?

I’d like to see someone use genetic engineering for public good instead of as a crutch for industrial agriculture. Then we could finish this argument, since it would be understood that genetic engineering, like dynamite, can be used for good or ill. You use dynamite to build railroads, which is good. Or you can use dynamite to blow up other people. Same with genetic engineering. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with genetic engineering, but very little of it has gone toward making a better product from the public perspective. Almost all of it has gone to supporting industrial agriculture and making money for its creators. So I would like it if genetic engineering were demonstrated to be a useful and viable technology. It really hasn’t been to date.

The fantasies of genetic engineers and the fantasies of how genetic engineering is going to increase yields, reduce pesticides, reduce water use, etc.—none of that has come true. If that stuff comes through, that’s great, and I think that that research should be supported (although it’s probably better to be supported by the government than by industry, because we’d be more likely to have things that benefit more people).

Genetic engineering is a crutch for monoculture and industrial agriculture in general, and so are pesticides and antibiotics. I think that, to the extent that we can reduce pesticides and antibiotics, that’s more important. It’s all important, but so many people are putting energy into whether food is genetically engineered.

Right, it’s good that this issue is getting attention because as a result there’s more of a dialogue about food issues and people are questioning what they are being marketed, but it’s not as if GMO labeling is the be-all, end-all issue.

Right. More importantly, how do you get people to eat more good food and less bad food? You can’t change agriculture unless you change the way people eat, and you can’t change the way people eat unless you change agriculture—so which of those comes first?

How do we figure out a way to make healthy fruits and vegetables accessible for everyone in this country?

The state of Iowa, one hundred years ago, was a leading apple producer in the United States, and produced more tomatoes than any other state in the United States. The state of Iowa is now producing only corn and soy. Raising dairy in California makes a lot of sense as long as water is cheap. Now that water is going to be demonstrated not to be cheap forever in California, it makes more sense to move dairy back to where it belongs, which is the Northeast, where water is abundant and the climate and land is tolerable for dairy production. This would free up a lot of land in California to raise fruits and vegetables. This kind of reimagining can be done, but it has to be prioritized. It’s not going to be done automatically.

Do you think it’s possible to change Iowa’s monoculture? And do you think it’s possible to get enough people to grow vegetables in their backyards to make any sort of significant difference?

I think that many, many people are deeply involved in personally changing agriculture on a small scale, and doing very innovative and wonderful things in food, but to change Iowa is a completely different story. Both have to happen. It’s true that we grew 50 percent of our personal consumption of fruits and vegetables in home gardens during World War II, but that was before big-time urbanization. That was when 25 percent of Americans lived on farms. Two percent of Americans live on farms now, and a lot of those people who live on farms don’t even have gardens. I think, yes, routinely we do need people more involved in the production of their own food, but we also need a shift toward regional agriculture and away from monoculture. We need to stop having the most productive states in our country rely on corn and soybeans.

Big food wants to produce and sell a certain kind of food, so we grow things in a certain way. And the fact that we grow them that way has tragic environmental consequences and tragic consequences on public health. Both of these things are kind of inarguable and both would be helped by a more diverse agricultural system, where a greater variety of plants are grown over a greater geographical area. That’s kind of as simple as I can make it. It is what I do for a living—explain this over and over.

What role does the USDA have in implementing these sorts of changes?

The USDA has a dual mission. Its mission is to support American agriculture and to support the production of healthy food, and those two things are in competition because American agriculture, as it has developed, is more profitable if it produces junk food than it is if it produces real food. So the USDA has encouraged the growth of the corn and soybean industry, and that is basically the junk food industry. At the same time, the USDA is trying to encourage healthy eating among citizens, which is in conflict with the kind of agriculture that it supports.

You can’t simply say, “I support farming,” because there’s a kind of farming that’s just not doing anyone any good. To say “I support farming” and meaning “I support industrial agriculture that takes place in most of Iowa,” is to say “I support the destruction of land and the attack on the public health of the American people.”

When does the farm bill come up again, and what do you think it will look like?

In 2019—it comes up every five years. People are already talking about it. To a large extent, it’s going to depend on the composition of the House of Representatives and the Senate. If the House of Representatives and the Senate are under Republican control, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see any progress on the farm bill—and if the President is Republican it will be impossible. If we’re talking about political activism, and we should be, two things that I think are highest priorities are: one, work on the local level, because we’ve all seen that working on the local level can be effective, and two, think about, talk about, and work on campaign finance reform, because without that we can’t change much. If we look at the way things happen in the United States, they often happen because of public pressure, and public pressure means not just voting, but actual civic action. This means demonstrations; it can mean civil disobedience; it can mean fighting things out in the courts. It can mean anything.

The success stories that you see happening right now in terms of this are, most importantly, the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act and the legitimizing of gay marriage. I think it’s been ten or eleven years since Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage, and we have a Supreme Court decision that has made gay marriage legal in the entire United States. That’s a victory no one foresaw, and that victory happened because people fought for that victory.

What are some other new ideas that have kept you up at night? What are you especially passionate about right now?

There are three or four central issues, which we’ve already talked about around food. There are maybe another ten very important issues around food. We’ve made progress on almost none of that stuff in the last three years. We’ve made very, very little progress. I’m not sitting here talking about how good this is and how good that is. I’m talking about what our concerns are and how things need to be better.

It’s not as if we’ve solved antibiotics in the food supply and now we can move onto something else. Rather, we keep talking about the same things over and over again, and I’m feeling now like I want to hone in on the one or two or three most important issues—and winnable ones, at that—and I want to win them. I can write about different examples of things becoming marginally better. I can write about different examples of things becoming marginally worse. But the big issues are still the big issues, so I would like to find a way to work on actually resolving one of these big issues.

That was the idea behind Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, Olivier De Schutter, and I getting together two years ago and deciding to do a national food policy. We sat down in Michael’s living room and said, “What can we do to try to address these issues that we know everyone pretty much agrees on?” We decided that the best thing we could do was to call for a national food policy, so that’s what we did. I don’t know that that was the best thing we could do, but that’s what we came up with. Now I don’t know what the best thing to do is, but I’d like to figure it out, and I’d like to do it.