“Bill MCKIBBEN, MARK BITTMAN, AND THE FOOD CATASTROPHE"
June 16, 2021
The June 6-7, 2021 issue of The Nation features an article by the iconic environmentalist Bill McKibben on what is presented as the “politics of junk food”, based on references to Mark Bittman’s latest volume Animal, Vegetable, Junk. McKibben begins by arguing that Bittman “offers us his most thoroughgoing attack on the corporate forces that govern our food, tracking the evolution of cultivation and consumption from primordial to modern times and developing what is arguably his most radical and forthright argument yet about how to address our contemporary food culture’s many ills.” Since food and agriculture lie at the center of any deep understanding of the modern ecological crisis, this McKibben/Bittman motif would seem to provide an especially wide and critical perspective on that crisis. The outlook here could eventually intersect with the abundant work of McKibben and his colleagues over many years, focused largely on the threat of global warming. I am much less concerned here with Bittman’s work than with McKibben’s own interpretation and analysis.
According to McKibben, based on the line of analysis offered by Bittman, a key historical factor in the United States and elsewhere has revolved around two types of foods consumed by humans (plants and animals), more recently joined by a third type: “processed foods”, otherwise regarded as “junk foods”. This third type would bring a wide range of poisonous and fatal elements to a diet that, thanks to mass production, has grown increasingly popular across the industrialized world. Such an epic shift in eating habits has “diminished the lives of perhaps half of all humans”. The rise of industrialized, mass-produced food has been accompanied by the triumph of gigantic food corporations such as Cargill and McDonalds, responsible for unprecedented levels of agricultural waste and harmful dietary caloric intake across the world. The resulting onset of extremely high incidents of obesity, in turn linked to debilitating afflictions and diseases, corresponds to soaring profits for the enormous food conglomerates. As the system makes available a constant stream of less-expensive processed foods, people gorge on products harmful to both human health and the natural environment. Within this dynamic, as Bittman had noted, global sugar consumption has virtually tripled in just the past half-century.
This line of argumentation, typical of such writers as Michael Pollan as well as Bittman, has become rather commonplace in recent decades. It contains abundant truths – above all, that the onset of mass food production and consumption, integral to capitalism, has contributed to the rise of obesity and such related health problems as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. This is what has come to be defined as the “modern Westen diet”. A central feature of this diet is corn and its associated products, including corn syrup – a staple of processed foods.
The glaring problem here ought to be apparent to anyone who has devoted serious attention to both the modern food and ecological crisis – namely, the far more debilitating consequences of spiraling levels of meat and dairy consumption, especially in the United States but also globally. What is most distressing is that McKibben, like Bittman, makes no effort to even address this problem, much less explore it or analyze it. The most severe – and glaring -- challenge to both food and ecological sanity is simply ignored, thrown aside.
McKibben (and to some extent Bittman) tends to conflate “junk” foods and “processed” foods, which overlap but ultimately involve different kinds of consumption. The first of these can be associated with the phenomenon of McDonaldization – that is, foods comprised mainly of meat and dairy products (hamburgers, fried chicken, milk shakes, etc.). The collective intake of these junk foods has increased dramatically since the 1950s and shapes the modern diet throughout most industrialized societies. That diet is unbelievably high in salt, sugar, and saturated fats. As for processed foods, on the other hand, they are far more diversified and, for the most part, significantly less harmful, extending to much of what is available at typical grocery stores and restaurants: canned goods, breadstuffs, pastries, even items such as nuts. From this standpoint, “processed foods” in the McDonalds sector ought to be differentiated from these other products. While the former is surely harmful to human health, its impact scarcely compares to the immense destruction resulting from the mass consumption of meat and dairy products – destruction extending not only to human health but to the natural habitat (McKibben’s primary focus), animals, and the capitalist workplace.
That a writer of McKibben’s stature could somehow overlook the horrific impact of meat and dairy consumption within modern societies, in a lengthy article for a progressive magazine, seems hard to fathom. After all, this phenomenon is hardly a secret: dozens of books and videos on this very topic have appeared in just the past several years, while the urgency of challenges related to food and agriculture were powerfully brought to public attention in the 1980s by such writers as John Robbins. Yet the words “meat” and “dairy” never even appear in McKibben’s pretentious article. This void is all the more astonishing given the well-known consequences of animal-based food production for both resource utilization (water, arable land, etc.) and worldwide carbon footprint. McKibben’s well-known organization, 350.org, is dedicated to combating climate change, yet he completely sidesteps perhaps the worst of all ecological harms – and one that is steadily and rapidly expanding. Instead, he chooses to emphasize the far more amorphous and all-consuming category of “processed foods”. The planet can easily survive continued mass consumption of processed foods that predominate at most supermarkets. The meat and dairy regimen, on the other hand, is entirely unsustainable in terms of human health, animal welfare, and ecological rationality. Why environmentalists like McKibben are so ethically, politically, and ecologically blind to perhaps the most pressing challenge of our time should itself be a topic of further critical investigation.