An Interview with Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman has been writing about food since the early 1980s, and in recent years has gone beyond cooking and recipes to explore a broader spectrum of issues concerning the global food system in his books and as a columnist for The New York Times. His 2009 book Food Matters is a practical analysis of some of these questions. We talked with him to find out more.

Slow Food: Could you tell us more about your personal story and how you came to realize that ‘food matters’?

Mark Bittman: I started cooking when I was in college, and I also started thinking about some of the links that Slow Food is making now between food and politics, the environment and so on, but it wasn’t really a popular topic in the seventies. I was doing a bit of journalism and started writing about food. By 1980 I was writing professionally but for the first 10 years I was learning a great deal and struggling to pay the bills. In the 1990s things changed. I became the editor of Cooks magazine, started writing for The New York Times and did a couple cookbooks with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Then I got the weekly ‘Minimalist’ column in The Times that ran for 13 years, with a focus on simple daily home cooking. I also wrote How To Cook Everything, which became a best seller and soon after that I started doing television.

It all continued in this way until about six or seven years ago. I was aware of the connection between food and the environment, and between food and fairness and poverty and justice and all of those things but I didn’t have an avenue to write about it. I was also aware that the food system was becoming much worse and that industrialized production was the norm. I wrote How To Cook Everything Vegetarian because I believed that the way we were eating in this country – and eventually everywhere else – was unsustainable.

SF: You mean meat consumption?

MB: Yes, meat consumption and junk food in general. As I was working on the vegetarian cookbook I started thinking about ‘food matters’ and considering how I could have a better role, or more interesting role, here at The New York Times. Not that I don’t like writing recipes, because I do, and not that I don’t think that writing about cooking is important, because I do, but it’s at that point that I realized that there were things that I could do beyond that. So I started to write for The Times. I wrote about issues like meat consumption and global warming and taxes on soda and this lead me to writing Food Matters. I now write a weekly opinion column about food as well as a weekly cooking column in The Times Magazine.

SF: The meat consumption argument is a delicate one, as most people are likely to react badly if you argue that meat consumption is unsustainable for the planet. The typical reaction would probably be “mind your own business”.

MB: Yeah, I get a lot of that! I never say to anyone “become vegetarian” I say “eat less meat… and better meat”. But it is a challenge. Of course people say, “I do whatever I want”.

SF: How do you respond to the controversy around this issue, especially regarding people in developing countries that want to increase their meat intake?

MB: Yes, “you had your turn, now we have to have ours”. The answer has to be in finding a middle-ground – somewhere between the pound of meat consumed per month by individuals in developing countries and the pound a day consumed here in the U.S. It is fair for people in developing countries to say: “look, we want to eat more dairy and meat”. But it’s equally fair to say that people in developed countries need to eat less animal products. The Chinese do not need to eat more like Americans, but Americans need to eat more like Chinese. Eating meat in such massive quantities is unsustainable; you just have to look at the impact of the huge health care bills on national economies and then the damage to the land, air, and water to realize we don’t have a choice. And you can’t produce meat better and continue to raise animals with the current level of intensity: there’s no room for that. You have to both produce it better and produce less – or less per person.

SF: What do you think of lab-grown meat?

MB: Let’s see what happens. I mean, I guess fake meat is better than bad meat (laughs). This is a new attitude for me, because I used to say: “why would you eat fake meat when you can enjoy eating plants?” But now I think it might be better than imprisoning animals and torturing them and so on. If people want to eat fake meat, then ok – let them eat fake meat.

SF: We like your argument “let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good” as it comes up often in discussions of organic and sustainable production and food policies.

MB: The fact is that the Western standard of living right now is too high. And it’s not that we have to live worse, it’s that we have to live smarter and better. It can be the waste factor, or the energy consumption, or the water consumption, or the meat consumption. Or all of them together. If it’s not sustainable, it’s just not sustainable. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to do it. In a hundred years it can’t just possibly be the way it is now. It can’t. So it either happens voluntarily or it happens involuntarily.

SF: Yes, and that brings us to another common criticism in discussions of small-scale and sustainable food production, which is: “ok, but how are we going to feed the world?”.

MB: Well, you know if 50 percent of the world’s grain harvest is destined for animal feed then something is wrong. People are starving but there’s enough food to feed animals?

SF: So, do you have a recipe to resolve the problem of “how to feed the world”?

MB: There’s no way around some kind of mass production but we have to support small stakeholders. In many countries small-scale farmers grow 80 to 90% of food. The global economy isn’t helping people eat better and it’s not sustainable. Shipping food around the world doesn’t make any sense and we’ll reach a point where it doesn’t make profit either and then what? I don’t have a recipe, but I think it’s important to provide disincentives that make it really difficult to eat junk food or large quantities of meat and dairy, and at the same time make it easier to grow, distribute, cook and consume foods and vegetables locally. That’s the formula. And this is so true in developing countries, where people say: “you guys have been eating bad food for 50 years and now we want to eat bad food too”. I don’t think that’s a great argument. I guess you have a right to eat bad food if you want to, but you better make sure that your health care system can sustain it.

In the United States the diabetes health bill is 100 billion dollars a year for a population of around 300 million people. That is 300 dollars per person before you start counting heart disease or other diet-related illness. If people want to eat junk food, that’s the cost. It’s not just the environment that is impacted by embracing poor food habits.

SF: All these arguments still revolve around profit as the only criteria – or the most important – of success. Like you said, it’s environmentally unsustainable to ship the food around the world like we do now, and we’ll probably come to a point where it’ll also be economically unsustainable and that is the point where things will start to change.

MB: I’m just trying to deal with reality here. If you ask me if I’d rather see things planned in a logical and rational way, of course I would. But the reality is that the corporations are running the show right now. So how do you change that? I don’t know. How do you change the growth model? How do you change this model where people – and by people I mean everybody, even liberals, even progressives – seem to think that without growth you can’t have any progress.

SF: And what’s your position on that?

MB: I don’t think that it can possibly be true but I’m not an economist, I can’t make an argument for the stationary model or non-growth model. So what does that mean? It means that maybe to have full employment everybody works 25 hours a week, but how are you going to get that? It’s utopia. I’m fine with utopian solutions, but how do you reach them? There’s no simple answer. Maybe Occupy Wall Street turns into a global revolution and then very interesting things start to happen. That would be fine with me, but I don’t see it happening.

For more information on Mark Bittman, click for his website.

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