• Animal, Vegetable, Junk

  • A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal
  • By: Mark Bittman
  • Narrated by: Mark Bittman
  • Length: 12 hrs and 53 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History, World
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars (117 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

From hunting and gathering to GMOs and ultra-processed foods, this expansive tour of human history rewrites the story of our species - and points the way to a better future.

The history of Homo sapiens is usually told as a story of technology or economics. But there is a more fundamental driver: food. How we hunted and gathered explains our emergence as a new species and our earliest technology; our first food systems, from fire to agriculture, tell where we settled and how civilizations expanded. The quest for food for growing populations drove exploration, colonialism, slavery, even capitalism. 

A century ago, food was industrialized. Since then, new styles of agriculture and food production have written a new chapter of human history, one that’s driving both climate change and global health crises. Best-selling food authority Mark Bittman offers a panoramic view of the story and explains how we can rescue ourselves from the modern wrong turn.

©2021 Mark Bittman (P)2021 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

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Mostly Junk

Despite my considerable interest and excitement to listen to this book, I found that it was difficult to work my entire way through to the end. Author Mark Bittman claims in the preface that his work was "perhaps too ambitious" and, sadly, this was to be one of his more insightful comments. The book spans the idea of agriculture from the fertile crescent to modern day agribusiness and is almost unrelentingly negative about every element of the advances in practice and technology that have led to the state of farming as we see it today.

Before I go further, let me say that I am a lifelong Democrat, vegetarian inching towards vegan, weekly attendee of my local farmers market, a scientist working towards environmental sustainable technologies, avid gardener, and member of a local CSA. All of which is to say that I should be in the center of the "strike zone" for this work.

Perhaps the most grating aspect of this book is the unrelenting smugness the author brings as he criticizes every agricultural practice all the way back to the decision to move from a hunter gatherer society to farming over 10,000 years ago. I should mention that at times, the narrator for this book does Bittman no favors by subtly over-emphasizing the sneering tone, but the way that the words themselves are written leaves little doubt the condescension was already there. We get the impression from the tone and unrelenting focus on the negative aspects of everything that (with the benefit of hindsight) Bittman knows better than all of humanity.

The writing is so one-sided and needlessly political. Agriculture, in one way or another, is to be blamed for all that ills humanity. All major wars trace back to food insecurity. Sexism traces back to the division of labor in early agrarian households. Bittman claims that slavery and racism are even the inevitable outgrowths of the increasing dependence of humankind on large-scale farming. Nevermind, of course, that evidence for all of these practices in tribal societies is abundant, both past and present. The coupling of agriculture to free market economics is an even more toxic stew, Bittman says, nevermind that even he is forced to gloss over some of the biggest famines of modern history that were caused by corruption and mismanagement of centralized farming plans.

Given the excesses of our modern lifestyle and the undeniable damage being done to our planet in the name of ever expanding population and farmlands, the problems that Bittman skims over in the latter half of the book are certainly real and in need of discussion. I would have loved to have heard a balanced perspective of the costs of different farming practices against some of the tradeoffs that they come with (for example, the transfer of backbreaking, poorly compensated labor over to machines). It would have been nice if the data presented were trustworthy and not already outdated (for example, farms that are part of "big food" are already well on the way to a shift towards solar and other renewables to fuel their massive energy costs, a process Bittman claimed would "never happen if renewables aren't subsidized over fossil fuels")

Overall, I am sad to say that I found little Food for Thought here, and the nuggets that were offered up were Mostly Junk.

9 people found this helpful

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Learn why you eat what you eat

An amazing book about the history of food and how we got here. So many major events in human history were shaped by food and how we eat it. Bittman’s narration is warm and easy to listen to. Highly recommended!

3 people found this helpful

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Wish I had purchased in print

This book covers a lot of ground.
I have no right to critique because the author is clearly very intelligent and accomplished and thoughtful.
Just a personal opinion is that I felt the book wandered wider and editorialized more than I expected. Myself I think I would have benefited from having this in print and being able to read and skim.

3 people found this helpful

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A very important book!

For anyone who cares how our vast array of climate changing, junk filled agribusiness has come to be, I highly recommend this book! Mark Bittman traces the history of food from when we were all hunter gatherers through the domestication of animals and the tilling of our fields all the way to the present day. The book is filled with anecdotes and humor and ends with an uplifting chapter of hope, detailing the efforts of many countries and groups trying and succeeding to produce food in a sustainable and non polluting way. Very highly recommended!

2 people found this helpful

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Great overview of global agriculture

This was awesome, so much good information about the history and future of global agriculture, current dietary requirements and future possibilities.

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Worth your time!

This was a well researched book and has a comprehensive thesis. It’s delivery is well balanced between facts and a story driven narrative. If you want to find out more about the things we take for granted as consumers, this is a really good analysis. I enjoyed every minute even though the truth is hard to hear sometimes!

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Excellent!

Very informative. It really makes you rethink and understand how the food system was built.

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LOVED IT!!!

I truly wish this were required reading/listening for all Americans! This book is along the lines of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore Dilemma, Dr. Mark Hyman’s “Food Fix”, Sally Fallon Morel’s “Nourishing Diets”, Josh Tickell’s “Kids the Ground”, and a whole host of others, which address our National crisis of poor nutrition and soil degradation. The author puts his spin on the information, and even though I’ve read A LOT on the topic, I still learned so much!! If you care at all about your health and the health of the planet, you’ll LOVE this book!!!

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very sad

You need to read this book, it's very enlightening on the way the company's that sell us our food our destroying. I enjoyed the last chapter where they kept it positive so you leave on a good foot!

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The right way to look at eating

For those of us who wish we knew more about how food works and how we can better navigate eating in this world, this is the book for you. You’ll learn a complete history of the human diet in an interesting way, and you also get an education on the problems with the way the west grows its food. This back help me find a style of eating that makes me feel better. 5/5