Date   

Re: On grazing and land conservation again: Assessment of Allan Savory anyone?

David Walters
 

Hi Hari, this happens to be an area of of study for me. An over enthusiastic article I wrote years ago is here:  https://tinyurl.com/y2dh5pg3 a recent debate in "Socialist Organiser" from the UK is here: https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2019-12-18/phase-out-almost-all-animal-products-wrong-debate I'm not a supporter at all of this group that puts out the paper but the discussion and debate over "going meatless" is fascinating. I was invited to write a contribution, which actually focuses on what I'm interested in, soil fertility. The article Louis links to is sadly so one sided and avoids all the discussion around regenerative agriculture (or "eco-agriculture" as it is known in some circles) that involves everything from Savory's "holistic management" to no-till farming. It really seems that that this George Wuerthner Geore Wuethner person is either ignorant of all this or has not understanding at all of the role cattle have played historically, even in the very dry climates he uses to attack the cow as the enemy. My point on this is that is a HUGE debate and involves everything from climate change to how to farm to "organic" farming to the nitrogen and organic soil carbon crisis and the lose of gigatons every year of top soil due to bad farming practices. In my article that comes out in Socialist Organiser I try to address some of these issues. My perspective to start from actually is not climate change but indeed, the soil. And it is from here that I grew to understand the problems of factory farming ("CAFOs") and fossil fuel derived fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, etc.

 

Savory. I have to admit that watching Savory at the Ted talk kind of/sort of got me going on this soil and cattle kick. The problem is that he appears to have eared in some ways in his talk, overstating his case for the results of his own experiments in Zimbabwe. The Savory Institute in fact answers the critics of his method. The problem here is that there is a kind of mini-cult around Savory from ranchers and practitioners of mob-grazing. People are overly enthused about it. It is a far more complex than often the supporters of mob-grazing/regenerative agriculture are willing to admit. I urge you to look over the Savory Institute web site for actual data and papers they have published on this subject.

 

A few points to end my own bit on this. I would urge a reading of the links provided by ratbagradio in his post on this. I had not seen them before and they are fascinating. Lastly, on the comment forwarded to this list or made by Karen(?) with the point that there are many healthy ecologies where there are no cattle or disturbance of the soil (to stimulate root growth in grasses). I agree. New Zealand was one place without large ruminants (grass eaters) and their semi-tropical rainforests and grass lands did flourish. But then no one was harvesting these grasses for grain or vegetables. For every kilo of carbon removed in the form of corn, wheat, or legumes, that carbon *has to be replaced*. What cattle offer in addition to the way they eat grass, if moved around in a managed way (and as nature did with predators) when combined with photosynthesis (solar energy) that carbon, all of it, and more is replaced. Combine this will getting rid of the plow and using mechanzed seed drills, our soil run off, or most of it, goes away. Our soils *regenerate*, something no one in the anti-cow brigade can compete with.

 

David Walters

PS...then we get to eat the grass fed, grass finished cattle!


Re: The Yiddish World: Five Poems | Pangyrus

Alan Ginsberg
 


Re: On grazing and land conservation again: Assessment of Allan Savory anyone?

hari kumar
 

Again. Many thanks. Will look at & may return. Cheers Hari


Re: On grazing and land conservation again: Assessment of Allan Savory anyone?

hari kumar
 

Hello Karen: Many thanks, it is so easy getting drowned in the technical literature, it is good to have some threads to get out of the maze with.
Will look at these with interest, and may return with queries. 
Thanks again, In solidarity, Hari K


The Yiddish World: Five Poems | Pangyrus

Louis Proyect
 

By Paul Buhle, a goy who learned Yiddish to interview old Jewish leftists for his dissertation that became "Marxism in the USA".

https://www.pangyrus.com/poetry/the-yiddish-world-five-poems/


Re: What Frederick Taylor could only dream of

Jim Farmelant
 

The article The Strange Case of Dr. Hayek and Mar. Hayek , co-authored with Mark Lindley, includes an appendix devoted to the socialist calculation debates, including both the well known debated between Friedrich Hayek and Oskar Lange, as well as the less well known debate between Hayek and Otto Neurath. BTW Otto Neurath, in his defenses of the feasibility of socialist economic planning, saw the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor as providing useful methods for boosting productivity in a socialist economy.

I have also discussed this issue in various posts on Quora, as well, One example being One main problem I see with communism is that it is impossible for-a central planning committee to deliver goods and services to the right place and in the right quantity Can you refute that/answer/Jim Farmelant where I frame the arguments on behalf of socialist economic planning in terms of Ronald Coase's concept of transaction costs.


Re: On grazing and land conservation again: Assessment of Allan Savory anyone?

ratbagradio@...
 

There is a good summary of Savoury-influenced approaches in the regen bible here in Australia -- 'Call of the Reed Warbler -- by Charles Massey.
Of course, most of Australia is a dry climate and any 'crusting' issue is supposedly aimed at the exotic import of cloven hooves. However, other researchers point out that Australia lacks ruminant species of ecological significance -- aside from termites! -- and that our flora evolved in tandem with megafauna browsers that are now extinct.
So who eats them now? Who crushes them?
This ties into debates about the genesis of bushfire and why traditional Aboriginal firestick burning is so significant to landscape health.
As Massey points out pure-Savoury is a bit passe as so many farmers have adapted their methods to local ecologies.
While climates may be dry now, they weren't always so as plants and soils have adapted to change.
In Massey's telling, plant species thought lost from a region return under protocols of Holistic management -- and Aboriginal elders defer to its impact for fostering  pre-invasion mixes of plants and animals.
However, I gather that soil crusts are of significant vulnerability here:
In many of the world's drier areas extensive carpets of lichens, bryophytes and cyanobacteria play important ecological roles. Such carpets are called biological soil crusts and one of their major functions is erosion control. In many dry parts of the world where there is no human disturbance and no overstocking of grazing animals, biological soil crusts can form very extensive, close to continuous, carpets on the soil and can be the dominant or only photosynthesizers. Consequently such crusts are the dominant or only primary producers on which other organisms depend. Both lichens and bryophytes commonly have root-like structures (but not true roots) to anchor themselves to the soil. In lichens they are called rhizines and in bryophytes they are called rhizoids. The small book listed in the reference button gives an excellent introduction to these soil crusts, with photographs of many of the crust-forming species found in Australia.--LINK
Best practice is, anyway, that vulnerable areas of landscape are fenced off from grazing. Here it is usually watercourses and swamps -- and a regenerative farmer would be a fool not to protect them. Indeed, one of the pluses of Savoury influenced methods is that watering is  dissipated through the paddock system rather than allowing the livestock to walk to natural water supplies to drink.
As for science and holistic grazing , Australia's major science body, the CSIRO,  has done scattered research on the method. 
But research is lagging way behind farmer enthusiasm for regenerative agriculture approaches esp in the livestock industry. Indeed the farmers associations back regen and are committed to net zero emissions by 2030. 
Albeit as a market niche.
It is worth noting that recent developments promoting seaweed as a methane suppressant for ruminant gases, must presume a feedlot system of production rather than free ranging. [See discussion here]


H-Net Review [H-Atlantic]: Kleiser on Cormack, 'Patriots, Royalists, and Terrorists in the West Indies: The French Revolution in Martinique and Guadeloupe, 1789-1802'

Andrew Stewart
 



Best regards,
Andrew Stewart

Begin forwarded message:

From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review@...>
Date: March 16, 2021 at 6:37:39 PM EDT
To: h-review@...
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp@...>
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Atlantic]:  Kleiser on Cormack, 'Patriots, Royalists, and Terrorists in the West Indies: The French Revolution in Martinique and Guadeloupe, 1789-1802'
Reply-To: h-review@...

William S. Cormack.  Patriots, Royalists, and Terrorists in the West
Indies: The French Revolution in Martinique and Guadeloupe,
1789-1802.  Toronto  Toronto University Press, 2019.  392 pp.  $70.00
(cloth), ISBN 978-1-4875-0395-6.

Reviewed by Grant Kleiser (Columbia University)
Published on H-Atlantic (March, 2021)
Commissioned by Bryan Rindfleisch

The French Revolutionary Script in Martinique and Guadeloupe,
1789-1802

Those in the United States who are anxious about media
misinformation, racial and class tensions, and insurrection might
take some comfort in reading William S. Cormack's _Patriots,
Royalists, and Terrorists in the West Indies: The French Revolution
in Martinique and Guadeloupe, 1789-1802. _For however tumultuous and
divided the United States is today, Cormack's book shows that
late-eighteenth-century Guadeloupe and Martinique were even more so.
_Patriots, Royalists, and Terrorists in the West Indies_ offers a
detailed study of these two French colonies, the so-called Windward
Islands or Îles du Vent, during the chaos of the French
Revolutionary and early Napoleonic periods. Whereas previous
scholarship on French colonial experience has focused mostly on
Saint-Domingue and the Haitian Revolution, Cormack illuminates
Martinique and Guadeloupe's neglected histories, which Cormack posits
"should be seen as part of the larger story of the French Revolution"
(p. 263). And whereas recent studies have emphasized colonial agency
and influences within the French Revolution and upon Enlightenment
ideology, Cormack demonstrates that France still wielded tremendous
influence on the colonial Windward Islands.

Specifically, Cormack argues that France's revolutionary ideas,
language, political culture, and news provided "a script for
revolutionary action in the Windward Islands" that "helped shape
developments in the colonies" (pp. 3, 9). Examining newspapers,
correspondence, travelers' accounts, official announcements, and
metropolitan decrees through many years in French, Guadeloupean, and
Martinican archives, Cormack argues that this "revolutionary script"
did not translate perfectly and unadulterated across the Atlantic
Ocean. Instead, various groups in these colonies revised,
interpreted, and sought to monopolize the news, rumors, and ideas
coming from France for their own benefit. At the same time, these
metropolitan influences helped shatter the colonial status quo and
explode existing tensions into outright violent rebellions on both
islands. The revolutionary impulses from France undermined royal
governors' authority while unleashing bitter conflict between white
colonial factions (such as the _grands Blancs _who were mostly
wealthy planters that tangled with the _petits Blancs _among whom
were minor merchants, overseers, clerks, artisans, soldiers, and
sailors). French revolutionary news also developed the aspirations of
free people of color (the _gens de couleur_) to agitate for civic
equality and political rights within the colonies. Finally, the
"revolutionary script" helped prompt many enslaved people of African
descent to seize the revolutionary opportunity to liberate
themselves, often by use of deadly force. These many threads of the
French Revolution altogether illustrate the importance of the
circulation, dissemination, and control of metropolitan news, rumors,
and ideas in Martinique and Guadeloupe. These dynamics resulted in
complex class and racial conflicts, the profound ambiguity of the
French Revolution in these colonies, and the Windward Islands'
overall weakness in the face of invading British forces.

Cormack's elaboration of all these points follows in chronological
format. His work is mostly a narrative and social history that tracks
change over time and offers readers an incredible amount of detail
for a largely unfamiliar topic. Each chapter focuses on a distinct
phase of the Windward Islands' revolutionary experience. Cormack
balances the revolutionary events in both Guadeloupe and Martinique
jointly until chapter 7 ("Reign of Terror: Victor Hugues's Regime in
Guadeloupe, 1794-1798") when Martinique succumbed to British
occupation from 1794-1802 while Guadeloupe successfully resisted it.
Naturally, the first chapter--"The Windward Islands on the Eve of
Revolution"--sets the stage for the revolutionary changes of the
1790s and 1800s by providing the background to French colonization
and society in the Windward Islands. One of the most important points
that Cormack states early on is that while the Caribbean colonies
produced copious amounts of wealth mainly in the form of lucrative
sugar production, these overseas possessions were "neither secure nor
stable" (p. 12). The stability of Martinique and Guadeloupe suffered
throughout the eighteenth century under the constant threat of war,
foreign invasion, planter resentment of colonial trading restrictions
and lack of colonial autonomy, and contests between _grands Blancs_
and _petits Blancs_ over taxation and representation in colonial
assemblies. On top of such tensions, the g_ens de couleurs_
consistently sought means to assert opportunities for civic equality
with free whites, in addition to the furtive and overt resistance
efforts by the enslaved (roughly 80 percent of the colonial
population) and a small yet nonetheless vocal call by metropolitan
liberals for the abolition of slavery. By 1789, then, Cormack argues,
all of these tensions only needed "the communication of new political
forms, radical concepts, and subversive language from France" to "set
them ablaze" (p. 38).

The next five chapters detail the complex and rapid progression of
such tensions between 1789 and 1794, which produced varied forms of
violence, rebellion, and political change. Overall, Cormack does an
excellent job supporting his argument about the importance of the
"revolutionary script" being used to precipitate and direct various
actions by multiple groups in Guadeloupe and Martinique. For
instance, in 1789, enslaved people in Martinique launched a
large-scale revolt because they believed, incorrectly, that King
Louis XVI had granted them their freedom yet their masters had
refused to enforce this decree (chapter 2, p. 40). Meanwhile, the
p_etits Blancs_ (who eventually styled themselves as "patriots") wore
the revolutionary tricolor cockade and challenged the authority of
colonial governors by demanding the convocation of general assemblies
in both Martinique and Guadeloupe (chapter 2, p. 47). In response,
the g_rands Blancs _asserted they rather than the p_etits Blancs_
spoke for the nation and were the source of legitimate authority,
which Cormak asserts "was an essential characteristic of the
revolutionary script from France" (chapter 3, p. 94). Such
developments culminated in Martinique's civil war between these two
white factions. And when French troops arrived to restore order and
metropolitan control, they instead introduced a more moderate
revolutionary script from France that emphasized political liberty
and civic equality, especially for the g_ens de couleur _(chapter 4,
p. 96). Such actions incensed both the p_etits Blancs_ and g_rands
Blancs_ in Martinique and Guadeloupe who felt threatened by racial
equality, worrying that such developments might soon lead to the
abolition of slavery. As a consequence, these _grands Blancs_
launched a royalist counterrevolution against French metropolitan
authority (chapter 5, p. 123). Soon after, metropolitan officials
launched propaganda campaigns to discredit such royalists' claims to
legitimacy, in effect controlling and disseminating news from Europe
to discredit rumors of counterrevolution, while patriots continued to
rely on the rhetoric of popular sovereignty to attack executive
authority (chapter 6, p. 155). While all these events between 1789
and 1794 are too numerous and complex to enumerate in this review,
Cormack argues that they all shared a common thread related to the
introduction and reinterpretation of metropolitan influences, ideas,
and news that helped inspire and shape these colonial revolutionary
proceedings.

The diverging point in the narrative comes in the year 1794. While
the British captured both Martinique and Guadeloupe, in this year
Victor Hugues (one of the civil commissioners from France) quickly
retook Guadeloupe. Hughes brought with him the radical revolution
from France, including the dreaded guillotine, revolutionary Terror,
and a reliance on (in this case black) _sans-culottes_ to maintain
power. Most radically, Hughes enacted the 1794 decree of universal
liberation, thereby temporarily ending slavery in Guadeloupe. His
regime in Guadeloupe thus "represented the extension of the Jacobin
Terror in the Windward Islands" before news of the Thermidorian
Reaction enabled his white enemies to denounce him as a tyrant (p.
188). Meanwhile, as described in chapter 8, planters in Martinique
supported the British occupiers who reestablished Old Regime law,
maintained slavery, and blocked news from Guadeloupe and France that
might threaten the planter-dominated colonial status quo.

Cormack wraps up his narrative with the 1802 Peace of Amiens between
Britain and France, which handed Martinique back to the French.
France's new leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, quickly reversed the radical
revolution in Guadeloupe and reestablished slavery in the Windward
Islands. Napoleon was successful here, unlike his failed campaign to
roll back emancipation in Saint-Domingue, since he was supported by
the several classes of planters as well as many French officials who
had previously subscribed to more radical notions of emancipation and
equality.

Throughout his work, Cormack deftly charts the many class and racial
conflicts in the Windward Islands and how they evolved over the
course of the French Revolution, which rival in complexity those of
Saint-Domingue. But while the book is impressive in detail, there are
several points of clarification needed. Given that "terrorist"
appears in Cormack's title, it would have been helpful had the author
defined what he means exactly by this term early on in his work. It
is only immediately obvious that he is referring to the Jacobin
Terror in chapter 7. "Terrorist" holds specific meanings in
particular places and times, and Cormack could have avoided some
confusion or misinterpretation by being more straightforward about
his use of the label. Additionally, while Cormack does mention
several times that news from Saint-Domingue affected dynamics in the
Windward Islands and vice versa, he absolutely prioritizes
connections between Guadeloupe and Martinique and metropolitan
France. While perhaps too much for Cormack to have taken on,
_Patriots, Royalists, and Terrorists in the West Indies _thus at
least opens a potential avenue of future research to examine links
between Saint-Domingue and the Windward Islands. For instance, did
Martinique planters take inspiration from _grand Blancs_ in
Saint-Domingue who allied with invading British forces at roughly the
same time (see pp. 164-173)? Was communication from the metropole
more common and more influential than intracolonial conversations,
especially given the fact that France had such a hard time sending
information across the Atlantic for much of the colonial period?[1]
Future investigation will be useful to address such lingering
questions.

While the relative importance of intracolonial versus transatlantic
communications might be examined further by future historians,
Cormack has forcefully and unequivocally demonstrated that
metropolitan France's revolutionary script had a tremendous impact on
the turbulent history of Martinique and Guadeloupe from 1789 to 1802.
As he suggests, Cormack's method will prove useful to examine to what
degree modern colonial insurgents (including ones fighting in
twentieth-century wars of decolonization) built off or adapted the
"revolutionary script" of the metropole (p. 262). He provides clarity
to an understudied and complex topic, mixing his argument with clear
enumeration of what happened and by whom, similar to what Laurent
Dubois' _Avengers of the New World _accomplished for the Haitian
Revolution.[2] Indispensable for historians of Martinique and
Guadeloupe, this work will also serve as important reading for
scholars of the French Caribbean, French Revolution, and so-called
French "First Empire."

Citation: Grant Kleiser. Review of Cormack, William S., _Patriots,
Royalists, and Terrorists in the West Indies: The French Revolution
in Martinique and Guadeloupe, 1789-1802_. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews.
March, 2021.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56258

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.



(1) Meet the filmmakers - Genocide and Survival - YouTube

Louis Proyect
 

I moderated this panel discussion this afternoon. I think it went very well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwLDNUjKlqA


Re: What Frederick Taylor could only dream of

John A Imani
 

Definitely the wrong Fred Taylor with his The Principles of Scientific Management  "applying engineering principles to the work done on the factory floor," with his division and subdivision and sub subdivision of work into the most basic of repetitive tasks depriving labor of all charm and satisfaction turning it into mind-numbing work.

The right, meaning Left, Fred Taylor is, or ought be, known for his "The Guidance of Production in a Socialist State" which can be read (along with another market socialist's contribution (Oskar Lange) at https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.263328/page/n45/mode/2up.   Taylor's essay was given as his American Economic Association Presidential Address in 1929, as answer to Mises "Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth" (1920) and anticipating Hayek's assault in his collection of pros and cons in his "Collectivist Economic Planning" at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Hayek#Economic_calculation_problem.

Yes.  Yes.  Yes, I know.  This is not 'Marxist' economics (as both Taylor and Lange decried the Law of Value (the Labor Theory)) but it is nonetheless a useful bit of propaganda, this AEA 'presidential address'.  And not only that.  I think their proposal to have value (pun intended) as a mechanism in the transformation from capitalism to socialism if it is utilized as 'socialist market socialism', i.e. market socialism with the conscious and guiding ideal being how to make the transition from capitalism to 'real' socialism and, from thence, on to communism.  Their proposals have the qualities of planning production for consumption in accordance with the neeeds and desires of the consumers as guide and not profit; while, at the same time, preserving incentive.

JAI


Workers packed in like sardines at LA's Farmer John meatpacking plant

Gibbons Brian
 


How Livestock Impacts Ecosystems | The Wildlife News

Louis Proyect
 

By George Wuerthner. I guess I will have to explore his writing about how soil fertilization can take place with neither animal or chemical fertilizer.

https://www.thewildlifenews.com/2020/11/13/how-livestock-impacts-ecosystems/


Re: On grazing and land conservation again: Assessment of Allan Savory anyone?

Louis Proyect
 

On 3/16/21 1:26 PM, karenfransdottir@... wrote:
Wuerthner, G.

I'll have to take a closer look at this since I have been following George Wuethner for years on CounterPunch and regard him as a real expert. However, a quick look at one of the things he wrote against Savory involves the blanket statement that cows are bad period because of their farts.


Cuba's bio-tech in action

Gibbons Brian
 


Re: On grazing and land conservation again: Assessment of Allan Savory anyone?

Karen Saunders
 

Opinions of Savory's methods differ greatly between ranchers/farmers and dryland ecologists.

Among other controversies, Savory  claims that intensive trampling and foraging will, among other things, break up biological soil crusts. This is true, but biological crusts are ecologically important parts of dryland communities. But...
"Soils in arid and semiarid grasslands often have significant areas covered by biological crusts [5355]. These are made up of bacteria, cyanobacteria, algae, mosses, and lichens and are essential to the health of these grasslands. Biological crusts stabilize soils, increase soil organic matter and nutrient content, absorb dew during dry periods, and fix nitrogen [53, 5660]. Crusts enhance soil stability and reduce water runoff by producing more microcatchments on soil surfaces. They increase water absorbing organic matter, improve nutrient flow, germination and establishment of
some plants, while dark crusts may stimulate plant growth by producing warmer soil temperatures and water uptake in cold deserts [61]. Some crusts are hydrophobic, shedding water [60]. Biological soil crusts are fragile, highly susceptible to trampling [6163], and are slow to recover from trampling impacts [64]. Loss of these crusts results in increased erosion and reduced soil fertility. The loss of crusts in the bunchgrass communities of the western USA may be largely responsible for the widespread establishment of cheatgrass and other exotic annuals [23, 58, 65]. The rapid spread of introduced weeds throughout the arid western USA is estimated at over 2000 hectares per day [66], largely due to livestock disturbance." 

Carter, J., Jones, A., O’Brien, M., Ratner, J., & Wuerthner, G. (2014). Holistic management: misinformation on the science of grazed ecosystems. International Journal of Biodiversity, 2014, 1-10.
You can read more about biological soil crusts here.
Antoninka, A., Faist, A., Rodriguez‐Caballero, E., Young, K. E., Chaudhary, V. B., Condon, L. A., & Pyke, D. A. (2020). Biological soil crusts in ecological restoration: Emerging research and perspectives. Restoration Ecology, 28, S3-S8.

I'm an ecologist not a rancher (nor a GMO or nuclear power advocate), so my sympathies lie with the biological crusts and indigenous plant species that get crowded out, rather than with the ranchers.  But a perusal of google scholar will give you a sense of the range of opinion among practitioners and academics in both camps.
Karen Saunders


Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Mark Bittman

Louis Proyect
 

THE EZRA KLEIN SHOW

Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Mark Bittman

The March 16 episode of “The Ezra Klein Show.”


Every Tuesday and Friday, Ezra Klein invites you into a conversation about something that matters, like today’s episode with Mark Bittman. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling. Click here for the episode page and Ezra’s thoughts on the interview. Click play below to listen to the episode.

The Ezra Klein Show Poster

Mark Bittman Cooked Everything. Now He Wants to Change Everything.

The acclaimed food writer offers a sweeping indictment of our modern food system.
0:00/50:20

Mark Bittman Cooked Everything. Now He Wants to Change Everything.

The acclaimed food writer offers a sweeping indictment of our modern food system.

Ezra Klein

I’m Ezra Klein. And this is “The Ezra Klein Show.” [THEME MUSIC PLAYING]

I’ve read Mark Bittman forever. I read him at The New York Times when he wrote “The Minimalist” cooking column, which I loved. I don’t think I can tell you how many recipes I made from that. I bought his cookbooks. I had “How to Cook Everything,” that big red one. And then when I went vegetarian, I had “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” I did not have the baking one because I don’t bake. I read his food policy writing. He’s like my cranky food uncle. He’s been there at every step in my food journey. I’ve learned how to cook from him. And I’ve learned, I think, more importantly, a lot about how to think about food from him. So when he sent me his new book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk,” I was excited. But I also was totally unprepared for what the book really is. It is this sweeping history and reinterpretation of humanity’s relationship with food, going back to our hunter-gatherer days, tracing the development of agriculture, the way that changed our social mores and the way that changed our laws, then the industrialization of agriculture, the pressure of both technological advance and the profit motive, the way capitalism and philosophy converge to create a food system that — and there’s really no other way to put this — is poisoning us and poisoning the earth and inflicting cruelty to other creatures on a scale that breaks your mind if you try to contemplate it. And that is not to say that system does nothing good. It feeds billions of people with a variety that we never could have imagined at another point in human history. But it’s doing those other things, the poisoning things, too. And we actually have to take that seriously. Bittman’s indictment here is sweeping. And I’m not sure you’ll hear that in this conversation I’m bought in on every piece of it. In particular, I think I have a different relationship or different theory of food technology than he does. But what he’s doing here is bracing. And what he’s trying to get people to contemplate, trying to get us to contemplate in terms of what our food really means and what it is interwoven with in our world, I think is really important. It raises profound questions between the relationship among humans and animals and plants and capitalism and technology and morality. It is all here, all on your plate. So there’s a lot to talk about. One quick note, though, before we get into it, you will hear us talk about CAFOs in here. That is concentrated animal feeding operations, these massive factory farms, where a huge proportion of the animals we eat are raised in, just not to mince words, truly horrendous conditions. But that’s very much part of our conversation, so I wanted you to have that definition. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@.... Here we go.

So I want to start with a beautiful John Muir quote you use, which is, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Tell me how that applies to food.

Mark Bittman

I mean, that’s ecology right there. That is basically the acknowledgment that we are one. Living things are one. The planet is our home. I think a key question that doesn’t get asked that’s so simple is, what is food for? And the answer is food is to nourish people. And nourish means promote health. So we can get into affordability — I’m sure we will — and get it through accessibility and whether food is green or not and whether people who produce it are treated fairly and all of that. It’s all important. But at the end of the day, food is to nourish people. And when you ask that question, what is food for, and then you see what the food system looks like, there’s a disconnect there because the food system is not producing food primarily to nourish people. It’s producing food primarily to generate profits. So when you produce food to nourish people, you also have to pay attention to the soil, and you’re paying attention to the earth, and you’re paying attention to other species. So all of this starts to mush together into this great oneness. And that’s why the current term that best describes the kind of agriculture we should be aiming for is agroecology, which is simply a combination of agriculture and ecology. But Muir was an early ecologist. And that’s why I chose that quote.

Ezra Klein

So I want to go back on the reverse of this question for a minute, what the implicit goal of our food system is right now. If an alien came to Earth and was asked, what is our food system for, what is it trying to do, what would be the answer?

Mark Bittman

I don’t know what an alien thinks. I do know that if you describe what food does to the United States, in the United States, which is denude the soil, poison the soil, air, land, and so on, torture animals, underpay people for their work. and so on, if something other than the food system, say, an invading army were to do that, you would mobilize the troops and get to work fighting that.

Ezra Klein

Well, let me try to make sure we’re convincing somebody who isn’t already where we are in this conversation. You and I have known each other a long time. People don’t know about me. But I wrote a food policy column for a minute at The Washington Post. You’ve obviously been in cooking and food and food policy, writing for much longer. And so within that conversation, it’s often taken for granted there’s a crisis in our food system. But somebody can walk into this and say, look, the global food production system, it now supports almost 8 billion people, which is an extraordinary accomplishment. Food is cheaper than ever before. More people have more variety at their fingertips than ever before. Sure, a lot of it is processed, but people are choosing a lot of that stuff and maybe like it. So what do you say to convince that person there is a food system crisis as opposed to we should just throw a parade; it’s going great?

Mark Bittman

Close to a billion people are underfed. So we can have that discussion in a minute. But it works well for a third to a half of the people on Earth. But it doesn’t work well for the most-often poorest people on Earth. And that’s who’s getting sick, and that’s who is undernourished or malnourished. So I don’t think we can have a parade, no.

Ezra Klein

So I think a question laced through the book is, how should we understand the choices people make in the grocery store? Because there’s a critique of this conversation. It’s very elitist. People who live in coastal cities and like to shop at farmer’s markets and have developed a lot of contempt for ultra processed food are looking down at people who buy sugary cereal. How do you think about the food choices people make? How do you understand those as either representing individual tastes or social structure or manipulation or what?

Mark Bittman

I think the public health community has screwed up by focusing on behavior change for years and decades. And behavior change, of course, if it’s manageable to you — and you’re right. That tends to be people with more money, regardless of where they live. Behavior change is all well and good, just like exercising is all well and good. But what do you say to the woman who’s working two jobs and doesn’t have a car and has three kids and just doesn’t have a second to breathe? How do you tell her she’s eating wrong? And what I say to that woman is, I’m sorry that the system has failed you because that woman may have no option but to go through the drive-thru or to do grab and go at 7-Eleven or even to shop for dinner at the local convenience store or a liquor store or gas station or what have you. It really goes back to saying, what is food for? If food is to provide nourishment for as many people as possible, then our food system is failing because it doesn’t do that. By making ultra-processed food the easiest option for many, many people, it’s failing to provide nourishment. Put the environmental stuff and all of that aside. It’s not even doing that.

Ezra Klein

What is an ultra-processed food?

Mark Bittman

There’s no strict definition. It’s a food you couldn’t produce yourself. It’s a food whose ingredients are not commonly found in the kitchen. It’s a food your grandmother or, in your case, forgive me for being ageist, your great grandmother would not recognize as food. It’s any of those things. We know what it is. You don’t need to be told that an apple is not ultra-processed food and Apple Jacks are ultra-processed food. Everybody knows that.

Ezra Klein

But like soy milk, is soy milk and ultra-processed food?

Mark Bittman

I don’t think that’s ultra processed. I mean, of course, it’s processed. You have to grind soy, soak and grind soy beans to make soy milk. That’s a processing thing. But it’s not turning soybeans into Trix or into Chicken McNugget or what have you. It’s turning it into a form of food that’s based directly on the original ingredients.

Ezra Klein

So this book I was not prepared for. It just has a remarkable scope. It is an entire history of human beings’ relationship with food, with agriculture, with how we eat. On page 251 you have a sentence, where you write, “all of these issues stem from industrial agriculture’s marriage to high-yield monoculture, which in every way runs counter to the way nature establishes things.” And that felt to me, at that point, the whole book. So I want to go through that sentence a bit. What is high-yield monoculture?

Mark Bittman

Monoculture, as the name implies, means growing one crop at a time. But growing two acres of artichokes or lettuce or tomatoes or whatever is not the same thing as growing 3,000 acres of corn or soybeans or wheat or anything, for that matter. In order to grow one crop on one plot of land year after year, you have to constantly be boosting that soil’s nutrient content. And the only way to do that is by adding chemical fertilizer. And in the process of doing that, you also have to apply pesticides and herbicides so that nothing else will grow in that soil. There’s another line in the book that I like quite a lot, and that is that nature likes chaos. If you look at how things grow in the forest or in a field or whatever, it’s so unpredictable. It’s so wacky. You can’t put your arms around that. You can’t define it. You can’t name every living thing that you’re seeing. And then you go to an industrial cornfield and there is one thing growing. And if you see a moth or a butterfly, it’s an unusual thing.

Ezra Klein

This is a book very much about the relationship between human beings, food, technology, and economic systems. I recognize that makes it a little complicated. But those are the big players here. And this book is laced through with a real counterintuitive narrative about whether or not we have understood our own technology and what it’s doing. Let me ask it this way. I think most people believe that technology has been great and it’s how we feed the world. And I think you believe that actually technology has made it harder for us to feed the world well because we have approached the technology wrong. We’ve approached it in a reductionist way, with insufficient respect for the natural world. But I don’t want to put words, too much in your mouth. What is your view of what our relationship to technology and nature is? And what should it be?

Mark Bittman

There are two or three or maybe five turning points in the last 500 years or 700 years, where agriculture could have developed differently and had a different relationship with technology. So when you decided to take land away from peasants and start to grow crops not in order to feed the people around the community of the crops, but to trade them, make money, and begin a cash economy, that’s a turning point. When you decide to enhance that by saying, a big part of our country’s economy is going to be based on growing surplus of food that we don’t really intend to eat — we just intend to sell — that’s another turning point. And technology has serviced that as opposed to servicing, helping, people grow food for themselves, for their communities, for their regions. Farming has historically been grueling work. But some of that technology could have been and still can be put to work making farming more dignified, less grueling, less backbreaking, more, dare I say it, fun, more rewarding, at least, for people who want to farm 50, 100, maybe even up to 500 acres of land, which is not insignificant. These are not anti-technology arguments. They’re seeing technology as a tool. I’m not particularly anti-genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is just an advanced form of hybridization. It hasn’t done much good, so far, because it’s been put strictly to work for chemical companies thus far. When it’s put to work for producing better food for people, it might be able to do a good job. But it’s, like, who does technology work for is kind of the question here. How do you want to apply that technology? Where do you want to put your energies? The reason this book is political, if that’s the right word, is that a lot of it is about intent. Do we want to look at where we are, evaluate it dispassionately, correctly, and say what changes do we want to make in order to make things better for the majority of people who live here, and in the rest of the world as well? So it would be nice if the junk food diet didn’t lead to diseases that killed more people every year than COVID killed in 2020. If we can look at these things, then we can make judgments. Again, I’m not saying we have to turn the whole thing on its head tomorrow, and tractors are evil, or hybridized seeds are bad, or any of that. I’m saying let’s try to use these things more wisely, with the goals of less damage to the environment, better public health, and so on.

Ezra Klein

So I want to go through a technological story here and one that’s really challenging to what I thought I knew. Walking into this book, my belief was that the Green Revolution was one of the truly great achievements in human history. And you really question that here, try to tell an alternative narrative. So first, tell me what the standard narrative is of the Green Revolution. There was a Nobel Peace Prize awarded for it. What do people think it was?

Mark Bittman

It was American largesse and technology and good-old American know how, generously exported to the rest of the world so that poor people in Mexico and India and elsewhere could catch up and learn how to farm the way we were farming and become wealthy farmers and feed their country. That’s what the Green Revolution was supposedly about.

Ezra Klein

So give me your interpretation of the Green Revolution.

Mark Bittman

The Green Revolution was a strategy by which U.S. agriculture, or the profitable side of U.S. agriculture, was to be exported to the rest of the world in a sort of typical alliance between government and business. So can we sell more John Deere tractors in the rest of the world? Can we sell more Pioneer seeds in the rest of the world? Can we sell more Dow chemicals in the rest of the world? Well, we can do that if we convince the rest of the world that the American style of agriculture is the way to go. And that’s kind of what the Green Revolution was. But if you look at the numbers, a lot of the success of the Green Revolution came from subsidies. The so-called success of the Green Revolution came from subsidizing the crops that were subject to being grown with American-style techniques. If you look at the bigger picture and say, did the Green Revolution really increase yields on many, many crops in many, many countries, the answer is no. And if you look at the global picture and say, well, the yields of crops, did the total amount of crops grow during the period that we call the Green Revolution, and the answer is yes. So it’s a little more complicated than that, I guess. But it really was about exporting U.S. techniques. I mean, not to be too glib, but it was kind of a form of neocolonialism. It was like if we can get the rest of the world to buy into our system, we make money.

Ezra Klein

But let me say one reason why I’m pushing a little bit more on this big — particularly the questions around technology. And I’ll use animals as the example. I care a lot about animal suffering. I’m vegan. I would get rid of antibiotics on farms in two seconds, except for treating animals that are actually sick. But I don’t believe right now there is any path to substantially reducing the number of animals raised in terrible conditions and then slaughtered for food, aside from technologically replacing them, replacing them with plant-based meats, replacing them with lab-and-cell-based meats, clean meats, whatever people like to call it now. And so I’ve become, on this particular issue, like, a pretty intense techno optimist or techno — I’m relying on technology to do the work because I don’t believe that people are going to accept eating less meat. And I don’t believe they’re going to in the long run except eating worse meat and going back to sort of how this was traditionally, which is meat is a small part of the diet. I don’t think you think that’s necessarily a good direction to really try to push this super hard, in part because so many technological efforts have failed before. But am I misreading you? Is there another equilibrium one can be working for? Because I do think you want to know in your head what you’re working towards, like what utopia you’re trying to find.

Mark Bittman

Yeah, I’m 100% supportive of your explorations and anyone else’s explorations of finding meat substitutes that people like. But I think you and I actually are going to agree to differ here. I do believe a lot of the things that you said won’t happen will happen. And I think an act of government, or a responsible act of government can make them happen. So if you take antibiotics out of — routine use of antibiotics out of CAFOs, maybe you have to reduce the number of animals that you’re raising in those cases by 5 percent or 10 percent. I don’t know. You probably have to reduce them some. You can’t crowd them quite as much. Now, you say, OK, well, that just means there’s going to be more CAFOs. But if you also start supporting existing Clean Water and Air Acts, and you start seeing lawsuits of people who live near CAFOs and are getting sick — you see those lawsuits win — well, then maybe meat becomes more expensive and/or you eat less of it. Meanwhile, some of your meat substitutes may mature to the point where they make some sense. And meanwhile, we may see more bills that allow more people to do better farming. And we see an increased number of animals grown under humane conditions and used for meat. So there’s a lot of different factors in this. It’s not like, oh, Ezra likes cell-based meat and Marks likes everybody to eat less meat. It’s both. It’s everything. Let’s just move things in the right direction and see what changes that brings and then have the same discussion in a year. Right now it’s not happening on the levels where it’s going to make these kind of differences.

Ezra Klein

This is where I wonder about the politics of all this and maybe where I’m more pessimistic on the politics of all this than you are actually, which is you talk a lot in the book about organizing, about massing people. You just talked about passing stronger laws and enforcing them. And my read of the politics is that if you can convince people that their food, in particular meat, but not only, is going to get more expensive, you are in trouble. Sometimes capitalism gets talked about as a truly abstract force. as if it’s a god. But companies, they go in directions that are in relationship to the market. They shape preferences for advertising. But it’s very hard to sell people stuff they don’t want. And in particular, it’s often very hard to sell people in mass stuff that is more expensive. And so it’s true that richer people will buy more pricier goods. But overall, the fact that Costco chickens, as my colleague Nick Kristof just wrote a fantastic piece about, Costco chickens are extraordinarily popular, the rotisserie chickens. They are loss leading because they are so cheap. And the way they were made so cheap, in large part, is inflicting tremendous suffering on those chickens in Costco, which is one of these companies raised up by progressives due to their labor standards as a good humane company. And so one of the things that I worry about when I just look at the numbers here and then think about China getting richer, India getting richer, Malaysia getting richer, et cetera, is that if you don’t come up with something that is cheaper, right, that is actually able to undercut on cost, you will lose. It will only be a thing that Mark and Ezra are into over time. But that most of the things I hear in terms of regenerative agriculture and more humane standards and so on are just by nature are going to be more expensive because the externality, the thing keeping the meat so cheap, is that we are making the animals pay the cost. That is a cost we just put it on them. And so I’ve become very radicalized in the direction of some of these more technological solutions. And I don’t want to be. I just don’t think — I just have become much more pessimistic on the political path. But do you think I’m too pessimistic?

Mark Bittman

Well, I don’t know. I’m in a window of optimism. It may be brief. You bring up externalities. And maybe you want to describe, if you want to, what an externality is.

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I’ll quickly do that, which is it’s an unpaid cost to the system. So when — let’s use an example from this conversation. If you’re a confined animal feeding operation, a massive factory farm, and you’re just pumping waste into these giant lagoons, and they’ve made the air in the area acrid, and they’ve poisoned the water, but you are not paying that cost, that’s an externality. Other people are paying a cost that is coming from your production. So your meat is cheaper, and people around you can’t open their windows on Tuesdays.

Mark Bittman

So first you said the externalities are borne by the animals. And of course, they are. But second you said the externalities were borne by people as well, and they are. And you named one public health consequence. And the externalities are also borne by the environment, which means they’re borne by society at large and those costs are paid by all of us. No one’s going to want to pay more money for food. I get that. But I believe we can understand that meat is a luxury or meat is a precious thing and that we’re not entitled to it given the cost. If none of this had any consequences — and in a way, you’re kind of assuming that cell-based meat doesn’t have externalities. You’re thinking, oh, well cell-based meat, we’ll do that. It’ll be lower in resources. It won’t pollute as much. Or we won’t be torturing animals, won’t have as much saturated fat or whatever. But we don’t know that. So you can go all in on it. But the information isn’t there yet. What the information is there on is that factory farming of animals is bad. And we need to do whatever we can to limit it now.

Ezra Klein

Yeah, that’s a place where — that’s why I’ve been pushing on the technology side of this. Have you seen Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book “Under a White Sky“?

Mark Bittman

I haven’t. I’ve seen that it exists. But I haven’t looked at it yet.

Ezra Klein

That book’s really lodged in my thinking. And the argument she makes there is that we have so terraformed the world. We have like forced to the Anthropocene so profoundly upon the world that there is no going back. There is only more manipulation. She puts it as a problem of control. We wanted to control nature. Then there are all these problems what we did to control nature. But unfortunately, the only answer is to try to impose controls of the controls. And then, of course, given this terrible history, those are going to have problems too. And —

Mark Bittman

Boy, does that not sound like an optimistic book.

Ezra Klein

I don’t think it is. But there’s a part of me that felt it was very realistic, right? We are just — we are Lucy on the chocolate production line now. And we’re just forever going to be trying to deal with the problems of what came before. And I think what you’re arguing for here is a much more profound re-centering of our philosophy around this to say, no, we should move in another direction. And I find myself caught between them. I would like to think that we can change our philosophical understanding of food and our relationship to the natural world. And then I look at consumer preferences and particularly look at what’s happening in countries that are getting richer and what preferences are coming online. And I have a lot of trouble — and maybe this is my own lack of imagination — imagining the lever, or the levers, that would change the way we think profoundly enough. So when you think about them, what are they? I understand that you’re pushing for year-by-year incremental solutions. You have a wonderful line in the book, this will not end. The story will not finish in our lifetimes. But you’re talking about changing how we think. How do we change how we think at scale?

Mark Bittman

Right. I want to make it clear, not that you accused me of this, but I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about going back to some bucolic time, and I’m not talking about some kind of reactionary vision of farming. I’m talking about using technology, using our knowledge, using science, and so on to farm and eat in better ways. I don’t know whether that’s going to be manipulating nature more or less. But I think we need to take nature more into account. And one of the surprises in writing the book was finding myself feeling this kind of increased reverence for nature and having a little more understanding, as a kind of lifelong atheist and failed Jew and whatever, this just kind of beginning of understanding of the power of religion, or at least spiritualism. And when I was writing that stuff about nature loving chaos and thinking about some of the farms I visited that don’t look like farms, but to produce food for their communities, but they look like they belong in nature, that was life changing for me and thought changing.

Ezra Klein

I think sometimes about the way society builds an intellectual immune system to ideas that particularly powerful interests don’t want to see believed. And one of the ways is by convincing everybody those ideas are silly, that they’re unserious. Corny, I think, is a word you use for some of this earlier, even though you’re talking about your own ideas I went to U.C. Santa Cruz. I live in Northern California. The hippies were right about a lot of stuff.

Mark Bittman

Right.

Ezra Klein

But we look down on most of it. Oh, when you talk about oneness with nature, you’re simultaneously saying the most obvious thing in the goddamn world because, of course, we’re at one with nature. We’re animals. And you sound like you’re about to take ayahuasca, not to say anything bad about taking ayahuasca. And this is a real, in my view, issue. You have to build belief systems. Now, some belief systems we’ve normalized. This is to take nothing away from beauty and power of Christianity. But if you just hear somebody described Christianity and you are not inside the system, it sounds pretty odd. But because Christianity is very powerful, to question Christianity in any kind of condescending way is a very, very intellectually, politically dangerous thing to do, not that nobody does it. But you would not do it at scale. Whereas to say like, oh, these hippies with their nature and oneness ideas and this idea that we have that we actually don’t know best, and we need to take the land more seriously maybe give a fair amount of cropland back to the land, you sound like a lunatic. But it’s actually a completely straightforward reading of what our relationship to the world probably should be. There’s just a defense mechanism built around it.

Mark Bittman

So it does go back to how do you change the culture. Because people who say those kinds of things are not wrong. People who say we need to pay attention to our relationship to nature or we need to take care of the land and all these other hippie-sounding things are not wrong. But they’re mostly not powerful. And their vision, our vision, is not dominant. But that’s, in a way, a similar discussion to racism, gender bias, and so on. How do you change the way people think about the world? And my way of doing it is to talk to you and write books. People will say it’s a pipe dream, the notion that you could feed the world without completely mastering nature or trying to master nature. And of course, there’s going to be some collateral damage and many externalities and so on. But it’s the only way to do it. But the pipe dream is to think that we can keep doing things the way that we’re doing them now. And so it’s like Margaret Thatcher ridiculing everybody by saying there’s no alternative to capitalism. But that’s not right. Capitalism, big-ag industrial agriculture, a society where some people benefit mightily and others suffer, these are the realities that we’re living with it today. But that doesn’t mean that they’re permanent or the realities of the future. And I think it was Ursula Le Guin who said the divine right of kings was once unchallengeable. You could not say that there was such a different way of running things than being ruled by a king who was given his power from god. And that determined a lot of what happened. And that’s gone. And that’s progress. That’s changed. And it may take 700 years to get to a place where things are radically different. And like I said, I certainly am not going to live to see any of this. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work towards it, and we can’t say this is the way it ought to be, and the way things are now is not the way it ought to be.

Ezra Klein

Given your work, your dozens of cookbooks and your years writing “The Minimalist” food column at The Times and all the recipes I’ve made from you, one of things that was interesting me was pleasure was not something talked about that much in the book. And your definition of food, food is to nourish. But a lot of times when I buy a bar of chocolate, I’m not buying that to nourish myself. I’m buying that because I like it. I think a lot of people know that some of the food they’re buying is not there to nourish. It’s to make me feel less bad about being alive just for a little while on a day when I need that. And so how do you think about that? Like, you had a sentence you write, when soda was reverse engineered to make it less harmful, does that really benefit eaters or farmers? I’m paraphrasing a little bit. But I know I like soda. And if it weren’t harmful for me, I’d probably drink more of it. So how do you think about pleasure? And how do you think about using pleasure in this project?

Mark Bittman

Well, I think the reason I’m not talking about that is because in the context of this conversation, my primary concern is seeing food that is nutritious, that is fair, that is affordable, and that is as minimally damaging to the earth and other species as possible. I think delicious is a distant fifth or maybe sixth. I certainly think that food that’s appealing and delicious — I’ve spent my whole life doing that. And I today. I’ll cook tonight. It’s not something I ignore, it’s just not the point of — it’s not the point of all of this right now. Another thing that might be considered silly is to say tastes can change. But actually taste buds are trained. And we learn our preferences. There’s evidence that we learn our preferences in utero. But we certainly learn our preferences when we’re really, really young, and everybody knows that. Everybody knows how hard it is to change their diet. And everybody knows that during the lockdown, many of us gained weight because we allowed ourselves to eat way more ice cream or hot dogs or cheeseburgers or cookies or chocolate bars or whatever than we normally do because we felt the need of comfort. And I guess that’s fine. But the fact is that we derive comfort from the foods that we learn to love as a child. And we continue to allow marketers to teach our children that McDonald’s is the fun place to go, that Coke is the best beverage that there is to drink, that breakfast means eating cookies with milk on top of them. And until we teach children what real food is, where it comes from, how to make it, then we’re going to keep having these struggles as adults.

Ezra Klein

So that’s a really rich answer. And I want to come at a couple of parts of it. So first, I do want to push on this idea that the pleasure is fifth there, because maybe this is me reading the politics of the book or thinking about the politics of this issue. But I think if you don’t win pleasure, you will lose. If the food companies can say, my thing is more delicious, that people are largely going to choose it. I think the hope here is that delicious is a social construct. I’ve had one really, really radicalizing experience of this around ceasing to eat animals. I loved me. When we met originally, I was a big self-styled foodie. I think we went and had lunch at a Jose Andres place in DC, who’s done great work, actually, on pushing vegetables, but was not doing it at that moment in time. And I love burgers. I love sushi. I love all of it. And even though now, I still taste memories that I understand those things taste good. I would be revolted if I ate raw tuna. I just can’t now not because I don’t on some level like it. If they made fake raw tuna, I would eat in a second. But I can’t. And if you think I’m being weird, imagine eating dog, right? Just think about eating dog because there’s no reason to think dog isn’t delicious. But what we think of as tasty is socially constructed. And as you say, it’s commercially constructed. And so I think there’s like two ways to think about this. One is you can try to technologically end run it. That’s part of my argument about the manipulation of meat. But then there’s another argument you’re making, which is that you can reconstruct how people think of it and also change how those ideas are constructed in the first place. You push in this book to end the advertising of food to young children. You talk about other countries that have done that. So we actually have experience there. Tell me a bit about that.

Mark Bittman

I think it is a social construct. Most people would agree that a carrot tastes really good. But we don’t think of a carrot as a treat. I don’t know what that’s worth. But what I do know is that we’re not born craving Skittles or Frosted Flakes or Coke. Those are learned preferences. And we have to protect our children from being taught that their food preferences are, let’s say, perverted. That is to say we have to protect children from being sold junk food before they know the difference between right and wrong. And that seems like a pretty self-evident statement, that why would you allow somebody to teach your child that they should prefer food that’s going to hurt them in the long run? It’s allowing marketers to enter the minds of children before they can form judgments and convince them of preferences that are going to last for the rest of their lives and are going to damage them. I think that it’s fair to say that we should be limiting the ability of marketers to do that. And we’re seeing that in a limited way in different countries around the world.

Ezra Klein

A lot of people — I’m one of them — find it basically easier to eliminate whole categories of food than to make things occasional treats. So in recent years, a bunch of diets have gained popularity, ketogenic diets, intermittent fasting, paleo. Do any of these, to you, have merit? Are you persuaded any of them are a good choice?

Mark Bittman

I write keto off from the start because of its environmental consequences. You do not want to sit around telling people they should be eating more meat. I think there’s, like, three or four rules in food. And one is to cut back on junk food. And another is to eat fewer or no animal products. Another is to eat more plants. So if you’re going to be a vegan, great. But you have to remember the junk food part of things. So I think you can make whatever diet you want to. We’re subjected to fads. But I think that the fundamental rules don’t change that much, and a lot of fad diets are about marketing and about— there’s a huge diet industry in this country. And most people don’t really need to be on some specific diet. They just need to move towards a more sane diet. But again, there’s the question of accessibility, affordability, and all of that marketing.

Ezra Klein

What did you think of Biden’s selection of Tom Vilsack to return to lead the Department of Agriculture?

Mark Bittman

I told you I was in a window of — a brief window of hopefulness and optimism. So now I’m a big Tom Vilsack fan. It’s in keeping with the way he’s — Biden is operating. It’s still too early to know. I want things to go well. So I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t trust Tom Vilsack as far as I could throw him. I would have said that before he was appointed. I was not in favor of his appointment. And no one in my largest political or social or whatever circle did want Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture. But he can be pressed. And the kinds of changes that we need to see in the next few years are not so radical that he won’t consider them. It’s sort of a question of, is he going to put all of his chips in with big ag, which is what he’s done since the Obama administration ended? Or is he going to really consider the needs of eaters and smaller farmers? I spoke, for a long time, with a member of his staff for the justice for Black farmers piece I wrote for The Times recently. And I liked the guy a lot. And I thought I thought the guy was making a tremendous amount of sense and that they were really going to be putting their energies in the right place I think it’s up to us to hope for the best, but push them as often as we can.

Ezra Klein

Are there a couple of policy changes they can make without legislation that you think would be pretty important?

Mark Bittman

Well, the antibiotic thing doesn’t need any legislation. The F.D.A. could do it tomorrow. I had this conversation with an F.D.A. guy when I was writing the opinion column for The Times during the Obama administration. And they have the power to do it. And they don’t.

Ezra Klein

Are there any ways you would change the U.S. government’s nutrition guidelines?

Mark Bittman

Well, there was a big ruling not long ago, I think a couple of years ago, that the nutrition guidelines shouldn’t take environmental concerns and sustainability into account. And I think that’s the first change is that you have to look at what we grow not only from the perspective of what it does for humans, but what it does to the land. Then you can call them nutritional guidelines, but they wind up determining what happens on farms. I don’t know whether you want to consider poisoning by pesticides or other carcinogens a nutritional issue or not. But certainly they’re a public health issue. And I think that kind of thing should be considered. I could see a broader anti-sugar stance on the part of the nutritional guidelines. But there’s a lot to like about the nutritional guidelines. It’s just that they don’t have the punch that they need to have in terms of what gets grown and how marketing gets done. If people were to look at MyPlate or whatever the current incarnation of it is and apply that to their diets, they’d wind up with OK diets.

Ezra Klein

Let’s do some recommendations. What’s your favorite cookbook that you didn’t write?

Mark Bittman

Well, I think the answer to a lot of these questions is going to make me sound like an old man because my favorites are old. And I learned how to cook from cookbooks. And I learned how to cook from Craig Claiborne and Julia Child and a woman named Paula Peck, who’s largely forgotten, and “The Settlement Cook Book,” which was really important, “The Joy of Cooking” and duh-duh-duh-duh-duh. I think the first cookbook I fell in love with, swooned over, could not believe how great it was, was Julie Sahni’s “Classic Indian Cooking.” I mean, that changed my life. That really, really changed my life.

Ezra Klein

I’ve never read that one. So that’s a great recommendation. What cookbook would you recommend to somebody trying to go vegetarian?

Mark Bittman

Well, this is really easy. I would recommend “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” I’m sorry. I can’t help it. That’s what I would recommend.

Ezra Klein

Fair enough. And it’s great. So it’s a reasonable self plug. Was there a book that made you want to be a writer? Or if not, is there a book that practically inspires you today as a writer?

Mark Bittman

I think my answer to this, which is going to be again really old fashioned, is probably PG Wodehouse.

Ezra Klein

Oh, so great.

Mark Bittman

That’s the stuff that I read over and over again. And if I get in a certain kind of bad mood, it’s like, oh, I’ll just go read a little Lord Emsworth or Bertie and Jeeves or whatever, and it works.

Ezra Klein

You know, it’s actually a helpful recommendation for me because I’ve read Wodehouse before. But I often am looking for something to read for bed when I’m tired and I don’t have the energy to concentrate for long. And actually Wodehouse is a perfect answer to that problem. And I’ve been looking for months for a book like this.

Mark Bittman

It is perfect. I read it out loud sometimes. And if you’ve only read Bertie and Jeeves, you have to read the Blandings stuff because it’s actually — it’s better. It’s funnier. It’s amazing. I remember when I started reading Wodehouse, and I wasn’t young. I had read, because of some PBS, or that is BBC series, called Mapp and Lucia, which was written by this ‘30s guy, ‘30s or ‘40s guy named E.F. Benson. And I ripped through all of this E.F. Benson. And I went into this bookstore, and I said, if you like E.F. Benson, who should you read? And the guy said, well, I assume you’ve read all of Wodehouse. And I was like, who? And that was my introduction to Wodehouse. So that was funny.

Ezra Klein

Who do you just think is the best food writer just in terms of the beauty with which they wrote about food?

Mark Bittman

I always loved Claudia Roden’s work. And that was also a very important early cookbook for me. I don’t remember what her Middle Eastern book is called but pretty sure it’s still in print. It’s gone through a billion different editions. And it’s great. And she’s a wonderful woman and a terrific writer. But my absolute favorite and perhaps edging that out by a nose is Elizabeth Luard’s peasant kitchen, which when I first bought it, it was called “The Old World Kitchen.” And it’s kind of a forgotten lost arts kind of book, how things were made pre-World War II and even pre-20th century. It’s very, very rich, and she handles the stuff beautifully. I like both those books a lot.

Ezra Klein

What’s the last book you’ve read that changed your mind?

Mark Bittman

That I think is “Optimist’s Telescope” by Bina Venkataraman, who’s the opinion editor of The Boston Globe. I don’t know that it changed my mind. But it helped me think that I was right to be thinking more about the decisions that we make and how they affect the future. And I tried to get into that some in “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” when I talk about these turning points and how things might have gone differently or when I talk about not being so angry about the past, because people were making decisions for whatever reasons they were making. But clearly, they weren’t doing the kind of thing of let’s make this decision for our grandchildren our great grandchildren or five generations ahead or whatever. They were thinking, let’s just make this decision for what’s expedient right now. And I think we need to do that. When I said before I don’t plan to live to see the kind of changes that I think we should have, I think that’s a mature attitude, that we need to be thinking about the benefit of humanity years after we’re dead. And Bina’s book is a lot about that.

Ezra Klein

Your book has a ton of anthropology in it. What’s a great book on anthropology?

Mark Bittman

I was really inspired by “Sapiens,” which I read twice and listened to while running when I was living in Berkeley. I think that was really important to me because it was like how the hell do you tell the story of humanity? And I thought, well, if the guy can tell the story of humanity, then I can certainly tell the story of food. So that was a really inspiring book to me and an important book.

Ezra Klein

And then finally, what is your favorite children’s book?

Mark Bittman

That one is so dead easy for me. And it’s like not even close. And it’s “Wuggie Norple.” Do you know “Wuggie Norple“?

Ezra Klein

No.

Mark Bittman

Of course you don’t. But “Wuggie Norple’s” out of print. It has no message at all. Or if it does, it’s so arcane I haven’t figured it out. It’s completely silly. The illustrations are killer. It’s, like, 40 years after I read it to my kids. And now I have a grandson. I read it him. It was the first book I bought when he was born. It’s Tomie DePaula, who is a terrific illustrator and storyteller, did all the Strega Nona books, which are really good too.

Ezra Klein

Mark Bittman, thank you very much.

Mark Bittman

Really fun, Ezra. Thanks.

Ezra Klein

That is the show. Thank you to Mark Bittman. If you enjoyed the show, there are two ways to support it. One, you could leave us a review wherever you’re listening to this. Go give us a couple of stars of whatever you think we deserve. But it really does help the show’s discoverability in the various podcast apps. Or second, to send this episode to somebody else you think may enjoy it, maybe somebody you want to talk about it with. We really appreciate it if you take a moment to do either one. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.

Listen 50:20

EZRA KLEIN: I’m Ezra Klein. And this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

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I’ve read Mark Bittman forever. I read him at The New York Times when he wrote “The Minimalist” cooking column, which I loved. I don’t think I can tell you how many recipes I made from that. I bought his cookbooks. I had “How to Cook Everything,” that big red one. And then when I went vegetarian, I had “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” I did not have the baking one because I don’t bake.

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I read his food policy writing. He’s like my cranky food uncle. He’s been there at every step in my food journey. I’ve learned how to cook from him. And I’ve learned, I think, more importantly, a lot about how to think about food from him. So when he sent me his new book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk,” I was excited. But I also was totally unprepared for what the book really is.

It is this sweeping history and reinterpretation of humanity’s relationship with food, going back to our hunter-gatherer days, tracing the development of agriculture, the way that changed our social mores and the way that changed our laws, then the industrialization of agriculture, the pressure of both technological advance and the profit motive, the way capitalism and philosophy converge to create a food system that — and there’s really no other way to put this — is poisoning us and poisoning the earth and inflicting cruelty to other creatures on a scale that breaks your mind if you try to contemplate it. And that is not to say that system does nothing good.

It feeds billions of people with a variety that we never could have imagined at another point in human history. But it’s doing those other things, the poisoning things, too. And we actually have to take that seriously. Bittman’s indictment here is sweeping. And I’m not sure you’ll hear that in this conversation I’m bought in on every piece of it. In particular, I think I have a different relationship or different theory of food technology than he does.

But what he’s doing here is bracing. And what he’s trying to get people to contemplate, trying to get us to contemplate in terms of what our food really means and what it is interwoven with in our world, I think is really important. It raises profound questions between the relationship among humans and animals and plants and capitalism and technology and morality. It is all here, all on your plate.

So there’s a lot to talk about. One quick note, though, before we get into it, you will hear us talk about CAFOs in here. That is concentrated animal feeding operations, these massive factory farms, where a huge proportion of the animals we eat are raised in, just not to mince words, truly horrendous conditions. But that’s very much part of our conversation, so I wanted you to have that definition. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@.... Here we go.

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So I want to start with a beautiful John Muir quote you use, which is, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Tell me how that applies to food.

MARK BITTMAN: I mean, that’s ecology right there. That is basically the acknowledgment that we are one. Living things are one. The planet is our home. I think a key question that doesn’t get asked that’s so simple is, what is food for? And the answer is food is to nourish people. And nourish means promote health.

So we can get into affordability — I’m sure we will — and get it through accessibility and whether food is green or not and whether people who produce it are treated fairly and all of that. It’s all important. But at the end of the day, food is to nourish people. And when you ask that question, what is food for, and then you see what the food system looks like, there’s a disconnect there because the food system is not producing food primarily to nourish people. It’s producing food primarily to generate profits.

So when you produce food to nourish people, you also have to pay attention to the soil, and you’re paying attention to the earth, and you’re paying attention to other species. So all of this starts to mush together into this great oneness. And that’s why the current term that best describes the kind of agriculture we should be aiming for is agroecology, which is simply a combination of agriculture and ecology. But Muir was an early ecologist. And that’s why I chose that quote.

EZRA KLEIN: So I want to go back on the reverse of this question for a minute, what the implicit goal of our food system is right now. If an alien came to Earth and was asked, what is our food system for, what is it trying to do, what would be the answer?

MARK BITTMAN: I don’t know what an alien thinks. I do know that if you describe what food does to the United States, in the United States, which is denude the soil, poison the soil, air, land, and so on, torture animals, underpay people for their work. and so on, if something other than the food system, say, an invading army were to do that, you would mobilize the troops and get to work fighting that.

EZRA KLEIN: Well, let me try to make sure we’re convincing somebody who isn’t already where we are in this conversation. You and I have known each other a long time. People don’t know about me. But I wrote a food policy column for a minute at The Washington Post. You’ve obviously been in cooking and food and food policy, writing for much longer.

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And so within that conversation, it’s often taken for granted there’s a crisis in our food system. But somebody can walk into this and say, look, the global food production system, it now supports almost 8 billion people, which is an extraordinary accomplishment. Food is cheaper than ever before. More people have more variety at their fingertips than ever before. Sure, a lot of it is processed, but people are choosing a lot of that stuff and maybe like it. So what do you say to convince that person there is a food system crisis as opposed to we should just throw a parade; it’s going great?

MARK BITTMAN: Close to a billion people are underfed. So we can have that discussion in a minute. But it works well for a third to a half of the people on Earth. But it doesn’t work well for the most-often poorest people on Earth. And that’s who’s getting sick, and that’s who is undernourished or malnourished. So I don’t think we can have a parade, no.

EZRA KLEIN: So I think a question laced through the book is, how should we understand the choices people make in the grocery store? Because there’s a critique of this conversation. It’s very elitist. People who live in coastal cities and like to shop at farmer’s markets and have developed a lot of contempt for ultra processed food are looking down at people who buy sugary cereal. How do you think about the food choices people make? How do you understand those as either representing individual tastes or social structure or manipulation or what?

MARK BITTMAN: I think the public health community has screwed up by focusing on behavior change for years and decades. And behavior change, of course, if it’s manageable to you — and you’re right. That tends to be people with more money, regardless of where they live. Behavior change is all well and good, just like exercising is all well and good. But what do you say to the woman who’s working two jobs and doesn’t have a car and has three kids and just doesn’t have a second to breathe? How do you tell her she’s eating wrong?

And what I say to that woman is, I’m sorry that the system has failed you because that woman may have no option but to go through the drive-thru or to do grab and go at 7-Eleven or even to shop for dinner at the local convenience store or a liquor store or gas station or what have you. It really goes back to saying, what is food for? If food is to provide nourishment for as many people as possible, then our food system is failing because it doesn’t do that. By making ultra-processed food the easiest option for many, many people, it’s failing to provide nourishment. Put the environmental stuff and all of that aside. It’s not even doing that.

EZRA KLEIN: What is an ultra-processed food?

MARK BITTMAN: There’s no strict definition. It’s a food you couldn’t produce yourself. It’s a food whose ingredients are not commonly found in the kitchen. It’s a food your grandmother or, in your case, forgive me for being ageist, your great grandmother would not recognize as food. It’s any of those things.

We know what it is. You don’t need to be told that an apple is not ultra-processed food and Apple Jacks are ultra-processed food. Everybody knows that.

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EZRA KLEIN: But like soy milk, is soy milk and ultra-processed food?

MARK BITTMAN: I don’t think that’s ultra processed. I mean, of course, it’s processed. You have to grind soy, soak and grind soy beans to make soy milk. That’s a processing thing. But it’s not turning soybeans into Trix or into Chicken McNugget or what have you. It’s turning it into a form of food that’s based directly on the original ingredients.

EZRA KLEIN: So this book I was not prepared for. It just has a remarkable scope. It is an entire history of human beings’ relationship with food, with agriculture, with how we eat. On page 251 you have a sentence, where you write, “all of these issues stem from industrial agriculture’s marriage to high-yield monoculture, which in every way runs counter to the way nature establishes things.” And that felt to me, at that point, the whole book. So I want to go through that sentence a bit. What is high-yield monoculture?

MARK BITTMAN: Monoculture, as the name implies, means growing one crop at a time. But growing two acres of artichokes or lettuce or tomatoes or whatever is not the same thing as growing 3,000 acres of corn or soybeans or wheat or anything, for that matter. In order to grow one crop on one plot of land year after year, you have to constantly be boosting that soil’s nutrient content. And the only way to do that is by adding chemical fertilizer.

And in the process of doing that, you also have to apply pesticides and herbicides so that nothing else will grow in that soil. There’s another line in the book that I like quite a lot, and that is that nature likes chaos. If you look at how things grow in the forest or in a field or whatever, it’s so unpredictable. It’s so wacky.

You can’t put your arms around that. You can’t define it. You can’t name every living thing that you’re seeing. And then you go to an industrial cornfield and there is one thing growing. And if you see a moth or a butterfly, it’s an unusual thing.

EZRA KLEIN: This is a book very much about the relationship between human beings, food, technology, and economic systems. I recognize that makes it a little complicated. But those are the big players here. And this book is laced through with a real counterintuitive narrative about whether or not we have understood our own technology and what it’s doing.

Let me ask it this way. I think most people believe that technology has been great and it’s how we feed the world. And I think you believe that actually technology has made it harder for us to feed the world well because we have approached the technology wrong. We’ve approached it in a reductionist way, with insufficient respect for the natural world.

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But I don’t want to put words, too much in your mouth. What is your view of what our relationship to technology and nature is? And what should it be?

MARK BITTMAN: There are two or three or maybe five turning points in the last 500 years or 700 years, where agriculture could have developed differently and had a different relationship with technology. So when you decided to take land away from peasants and start to grow crops not in order to feed the people around the community of the crops, but to trade them, make money, and begin a cash economy, that’s a turning point. When you decide to enhance that by saying, a big part of our country’s economy is going to be based on growing surplus of food that we don’t really intend to eat — we just intend to sell — that’s another turning point. And technology has serviced that as opposed to servicing, helping, people grow food for themselves, for their communities, for their regions.

Farming has historically been grueling work. But some of that technology could have been and still can be put to work making farming more dignified, less grueling, less backbreaking, more, dare I say it, fun, more rewarding, at least, for people who want to farm 50, 100, maybe even up to 500 acres of land, which is not insignificant. These are not anti-technology arguments.

They’re seeing technology as a tool. I’m not particularly anti-genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is just an advanced form of hybridization. It hasn’t done much good, so far, because it’s been put strictly to work for chemical companies thus far.

When it’s put to work for producing better food for people, it might be able to do a good job. But it’s, like, who does technology work for is kind of the question here. How do you want to apply that technology? Where do you want to put your energies?

The reason this book is political, if that’s the right word, is that a lot of it is about intent. Do we want to look at where we are, evaluate it dispassionately, correctly, and say what changes do we want to make in order to make things better for the majority of people who live here, and in the rest of the world as well? So it would be nice if the junk food diet didn’t lead to diseases that killed more people every year than COVID killed in 2020.

If we can look at these things, then we can make judgments. Again, I’m not saying we have to turn the whole thing on its head tomorrow, and tractors are evil, or hybridized seeds are bad, or any of that. I’m saying let’s try to use these things more wisely, with the goals of less damage to the environment, better public health, and so on.

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EZRA KLEIN: So I want to go through a technological story here and one that’s really challenging to what I thought I knew. Walking into this book, my belief was that the Green Revolution was one of the truly great achievements in human history. And you really question that here, try to tell an alternative narrative.

So first, tell me what the standard narrative is of the Green Revolution. There was a Nobel Peace Prize awarded for it. What do people think it was?

MARK BITTMAN: It was American largesse and technology and good-old American know how, generously exported to the rest of the world so that poor people in Mexico and India and elsewhere could catch up and learn how to farm the way we were farming and become wealthy farmers and feed their country. That’s what the Green Revolution was supposedly about.

EZRA KLEIN: So give me your interpretation of the Green Revolution.

MARK BITTMAN: The Green Revolution was a strategy by which U.S. agriculture, or the profitable side of U.S. agriculture, was to be exported to the rest of the world in a sort of typical alliance between government and business. So can we sell more John Deere tractors in the rest of the world? Can we sell more Pioneer seeds in the rest of the world? Can we sell more Dow chemicals in the rest of the world?

Well, we can do that if we convince the rest of the world that the American style of agriculture is the way to go. And that’s kind of what the Green Revolution was. But if you look at the numbers, a lot of the success of the Green Revolution came from subsidies. The so-called success of the Green Revolution came from subsidizing the crops that were subject to being grown with American-style techniques.

If you look at the bigger picture and say, did the Green Revolution really increase yields on many, many crops in many, many countries, the answer is no. And if you look at the global picture and say, well, the yields of crops, did the total amount of crops grow during the period that we call the Green Revolution, and the answer is yes.

So it’s a little more complicated than that, I guess. But it really was about exporting U.S. techniques. I mean, not to be too glib, but it was kind of a form of neocolonialism. It was like if we can get the rest of the world to buy into our system, we make money.

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EZRA KLEIN: But let me say one reason why I’m pushing a little bit more on this big — particularly the questions around technology. And I’ll use animals as the example. I care a lot about animal suffering. I’m vegan. I would get rid of antibiotics on farms in two seconds, except for treating animals that are actually sick.

But I don’t believe right now there is any path to substantially reducing the number of animals raised in terrible conditions and then slaughtered for food, aside from technologically replacing them, replacing them with plant-based meats, replacing them with lab-and-cell-based meats, clean meats, whatever people like to call it now. And so I’ve become, on this particular issue, like, a pretty intense techno optimist or techno — I’m relying on technology to do the work because I don’t believe that people are going to accept eating less meat. And I don’t believe they’re going to in the long run except eating worse meat and going back to sort of how this was traditionally, which is meat is a small part of the diet.

I don’t think you think that’s necessarily a good direction to really try to push this super hard, in part because so many technological efforts have failed before. But am I misreading you? Is there another equilibrium one can be working for? Because I do think you want to know in your head what you’re working towards, like what utopia you’re trying to find.

MARK BITTMAN: Yeah, I’m 100% supportive of your explorations and anyone else’s explorations of finding meat substitutes that people like. But I think you and I actually are going to agree to differ here. I do believe a lot of the things that you said won’t happen will happen. And I think an act of government, or a responsible act of government can make them happen.

So if you take antibiotics out of — routine use of antibiotics out of CAFOs, maybe you have to reduce the number of animals that you’re raising in those cases by 5 percent or 10 percent. I don’t know. You probably have to reduce them some. You can’t crowd them quite as much.

Now, you say, OK, well, that just means there’s going to be more CAFOs. But if you also start supporting existing Clean Water and Air Acts, and you start seeing lawsuits of people who live near CAFOs and are getting sick — you see those lawsuits win — well, then maybe meat becomes more expensive and/or you eat less of it. Meanwhile, some of your meat substitutes may mature to the point where they make some sense. And meanwhile, we may see more bills that allow more people to do better farming. And we see an increased number of animals grown under humane conditions and used for meat.

So there’s a lot of different factors in this. It’s not like, oh, Ezra likes cell-based meat and Marks likes everybody to eat less meat. It’s both. It’s everything. Let’s just move things in the right direction and see what changes that brings and then have the same discussion in a year. Right now it’s not happening on the levels where it’s going to make these kind of differences.

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EZRA KLEIN: This is where I wonder about the politics of all this and maybe where I’m more pessimistic on the politics of all this than you are actually, which is you talk a lot in the book about organizing, about massing people. You just talked about passing stronger laws and enforcing them. And my read of the politics is that if you can convince people that their food, in particular meat, but not only, is going to get more expensive, you are in trouble.

Sometimes capitalism gets talked about as a truly abstract force. as if it’s a god. But companies, they go in directions that are in relationship to the market. They shape preferences for advertising. But it’s very hard to sell people stuff they don’t want. And in particular, it’s often very hard to sell people in mass stuff that is more expensive.

And so it’s true that richer people will buy more pricier goods. But overall, the fact that Costco chickens, as my colleague Nick Kristof just wrote a fantastic piece about, Costco chickens are extraordinarily popular, the rotisserie chickens. They are loss leading because they are so cheap. And the way they were made so cheap, in large part, is inflicting tremendous suffering on those chickens in Costco, which is one of these companies raised up by progressives due to their labor standards as a good humane company.

And so one of the things that I worry about when I just look at the numbers here and then think about China getting richer, India getting richer, Malaysia getting richer, et cetera, is that if you don’t come up with something that is cheaper, right, that is actually able to undercut on cost, you will lose. It will only be a thing that Mark and Ezra are into over time. But that most of the things I hear in terms of regenerative agriculture and more humane standards and so on are just by nature are going to be more expensive because the externality, the thing keeping the meat so cheap, is that we are making the animals pay the cost. That is a cost we just put it on them.

And so I’ve become very radicalized in the direction of some of these more technological solutions. And I don’t want to be. I just don’t think — I just have become much more pessimistic on the political path. But do you think I’m too pessimistic?

MARK BITTMAN: Well, I don’t know. I’m in a window of optimism. It may be brief. You bring up externalities. And maybe you want to describe, if you want to, what an externality is.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah, I’ll quickly do that, which is it’s an unpaid cost to the system. So when — let’s use an example from this conversation. If you’re a confined animal feeding operation, a massive factory farm, and you’re just pumping waste into these giant lagoons, and they’ve made the air in the area acrid, and they’ve poisoned the water, but you are not paying that cost, that’s an externality. Other people are paying a cost that is coming from your production. So your meat is cheaper, and people around you can’t open their windows on Tuesdays.

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MARK BITTMAN: So first you said the externalities are borne by the animals. And of course, they are. But second you said the externalities were borne by people as well, and they are. And you named one public health consequence. And the externalities are also borne by the environment, which means they’re borne by society at large and those costs are paid by all of us.

No one’s going to want to pay more money for food. I get that. But I believe we can understand that meat is a luxury or meat is a precious thing and that we’re not entitled to it given the cost. If none of this had any consequences — and in a way, you’re kind of assuming that cell-based meat doesn’t have externalities. You’re thinking, oh, well cell-based meat, we’ll do that. It’ll be lower in resources. It won’t pollute as much. Or we won’t be torturing animals, won’t have as much saturated fat or whatever. But we don’t know that.

So you can go all in on it. But the information isn’t there yet. What the information is there on is that factory farming of animals is bad. And we need to do whatever we can to limit it now.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah, that’s a place where — that’s why I’ve been pushing on the technology side of this. Have you seen Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book “Under a White Sky”?

MARK BITTMAN: I haven’t. I’ve seen that it exists. But I haven’t looked at it yet.

EZRA KLEIN: That book’s really lodged in my thinking. And the argument she makes there is that we have so terraformed the world. We have like forced to the Anthropocene so profoundly upon the world that there is no going back. There is only more manipulation.

She puts it as a problem of control. We wanted to control nature. Then there are all these problems what we did to control nature. But unfortunately, the only answer is to try to impose controls of the controls. And then, of course, given this terrible history, those are going to have problems too. And —

MARK BITTMAN: Boy, does that not sound like an optimistic book.

EZRA KLEIN: I don’t think it is. But there’s a part of me that felt it was very realistic, right? We are just — we are Lucy on the chocolate production line now. And we’re just forever going to be trying to deal with the problems of what came before. And I think what you’re arguing for here is a much more profound re-centering of our philosophy around this to say, no, we should move in another direction.

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And I find myself caught between them. I would like to think that we can change our philosophical understanding of food and our relationship to the natural world. And then I look at consumer preferences and particularly look at what’s happening in countries that are getting richer and what preferences are coming online. And I have a lot of trouble — and maybe this is my own lack of imagination — imagining the lever, or the levers, that would change the way we think profoundly enough.

So when you think about them, what are they? I understand that you’re pushing for year-by-year incremental solutions. You have a wonderful line in the book, this will not end. The story will not finish in our lifetimes. But you’re talking about changing how we think. How do we change how we think at scale?

MARK BITTMAN: Right. I want to make it clear, not that you accused me of this, but I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about going back to some bucolic time, and I’m not talking about some kind of reactionary vision of farming. I’m talking about using technology, using our knowledge, using science, and so on to farm and eat in better ways. I don’t know whether that’s going to be manipulating nature more or less. But I think we need to take nature more into account.

And one of the surprises in writing the book was finding myself feeling this kind of increased reverence for nature and having a little more understanding, as a kind of lifelong atheist and failed Jew and whatever, this just kind of beginning of understanding of the power of religion, or at least spiritualism. And when I was writing that stuff about nature loving chaos and thinking about some of the farms I visited that don’t look like farms, but to produce food for their communities, but they look like they belong in nature, that was life changing for me and thought changing.

EZRA KLEIN: I think sometimes about the way society builds an intellectual immune system to ideas that particularly powerful interests don’t want to see believed. And one of the ways is by convincing everybody those ideas are silly, that they’re unserious. Corny, I think, is a word you use for some of this earlier, even though you’re talking about your own ideas I went to U.C. Santa Cruz. I live in Northern California. The hippies were right about a lot of stuff.

MARK BITTMAN: Right.

EZRA KLEIN: But we look down on most of it. Oh, when you talk about oneness with nature, you’re simultaneously saying the most obvious thing in the goddamn world because, of course, we’re at one with nature. We’re animals. And you sound like you’re about to take ayahuasca, not to say anything bad about taking ayahuasca. And this is a real, in my view, issue.

You have to build belief systems. Now, some belief systems we’ve normalized. This is to take nothing away from beauty and power of Christianity. But if you just hear somebody described Christianity and you are not inside the system, it sounds pretty odd. But because Christianity is very powerful, to question Christianity in any kind of condescending way is a very, very intellectually, politically dangerous thing to do, not that nobody does it. But you would not do it at scale.

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Whereas to say like, oh, these hippies with their nature and oneness ideas and this idea that we have that we actually don’t know best, and we need to take the land more seriously maybe give a fair amount of cropland back to the land, you sound like a lunatic. But it’s actually a completely straightforward reading of what our relationship to the world probably should be. There’s just a defense mechanism built around it.

MARK BITTMAN: So it does go back to how do you change the culture. Because people who say those kinds of things are not wrong. People who say we need to pay attention to our relationship to nature or we need to take care of the land and all these other hippie-sounding things are not wrong. But they’re mostly not powerful. And their vision, our vision, is not dominant.

But that’s, in a way, a similar discussion to racism, gender bias, and so on. How do you change the way people think about the world? And my way of doing it is to talk to you and write books. People will say it’s a pipe dream, the notion that you could feed the world without completely mastering nature or trying to master nature. And of course, there’s going to be some collateral damage and many externalities and so on. But it’s the only way to do it.

But the pipe dream is to think that we can keep doing things the way that we’re doing them now. And so it’s like Margaret Thatcher ridiculing everybody by saying there’s no alternative to capitalism. But that’s not right. Capitalism, big-ag industrial agriculture, a society where some people benefit mightily and others suffer, these are the realities that we’re living with it today. But that doesn’t mean that they’re permanent or the realities of the future.

And I think it was Ursula Le Guin who said the divine right of kings was once unchallengeable. You could not say that there was such a different way of running things than being ruled by a king who was given his power from god. And that determined a lot of what happened. And that’s gone. And that’s progress. That’s changed.

And it may take 700 years to get to a place where things are radically different. And like I said, I certainly am not going to live to see any of this. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work towards it, and we can’t say this is the way it ought to be, and the way things are now is not the way it ought to be.

EZRA KLEIN: Given your work, your dozens of cookbooks and your years writing “The Minimalist” food column at The Times and all the recipes I’ve made from you, one of things that was interesting me was pleasure was not something talked about that much in the book. And your definition of food, food is to nourish. But a lot of times when I buy a bar of chocolate, I’m not buying that to nourish myself. I’m buying that because I like it.

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I think a lot of people know that some of the food they’re buying is not there to nourish. It’s to make me feel less bad about being alive just for a little while on a day when I need that. And so how do you think about that? Like, you had a sentence you write, when soda was reverse engineered to make it less harmful, does that really benefit eaters or farmers? I’m paraphrasing a little bit. But I know I like soda. And if it weren’t harmful for me, I’d probably drink more of it. So how do you think about pleasure? And how do you think about using pleasure in this project?

MARK BITTMAN: Well, I think the reason I’m not talking about that is because in the context of this conversation, my primary concern is seeing food that is nutritious, that is fair, that is affordable, and that is as minimally damaging to the earth and other species as possible. I think delicious is a distant fifth or maybe sixth. I certainly think that food that’s appealing and delicious — I’ve spent my whole life doing that. And I today. I’ll cook tonight.

It’s not something I ignore, it’s just not the point of — it’s not the point of all of this right now. Another thing that might be considered silly is to say tastes can change. But actually taste buds are trained. And we learn our preferences. There’s evidence that we learn our preferences in utero. But we certainly learn our preferences when we’re really, really young, and everybody knows that.

Everybody knows how hard it is to change their diet. And everybody knows that during the lockdown, many of us gained weight because we allowed ourselves to eat way more ice cream or hot dogs or cheeseburgers or cookies or chocolate bars or whatever than we normally do because we felt the need of comfort. And I guess that’s fine.

But the fact is that we derive comfort from the foods that we learn to love as a child. And we continue to allow marketers to teach our children that McDonald’s is the fun place to go, that Coke is the best beverage that there is to drink, that breakfast means eating cookies with milk on top of them. And until we teach children what real food is, where it comes from, how to make it, then we’re going to keep having these struggles as adults.

EZRA KLEIN: So that’s a really rich answer. And I want to come at a couple of parts of it. So first, I do want to push on this idea that the pleasure is fifth there, because maybe this is me reading the politics of the book or thinking about the politics of this issue. But I think if you don’t win pleasure, you will lose. If the food companies can say, my thing is more delicious, that people are largely going to choose it.

I think the hope here is that delicious is a social construct. I’ve had one really, really radicalizing experience of this around ceasing to eat animals. I loved me. When we met originally, I was a big self-styled foodie. I think we went and had lunch at a Jose Andres place in DC, who’s done great work, actually, on pushing vegetables, but was not doing it at that moment in time.

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And I love burgers. I love sushi. I love all of it. And even though now, I still taste memories that I understand those things taste good. I would be revolted if I ate raw tuna. I just can’t now not because I don’t on some level like it. If they made fake raw tuna, I would eat in a second. But I can’t.

And if you think I’m being weird, imagine eating dog, right? Just think about eating dog because there’s no reason to think dog isn’t delicious. But what we think of as tasty is socially constructed. And as you say, it’s commercially constructed.

And so I think there’s like two ways to think about this. One is you can try to technologically end run it. That’s part of my argument about the manipulation of meat. But then there’s another argument you’re making, which is that you can reconstruct how people think of it and also change how those ideas are constructed in the first place.

You push in this book to end the advertising of food to young children. You talk about other countries that have done that. So we actually have experience there. Tell me a bit about that.

MARK BITTMAN: I think it is a social construct. Most people would agree that a carrot tastes really good. But we don’t think of a carrot as a treat. I don’t know what that’s worth. But what I do know is that we’re not born craving Skittles or Frosted Flakes or Coke. Those are learned preferences.

And we have to protect our children from being taught that their food preferences are, let’s say, perverted. That is to say we have to protect children from being sold junk food before they know the difference between right and wrong. And that seems like a pretty self-evident statement, that why would you allow somebody to teach your child that they should prefer food that’s going to hurt them in the long run? It’s allowing marketers to enter the minds of children before they can form judgments and convince them of preferences that are going to last for the rest of their lives and are going to damage them. I think that it’s fair to say that we should be limiting the ability of marketers to do that. And we’re seeing that in a limited way in different countries around the world.

EZRA KLEIN: A lot of people — I’m one of them — find it basically easier to eliminate whole categories of food than to make things occasional treats. So in recent years, a bunch of diets have gained popularity, ketogenic diets, intermittent fasting, paleo. Do any of these, to you, have merit? Are you persuaded any of them are a good choice?

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MARK BITTMAN: I write keto off from the start because of its environmental consequences. You do not want to sit around telling people they should be eating more meat. I think there’s, like, three or four rules in food. And one is to cut back on junk food. And another is to eat fewer or no animal products. Another is to eat more plants. So if you’re going to be a vegan, great. But you have to remember the junk food part of things.

So I think you can make whatever diet you want to. We’re subjected to fads. But I think that the fundamental rules don’t change that much, and a lot of fad diets are about marketing and about— there’s a huge diet industry in this country. And most people don’t really need to be on some specific diet. They just need to move towards a more sane diet. But again, there’s the question of accessibility, affordability, and all of that marketing.

EZRA KLEIN: What did you think of Biden’s selection of Tom Vilsack to return to lead the Department of Agriculture?

MARK BITTMAN: I told you I was in a window of — a brief window of hopefulness and optimism. So now I’m a big Tom Vilsack fan. It’s in keeping with the way he’s — Biden is operating. It’s still too early to know. I want things to go well. So I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t trust Tom Vilsack as far as I could throw him.

I would have said that before he was appointed. I was not in favor of his appointment. And no one in my largest political or social or whatever circle did want Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture. But he can be pressed. And the kinds of changes that we need to see in the next few years are not so radical that he won’t consider them. It’s sort of a question of, is he going to put all of his chips in with big ag, which is what he’s done since the Obama administration ended? Or is he going to really consider the needs of eaters and smaller farmers?

I spoke, for a long time, with a member of his staff for the justice for Black farmers piece I wrote for The Times recently. And I liked the guy a lot. And I thought I thought the guy was making a tremendous amount of sense and that they were really going to be putting their energies in the right place I think it’s up to us to hope for the best, but push them as often as we can.

EZRA KLEIN: Are there a couple of policy changes they can make without legislation that you think would be pretty important?

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MARK BITTMAN: Well, the antibiotic thing doesn’t need any legislation. The F.D.A. could do it tomorrow. I had this conversation with an F.D.A. guy when I was writing the opinion column for The Times during the Obama administration. And they have the power to do it. And they don’t.

EZRA KLEIN: Are there any ways you would change the U.S. government’s nutrition guidelines?

MARK BITTMAN: Well, there was a big ruling not long ago, I think a couple of years ago, that the nutrition guidelines shouldn’t take environmental concerns and sustainability into account. And I think that’s the first change is that you have to look at what we grow not only from the perspective of what it does for humans, but what it does to the land. Then you can call them nutritional guidelines, but they wind up determining what happens on farms.

I don’t know whether you want to consider poisoning by pesticides or other carcinogens a nutritional issue or not. But certainly they’re a public health issue. And I think that kind of thing should be considered. I could see a broader anti-sugar stance on the part of the nutritional guidelines. But there’s a lot to like about the nutritional guidelines. It’s just that they don’t have the punch that they need to have in terms of what gets grown and how marketing gets done. If people were to look at MyPlate or whatever the current incarnation of it is and apply that to their diets, they’d wind up with OK diets.

EZRA KLEIN: Let’s do some recommendations. What’s your favorite cookbook that you didn’t write?

MARK BITTMAN: Well, I think the answer to a lot of these questions is going to make me sound like an old man because my favorites are old. And I learned how to cook from cookbooks. And I learned how to cook from Craig Claiborne and Julia Child and a woman named Paula Peck, who’s largely forgotten, and “The Settlement Cook Book,” which was really important, “The Joy of Cooking” and duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.

I think the first cookbook I fell in love with, swooned over, could not believe how great it was, was Julie Sahni’s “Classic Indian Cooking.” I mean, that changed my life. That really, really changed my life.

EZRA KLEIN: I’ve never read that one. So that’s a great recommendation. What cookbook would you recommend to somebody trying to go vegetarian?

MARK BITTMAN: Well, this is really easy. I would recommend “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” I’m sorry. I can’t help it. That’s what I would recommend.

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EZRA KLEIN: Fair enough. And it’s great. So it’s a reasonable self plug. Was there a book that made you want to be a writer? Or if not, is there a book that practically inspires you today as a writer?

MARK BITTMAN: I think my answer to this, which is going to be again really old fashioned, is probably PG Wodehouse.

EZRA KLEIN: Oh, so great.

MARK BITTMAN: That’s the stuff that I read over and over again. And if I get in a certain kind of bad mood, it’s like, oh, I’ll just go read a little Lord Emsworth or Bertie and Jeeves or whatever, and it works.

EZRA KLEIN: You know, it’s actually a helpful recommendation for me because I’ve read Wodehouse before. But I often am looking for something to read for bed when I’m tired and I don’t have the energy to concentrate for long. And actually Wodehouse is a perfect answer to that problem. And I’ve been looking for months for a book like this.

MARK BITTMAN: It is perfect. I read it out loud sometimes. And if you’ve only read Bertie and Jeeves, you have to read the Blandings stuff because it’s actually — it’s better. It’s funnier. It’s amazing. I remember when I started reading Wodehouse, and I wasn’t young. I had read, because of some PBS, or that is BBC series, called Mapp and Lucia, which was written by this ’30s guy, ’30s or ’40s guy named E.F. Benson. And I ripped through all of this E.F. Benson.

And I went into this bookstore, and I said, if you like E.F. Benson, who should you read? And the guy said, well, I assume you’ve read all of Wodehouse. And I was like, who? And that was my introduction to Wodehouse. So that was funny.

EZRA KLEIN: Who do you just think is the best food writer just in terms of the beauty with which they wrote about food?

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MARK BITTMAN: I always loved Claudia Roden’s work. And that was also a very important early cookbook for me. I don’t remember what her Middle Eastern book is called but pretty sure it’s still in print. It’s gone through a billion different editions. And it’s great. And she’s a wonderful woman and a terrific writer.

But my absolute favorite and perhaps edging that out by a nose is Elizabeth Luard’s peasant kitchen, which when I first bought it, it was called “The Old World Kitchen.” And it’s kind of a forgotten lost arts kind of book, how things were made pre-World War II and even pre-20th century. It’s very, very rich, and she handles the stuff beautifully. I like both those books a lot.

EZRA KLEIN: What’s the last book you’ve read that changed your mind?

MARK BITTMAN: That I think is “Optimist’s Telescope” by Bina Venkataraman, who’s the opinion editor of The Boston Globe. I don’t know that it changed my mind. But it helped me think that I was right to be thinking more about the decisions that we make and how they affect the future. And I tried to get into that some in “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” when I talk about these turning points and how things might have gone differently or when I talk about not being so angry about the past, because people were making decisions for whatever reasons they were making. But clearly, they weren’t doing the kind of thing of let’s make this decision for our grandchildren our great grandchildren or five generations ahead or whatever.

They were thinking, let’s just make this decision for what’s expedient right now. And I think we need to do that. When I said before I don’t plan to live to see the kind of changes that I think we should have, I think that’s a mature attitude, that we need to be thinking about the benefit of humanity years after we’re dead. And Bina’s book is a lot about that.

EZRA KLEIN: Your book has a ton of anthropology in it. What’s a great book on anthropology?

MARK BITTMAN: I was really inspired by “Sapiens,” which I read twice and listened to while running when I was living in Berkeley. I think that was really important to me because it was like how the hell do you tell the story of humanity? And I thought, well, if the guy can tell the story of humanity, then I can certainly tell the story of food. So that was a really inspiring book to me and an important book.

EZRA KLEIN: And then finally, what is your favorite children’s book?

MARK BITTMAN: That one is so dead easy for me. And it’s like not even close. And it’s “Wuggie Norple.” Do you know “Wuggie Norple”?

EZRA KLEIN: No.

MARK BITTMAN: Of course you don’t. But “Wuggie Norple’s” out of print. It has no message at all. Or if it does, it’s so arcane I haven’t figured it out. It’s completely silly. The illustrations are killer. It’s, like, 40 years after I read it to my kids. And now I have a grandson. I read it him. It was the first book I bought when he was born. It’s Tomie DePaula, who is a terrific illustrator and storyteller, did all the Strega Nona books, which are really good too.

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EZRA KLEIN: Mark Bittman, thank you very much.

MARK BITTMAN: Really fun, Ezra. Thanks.

EZRA KLEIN: That is the show. Thank you to Mark Bittman. If you enjoyed the show, there are two ways to support it. One, you could leave us a review wherever you’re listening to this. Go give us a couple of stars of whatever you think we deserve. But it really does help the show’s discoverability in the various podcast apps.

Or second, to send this episode to somebody else you think may enjoy it, maybe somebody you want to talk about it with. We really appreciate it if you take a moment to do either one. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.




Re: On grazing and land conservation again: Assessment of Allan Savory anyone?

Louis Proyect
 

On 3/16/21 12:31 PM, hari kumar wrote:
A recent prior strand followed an NYT article on the attempts in the USA to adopt the tactic of cattle-raising as a vehicle of land restoration. I recently was pointed to this video of a Ted talk by Allan Savory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpTHi7O66pI <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpTHi7O66pI>
A wikipedia view of him, suggests the academic community not fully supportive: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Savory#Bibliography <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Savory#Bibliography>
But the video & the article not current. Anyone have a quick handle on the scientific community's views on this at present?
Thanks in advance, Hari Kumar
All you need to know. One critic, James McWilliams is a GMO advocate. The other, George Monbiot, is into nuclear power.


On grazing and land conservation again: Assessment of Allan Savory anyone?

hari kumar
 

A recent prior strand followed an NYT article on the attempts in the USA to adopt the tactic of cattle-raising as a vehicle of land restoration. I recently was pointed to this video of a Ted talk by Allan Savory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpTHi7O66pI
A wikipedia view of him, suggests the academic community not fully supportive: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Savory#Bibliography
But the video & the article not current. Anyone have a quick handle on the scientific community's views on this at present? 
Thanks in advance, Hari Kumar


NY Times: How Amazon Crushes Unions

Alan Ginsberg
 

In a secret settlement in Virginia, Amazon swore off threatening and intimidating workers. As the company confronts increased labor unrest, its tactics are under scrutiny.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/16/technology/amazon-unions-virginia.html

RICHMOND, Va. — Five years ago, Amazon was compelled to post a “notice to employees” on the break-room walls of a warehouse in east-central Virginia.

The notice was printed simply, in just two colors, and crammed with words. But for any worker who bothered to look closely, it was a remarkable declaration. Amazon listed 22 forms of behavior it said it would disavow, each beginning in capital letters: “WE WILL NOT.”

“We will not threaten you with the loss of your job” if you are a union supporter, Amazon wrote, according to a photo of the notice reviewed by The New York Times. “We will not interrogate you” about the union or “engage in surveillance of you” while you participate in union activities. “We will not threaten you with unspecified reprisals” because you are a union supporter. We will not threaten to “get” union supporters.

Amazon posted the list after the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers accused it of doing those very things during a two-year-long push to unionize 30 facilities technicians at the warehouse in Chester, just south of Richmond. While Amazon did not admit to violations of labor laws, the company promised in a settlement with federal regulators to tell workers that it would rigorously obey the rules in the future.

The employee notice and failed union effort, which have not previously been reported, are suddenly relevant as Amazon confronts increasing labor unrest in the United States. Over two decades, as the internet retailer mushroomed from a virtual bookstore into a $1.5 trillion behemoth, it forcefully — and successfully — resisted employee efforts to organize. Some workers in recent years agitated for change in Staten Island, Chicago, Sacramento and Minnesota, but the impact was negligible.

The arrival of the coronavirus last year changed that. It turned Amazon into an essential resource for millions stuck at home and redefined the company’s relationship with its warehouse workers. Like many service industry employees, they were vulnerable to the virus. As society locked down, they were also less able to simply move on if they had issues with the job.

Now Amazon faces a union vote at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. — the largest and most viable U.S. labor challenge in its history. Nearly 6,000 workers have until March 29 to decide whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. A labor victory could energize workers in other U.S. communities, where Amazon has more than 800 warehouses employing more than 500,000 people.

“This is happening in the toughest state, with the toughest company, at the toughest moment,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “If the union can prevail given those three facts, it will send a message that Amazon is organizable everywhere.”

Even if the union does not prevail, “the history of unions is always about failing forward,” she said. “Workers trying, workers losing, workers trying again.”

The effort in Chester, which The Times reconstructed with documents from regulators and the machinists’ union, as well as interviews with former facilities technicians at the warehouse and union officials, offers one of the fullest pictures of what encourages Amazon workers to open the door to a union — and what techniques the company uses to slam the door and nail it shut.

The employee notice was a hollow victory for workers. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that negotiated the settlement with Amazon, has no power to impose monetary penalties. Its enforcement remedies are few and weak, which means its ability to restrain anti-union employers from breaking the law is limited. The settlement was not publicized, so there were not even any public relations benefits.

Amazon was the real winner. There have been no further attempts at a union in Chester.

The tactics that Amazon used in Chester are surfacing elsewhere. The retail workers union said Amazon was trying to surveil employees in Bessemer and even changed a traffic signal to prevent organizers from approaching warehouse workers as they left the site. Last month, the New York attorney general said in a lawsuit that Amazon had retaliated against employees who tried to protest its pandemic safety measures as inadequate.

Amazon declined to say whether it had complied with labor laws during the union drive in Chester in 2014 and 2015. In a statement, it said it was “compliant with the National Labor Relations Act in 2016” when it issued the employee notice, and “we continue to be compliant today.” It added in a different statement that it didn’t believe the union push in Alabama “represents the majority of our employees’ views.”

The labor board declined to comment.

The Chester settlement notice mentions one worker by name: Bill Hough Jr., a machinist who led the union drive. The notice said Amazon had issued a warning to Mr. Hough that he was on the verge of being fired. Amazon said it would rescind the warning.

Six months later, in August 2016, Amazon fired him anyway.

Mr. Hough (pronounced Huff) was in a hospital having knee surgery when Amazon called and said he had used up his medical leave. Since he couldn’t do his job, he said he was told, this was the end of the line.

“There was no mercy, even after what they had done to me,” Mr. Hough, now 56, said. “That’s Amazon. If you can’t give 110 percent, you’re done.”

Amazon declined to comment on Mr. Hough.

No Constraints

Amazon was founded on notions of speed, efficiency and hard work — lots of hard work. Placing his first help wanted ad in 1994, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, said he wanted engineers who could do their job “in about one-third the time that most competent people think possible.”

Amazon managers openly warned recruits that if they liked things comfortable, this would be a difficult, perhaps impossible, job. For customer service representatives, it was difficult to keep up, according to media accounts and labor organizers. Overtime was mandatory. Supervisors sent emails with subject headings like “YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.”

In 1999, the reps, who numbered about 400, were targeted by a grass-roots group affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. Amazon mounted an all-out defense.

If workers became anything less than docile, managers were told, it was a sign there could be union activity. Tipoffs included “hushed conversations” and “small group huddles breaking up in silence on the approach of the supervisor,” as well as increased complaints, growing aggressiveness and dawdling in the bathroom.

The Machinist

Mr. Hough worked as an industrial machinist at a Reynolds aluminum mill in Richmond for 24 years. He once saw a worker lose four fingers when a steel roller fell unexpectedly. Incidents like that made a deep impression on him: Never approach equipment casually.

Reynolds closed the plant in the Great Recession, when Mr. Hough was in his mid-40s. Being in the machinists guild cushioned the blow, but he needed another job. After a long spell of unemployment, he joined Amazon in 2013.

The Chester warehouse, the size of several aircraft carriers, had opened a year earlier, part of Amazon’s multibillion-dollar push to put fulfillment centers everywhere. Mr. Hough worked on the conveyor belts bringing in the goods.

At first, he received generally good marks. “He has a great attitude and does not participate in negative comments or situations,” Amazon said in a March 2014 performance review. “He gets along with all the other technicians.”

But Mr. Hough said he had felt pressured to cut corners to keep the belts running. Amazon prided itself on getting purchases to customers quickly, and when conveyor belts were down that mission was in jeopardy. He once protested restarting a belt while he was still working on it.

“Quit your bitching,” Mr. Hough said his manager, Bryon Frye, had told him, twice.

“That sent me down the wrong road,” Mr. Hough said.

Mr. Frye, who declined to comment, no longer works for Amazon. On Twitter last month, he responded to a news story that said Amazon was hiring former F.B.I. agents to deal with worker activism, counterfeiting and antitrust issues.

“This doesn’t shock me,” he wrote. “They do some wild things.”

The Union Drive

In 2014, Mr. Hough and five other technicians approached the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. A unionization effort was already taking place with the technicians at an Amazon warehouse in Middletown, Del. If either succeeded, it would be the first for Amazon.

The elections for a union would be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. The first step was to measure interest. At least 18 of the 30 technicians in Chester returned cards indicating their willingness to be represented by the union.

“It was not too difficult to sign people up,” said Russell Wade, a union organizer there. “But once the word leaked out to Amazon, they put the afterburners on, as employers do. Then the workers started losing interest. Amazon spent oodles of money to scare the hell out of employees.”

The board scheduled an election for March 4, 2015. A simple majority of votes cast would establish union representation.

Amazon brought in an Employee Resource Center team — basically, its human resources department — to reverse any momentum. A former technician at the warehouse, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, said the reps on the team followed workers around, pretending to be friendly but only seeking to know their position on the union drive.

f safety was the biggest issue for the technicians, there were also concerns over pay equity — machinists said they were paid different amounts for doing the same job — and about their lack of control over their fate. Part of Mr. Hough’s pitch was that a union would make management less arbitrary.

“One guy, all I remember is his name was Bob,” he said. “They paged Bob to the control room, and the next thing I saw was Bob coming down the steps. He had taken off his work vest. I said, ‘Bob, where are you going?’ He said, ‘They terminated me.’ I didn’t ask why. That’s the way it was.”

Several technicians said they recalled being told at a meeting, “You vote for a union, every one of you will be looking for a job tomorrow.” At another, the most outspoken union supporters were described as “a cancer and a disease to Amazon and the facility,” according to Mr. Hough and a union memo. (In a filing to the labor board, Amazon said it had investigated the incident and “concluded that it could not be substantiated.”)

Mr. Hough, a cancer survivor, said the reference had offended him. He declined to attend another meeting run by that manager. He said he had known in any case what she was going to say: that the union was canceling the election because it thought it would lose. Amazon had triumphed.

On March 30, 2015, Mr. Hough received a written warning from Mr. Frye, his manager.

“Your behavior has been called out by peers/leaders as having a negative impact,” it said. Included under “insubordination” was a refusal to attend the Amazon victory announcement. Another incident, Amazon said, could result in termination.

The machinists union filed a complaint with the labor board in July 2015 alleging unfair labor practices by Amazon, including surveilling, threatening and “informing employees that it would be futile to vote for union representation.” Mr. Hough spent eight hours that summer giving his testimony. While labor activists and unions generally consider the board to be heavily tilted in favor of employers, union officials said a formal protest would at least show Chester technicians that someone was fighting for them.

In early 2016, Amazon settled with the board. The main thrust of the two-page settlement was that Amazon would post an employee notice promising good behavior while admitting nothing.

Wilma Liebman, a member of the labor board from 1997 to 2011, examined the employee notice at the request of The Times. “What is unusual to my eye is how extensive Amazon’s pledges were, and how specific,” she said. “While the company did not have to admit guilt, this list offers a picture of what likely was going on.”

Amazon was required to post the notice “in all places where notices to employees are customarily posted” in Chester for 60 days, the labor board said.

From the machinists union’s point of view, it wasn’t much of a punishment.

“This posting was basically a slap on the wrist for the violations that Amazon committed, which included lies, coercion, threats and intimidation,” said Vinny Addeo, the union’s director of organizing.

Another reason for filing an unfair labor practices claim was that the union hoped to restart its efforts with a potentially chastened company. But most of the employees who supported the Chester drive quit.

“They were intimidated,” Mr. Wade, the union organizer, said.

Mr. Hough was beset by ill health during his years at Amazon. Radiation treatment for his cancer prompted several strokes. His wife, Susan, had health problems, too. Mr. Hough said he wondered how much the unionization struggle contributed to their problems. He added that he didn’t know whom to trust.

After leaving Amazon, Mr. Hough began driving trucks, at first long haul and later a dump truck. It paid less, but he said he was at peace.

Maximum Green Time

When Amazon vanquished the 2014 union drive in Delaware, the retailer said it was a victory for “open lines of direct communication between managers and associates.”

One place Amazon developed that direct communication was in its warehouse bathrooms under what it called its “inSTALLments” program. The inSTALLments were informational sheets that offered, for instance, factoids about Mr. Bezos, the timing of meetings and random warnings, such as this one about unpaid time off: “If you go negative, your employment status will be reviewed for termination.”

As the union drive heated up in Bessemer, the direct communication naturally was about that. “Where will your dues go?” Amazon asked in one stall posting, which circulated on social media. Another proclaimed: “Unions can’t. We can.”

Amazon also set up a website to tell workers that they would have to skip dinner and school supplies to pay their union dues.

In December, a pro-union group discovered, Amazon asked county officials to increase “maximum green times” on the warehouse stoplight to clear the parking lot faster. This made it difficult for union canvassers to approach potential voters as they left work. Amazon declined to comment.

Last month, President Biden weighed in.

“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” he said in a video that never mentioned Amazon but referred to “workers in Alabama” deciding whether to organize a union. “You know, every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice.”

Owning 25 Hats

Mr. Hough, in an interview before the pandemic, said part of him wanted to forget what had happened at Amazon. Why dwell on defeat? He threw away all the papers from the union drive. He never saw the employee notice because he was recovering from a stroke.

But he has not forgiven the retailer.

“You’re only going to step on me one time,” he said, sitting in his home in the outskirts of Richmond.

Amazon’s customers just don’t know how miserable a job there can be, he suggested.

“I guarantee you, if their child had to work there, they’d think twice before purchasing things,” he said.

Ms. Hough, sitting next to him, had a bleaker view.

“The customers don’t care about unions. They don’t care about the workers. They just want their packages,” she said.

As if on cue, their son, Brody, came in. He was 20, an appliance technician. His mother told him there was a package for him on his bed. It was from Amazon, a fishing hat. It cost $25, Brody said, half the price on the manufacturer’s website.

“I order from Amazon anything I can find that is cheaper,” Brody said. That adds up to a lot of hats, about 25. “I’ve never worked for Amazon. I can’t hate them,” he said.

Ms. Hough looked at her husband. “If your own son doesn’t care,” she asked, not unkindly, “how are you going to get the American public to care?”

The pandemic helped change that, bringing safety issues at Amazon to the forefront. In a Feb. 16 suit against Amazon, the New York attorney general, Letitia James, said the company continued last year to track and discipline employees based on their productivity rates. That meant workers had limited time to protect themselves from the virus. The suit said Amazon retaliated against those who complained, sending a “chilling message” to all its workers. Amazon has denied the allegations.

Last week, regional Canadian authorities also ordered thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse near Toronto to quarantine themselves, effectively closing the facility. Some 240 workers recently tested positive for the virus there, a government spokeswoman said, even as the rate of infection in the area fell. Amazon said it was appealing the decision.

Alabama is now the big test. Mr. Hough worries the union supporters will be crushed.

“They will fall to threats or think, ‘I won’t have a job, Amazon will replace me,’” he said by phone this month. “When a company can do things to you in secret, it’s real hard to withstand.”

Still, he added, “I’m hoping for the best. More power to them.”

 

 

 

 

 

 


A Labor Sypathizer, Now on the Management Side, Calls for 'Mutual Realism'

Michael Yates
 

I posted this on Facebook:

Columbia University graduate students have gone on strike. They want better pay and access to third-party arbitration. They live in the most expensive city in the country, many have families, and they do a significant part of undergraduate educating. As anyone who has gone to graduate school knows, they are subservient to their lead professors, in what can best be described as a feudal work environment.
Curiously, on the management side of the bargaining table is well-known political scientist and historian Ira Katznelson, who is now interim provost of the university. In a letter to the campus, he note his “longstanding connections to the labor movement, including a history of work with the United Auto Workers some years back on the side of political strategy.” He wrote a book titled "Marx and the City." Now, however, he asks the graduate students to be reasonable! What is needed, he says is "good will," "considered solutions," and "mutual realism." “This is especially so during the pandemic, which has placed Columbia, and higher education more generally, under great fiscal strain, with responses that have included wage and hiring freezes,” he wrote in his campus letter this week. “Regarding compensation, there are lines we are unable to cross. Current demands set forth as recently as Monday of last week for increases of 10 percent and subsequent 6-percent annual improvements, simply put, are neither reasonable nor responsible in present circumstances.”
Now, here is a man who has the nerve to point out his commitment to the labor movement insisting that the graduate student workers be reasonable for demanding what appear to me to be quite reasonable amounts of money. And, in effect, he has suggested that the workers are exacerbating the impact of the pandemic on the Columbia community, when, if fact, they are suffering greatly from this. Katznelson is, I would bet, making well in the six figures as salary, in an extremely secure academic position with plenty of perks and excellent benefits. Columbia is a very rich university, with a large property portfolio in New York City and the 10th largest endowment of all universities in the country, now more than $11 billion dollars. But it is the workers who must be reasonable.
When you claim to be on the left, a friend of labor, then you have no business joining the management team. None whatsoever. To charge hypocrisy against Katznelson would be putting in mildly. And by the way, the workers unionized four years ago and have yet to get a contract. They should collect copies of Katznelson's books and essays and publicly burn them. They are as worthless as is he.

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