Live chat with New York Times food columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman
New York Times food-politics columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman dropped by for a live chat on March 22. The chat was hosted by Grist’s own Tom Philpott, who says he’s been cooking under Bittman’s wing since the early 1990s when Bittman wrote for Cook’s Illustrated magazine.
Check out a transcript of the chat:
Tom Philpott: Hi everyone, and welcome, Mark
Philpott: How are things in NYC — you guys get some snow?
Mark Bittman: Hey Tom. Hey everyone. Here we go.
Philpott: hey there
Philpott: Welcome to the chat!
Philpott: Don’t mind the tech glitches
Bittman: Forgive the chatter — can I answer this GMO question?
Comment From Christopher: How realistic is it to avoid GMO food?
Bittman: The only certain way to avoid GMO food is to grow/raise it yourself. No kidding. (And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.) Though organic food still gives you some insurance. And at least it’s not INTENTIONALLY GMO food but incidentally.
Comment From Grace Piper: Hey Guys.
Philpott: Yeah, unfortunately, lots of cross pollination
Philpott: yes, grace?
Comment Pre-submitted by Carey: Agribusiness claims that we can’t feed the world with organic food — that we simply can’t produce enough without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Is this really true?
Philpott: Mark, take a shot at that one?
Philpott: Carey, that is an industry talking point that really doesn’t bear out
Philpott: Mark and I have both written about it recently
Bittman: No one knows. What’s clear is that if we continue to rely increasingly on industrial agriculture things will get worse and worse. You saw my piece about this in the Times a week or two ago, and the U.N. report suggesting that, for at least developing countries, sustainable ag was a better bet than industrial? And probably for many other countries/crops as well.
Philpott: Turns out, when you read the lit, organic ag is actually quite productive compared to industrial
Philpott: Another thing about organic ag is that it doesn’t require lots of expensive inputs that
Philpott: many farmers in the global south can’t really afford
Philpott: Mark, why do you think the idea that only industrial can feed the world is so durable?
Philpott: There have been so many contrary studies in the past several years
Philpott: FAO, World Bank even
Bittman: Because industrial agriculture has enough money to get its message across, and because it’s the status quo. Simple enough.
Philpott: and yet the idea persists
Philpott: What puzzles me is that so many journos repeat it uncritically
Philpott: despite all the evidence
Comment From Judith Klinger: What bridges can we build to make ‘food politics’ less hostile? less divisive? Can vegetarians and omnivores agree to disagree? Can big ag think out of the box?
Bittman: This is a great question and an important one. Give me a minute.
Philpott: Good question. I don’t know about you, Mark, bu the comments i get can be quite hostile.
Philpott: With people fighting back and forth.
Philpott: A lot of it is that food is so personal.
Philpott: and a lot gos back, i think, to the tremendous amount of money at stake
Philpott: Critiques like mine and Mark’s are not going to be popular with entrenched interests
Bittman: First of all, vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores who care about eating intelligently have more in common than not. (Of course I say that as an omnivore but I’m willing to argue the point.) We all want to treat animals better (obviously vegans will phrase that differently), stop wrecking our bodies and the environment, treat farmers and farmworkers better, and so on. So there are a lot of messages we can put forth on which we can agree.
Philpott: I’m thinking of launching the Omnivore and Vegan Coalition to Fight Factory Animal Farming
Philpott: We agree on 95 percent
Philpott: I wish we could focus on that and not fight over the fate of grass fed cows, for example
Bittman: Second: I don’t know whether big food can think out of the box, but I believe they can think differently. You’re seeing a lot of what used to be called greenwashing — and, if you’re skeptical, you’ll still call it that — but it’s actually starting to move in the right direction. Do I care whether WalMart makes ‘better” processed food? Not really. But is that a good thing? Better good than bad. As is McDonalds committing to working with WWF. As is Pepsi recognizing that it’s not going to make money on fizzy sugar water forever. On the other hand, the tobacco companies are still making 6trillion (yes) cigarettes a year. So it will take a while.
Philpott: Do you ever write something critical of the meat industry, and find in comments an angry remark from a vegan, Mark?
Bittman: That’s a great idea Tom.
Bittman: Some of my best friends are vegans!
Philpott: Yea, i think a lot of the griping between folks like us and vegans is sad and counterproductive
Philpott: and we need more vegans!
Philpott: our society can’t keep consuming a half pound of meat, plus, per day
Philpott: you can’t produce that on pasture
Bittman: One pound plus of animal products you know.
Comment Pre-submitted by Annika: What specific things can the average person do to create meaningful change in the 2012 Farm Bill?
Philpott: hard one.
Philpott: I do think the more public pressure brought together re: farm bill is key
Philpott: We got a lot last time, and a pretty lame bill
Philpott: But social movements require patience and long attention.
Bittman: I think that more and more working on a very local level — the municipal level, the county level — is more important than “writing to your congressman.” Eventually we might see the kind of movement that will lead to a march on Washington with a few hundred thousand people, or more. That’s the road we have to take to have an impact on Congress. As for the food bill — I think minimal change is inevitable, and maximal change is impossible. I’m not sure how much impact an individual can have on the outcome there.
Philpott: So the usual advice of harassing your reps in D.C. seems right
Philpott: It’s true that change on the local level is like a laboratory that can show policy makers that reform can work
Philpott: and Uncle Wendell (Berry) reminded us recently that we industrial ag critics always need to be on the hunt for great local work
Philpott: But we do need a 2pronged strategy
Philpott: March on DC=great idea.
Philpott: Maybe the Omni-Vegan Coalition will lead it!
Comment From Laura S.: Would you be willing to sit down and chat with a “factory farm” that is working hard to provide good, affordable food to a growing population in a way that is at the same time trying to be respectful of animals and the environment?
Bittman: Hate to self-plug but see my column tomorrow which, for a change, is positive.
Bittman: Laura: Yes, and I’m making plans to do so.
Philpott: I did one of those recently, too.
Philpott: Laura, i think such convos are real important
Philpott: It’s really hard for journos to get access to large farms, esp animal farms
Philpott: but I’d do so in a second. Thanks for bringing that up.
Comment From Guest: can we change the Monsanto decision of GMO alfalfa? what can the small eater do?
Philpott: I don’t think so, Guest.
Philpott: Seems like that one is baked in.
Bittman: That battle has been lost for some time in the future I fear.
Bittman: Hmm. Guess we’re agreeing on that!
Philpott: As for the small eater, try to avoid GMOs, like mark said earlier.
Philpott: Mark, how are efforts going to demand GMO labelling?
Philpott: You wrote about that recently.
Philpott: Any official response?
Philpott: You made the case in a way that speaks to politicians, i think: people’s right to know.
Bittman: No of course there’s no official response. But it’s clear that 80 or 90 percent of at least internet users who read me or, what was it, MSNBC? Want labeling.
Bittman: I don’t see how you apply pressure on that.
Philpott: Right, there was that poll.
Philpott: Have you seen any major NGOs or consumer groups take up that cause?
Comment From Bill Nyden: sustainable seafood: who should we listen to?
Philpott: That is a hard, hard, question, bill.
Philpott: I think it depends on whether you live in a foodshed that includes seafood.
Philpott: Mark, we had a bit of an exchange on that a couple years ago, remember?
Philpott: And have you noticed that the fish i criticized for using in a recipe, red snapper….
Philpott: has come back a bit?
Bittman: Sustainable: I think greenpeace has the right idea: You get supermarket chains to commit to buying sustainable fish, and you patronize those supermarkets. That is happening. As it also happens, the U.S. has the best sustainable fish policies of any country in the world.
Yes it’s true. Doesn’t mean you can eat everything by any means but there is fish out there.
Bittman: Well you’re hypercritical anyway, not all pleasant and sweet like me.
Philpott: I agree that it has to be systematic
Philpott: People are going to eat what’s available in the store
Philpott: it’s on the store level that reform has to happen
Philpott: Mark, how are U.S. seafood regs different than say, Europe’s?
Bittman: give me a sec
Bittman: Europe, as Carl Safina was explaining to me yesterday, is a jumble of rules. Plus if fish are protected in, say, Spain (which they’re not, but it’s an example), they still swim over to, say, Portugal, where they’re not. We (the U.S.) have a huge coastline and one set of rules. It’s working.
Philpott: Got ya.
Comment From Grace Piper: Mark, What’s your opinion on food bloggers vs food journalists? Any pet peeves against us? :)
Philpott: Well, Mark is a journo who blogs.
Bittman: Why would I have peeves against bloggers? But don’t most bloggers aspire to be paid journalists? I would.
Philpott: I’m a blogger who does journalism, i guess.
Philpott: I think the distinction is breaking down.
Comment From Georgia Riepe: As food politics become increasingly mainstream, the idea of eating healthily and responsibly becomes politically charged — even declared “elitist”. In terms of shaping the national dialogue, how can we move beyond the b.s. and simply agree that eating well can be a value we all share, then move to address the environmental costs of the American diet without our country ripping in two?
Philpott: The elitist thing is like a headache that won’t go away.
Philpott: I find it funny that an industry dominated by a few highly profitable companies can declare its critics “elitist.”
Philpott: Especially when it’s making the people it feeds sick.
Comment From Jennifer: How do I convince my pot-bellied, smoking, meat-addicted father that he should eat more plants, even though he’s perfectly healthy by traditional standards: low cholesterol levels, low blood pressure, etc.? And no, trying to convince him that animals are suffering didn’t help.
Philpott: That’s a hard one.
Philpott: Some folks have iron constitutions.
Bittman: Our country is already ripped in two (or more) many ways, right? Like dozens.
Pollan pointed out last week (maybe someone can post a link) that many progressive movements have been begun by people with money. It isn’t surprising. So: the goal is to address anyone who will listen and to push conscious, ethical eating. Whoever listens is on our side. Eventually maybe it becomes a real movement and grows. The elitism label is a) largely stuck on all progressive movements by rightwingers and b) not going to stick if/when the movement becomes larger. I mean, you could see a tea-party-person not wanting to torture animals, right? Not wanting to be poisoned? Etc.
Bittman: Jennifer: Maybe it’s better to convince someone else!
Philpott: Back to the elitist thing–agreed w/ all that, plus remember that that the movement has non-elitist roots too.
Philpott: Like community gardens that sprouted in Harlem and the Bronx in the 70s
Philpott: Or Growing Power, the urban ag powerhouse, founded by African Americans in the 90s in Milwaukee
Comment From Susan R. Clark: From Phil Martin, professor of ag economics at UC Davis:
Comment From Judith Klinger: Tom, I think you hit on a good point, that food is personal. It’s also become an obvious socio-economic flag. Oh. look. I will only eat…. or I won’t eat XXX . But saying, “we need more vegans” inflames the divide, doesn’t i?
Philpott: Sigh. Maybe.
Comment From Julia: I’m vegan, and I really like Mark Bittman’s articles. They at least make people think about their food. Not in the ‘Michael Pollan’ way, where you romanticize killing animals yourself, etc. Mark, as a vegan, I would love people to think more about their food choices — not necessarily to eat like I do, but at least not to be mindless about it. What can I do, without being seen as ‘preachy’?
Bittman: We don’t need more vegans, not that that would hurt. We need more less-meatarians. And we need more people who stand up for the right to eat real animals, stop destroying the earth, etc. No one needs to be vegan for that. Though, as I said, vegans are obviously on the right side in general.
Comment From Susan R. Clark: Bittman has an excellent point — that we should focus on local and regional organizing and become strong at that level first. Make it happen in every state in the nation … ignore the feds for the time being?
Bittman: Julia. You don’t sound preachy to me, but of course I agree with you!
Bittman: I wouldn’t say “ignore the feds” but I think the day-to-day work can be more effective on a local-er level.
Comment From ella in ireland: Hi from Dublin. I was interested to read Bob Comis’ excellent article the other day. Do you agree with his assertion that “Creating a regionally directed, ecologically sound food system that’s accessible to a broad swath can be done with integrity and with no loss of animal, farmer, or consumer welfare; and it must be done.” Is this too idealistic?
Bittman: Ella: No. Bob is right on. But it’s important to recognize that sustainable meat is going to be more expensive, and it’s not going to be produced at anywhere near the level industrial meat is produced on, so for it to replace industrially produced meat, we are going to have to eat less of it. That is the bottom line, no matter how you look at it. And this is one of the few things I can say with certainty.
Comment From Kathy Ozer: We at the National Family Farm Coalition have been working with other farm groups and citizen/consumer organizations to get important parts of the 2008 farm bill implemented such as the new livestock rule — known as the GIPSA rule. For the first time in decades USDA has issued good proposed regulations that will restore some fairness into the livestock markets and have fairer contracts for those growers (poultry and hogs) that have little option but to produce under contract. Over 60,000 comments were submitted by November 22nd and we are urging the White House and USDA to issue these new rules soon to change the current practices which benefit corporate livestock and the companies at the expense of family farmers and ranchers. Much more needs to happen along with next steps from the USDA and DOJ hearings but this is an important first step.
Bittman: Kathy maybe I can help; email me later? (email@example.com)
Philpott: A better GIPSA rule would do a lot to address the concentration questions i’m always on about
Philpott: Yet the process has stalled in tjhe USDA
Philpott: Mark, what’s your perception of Obama’s policy on food and ag?
Philpott: Is he as progressive as can be, and just needs more pressure …
Philpott: or does he believe the industry hype?
Philpott: i honestly can’t tell.
Bittman: Ugh. I don’t think he’s paying much attention, frankly. And I don’t think Vilsack is doing anyone any good. I think Mme. Obama is doing all the heavy lifting, and we’re the better for it. But obviously if he were more involved we’d all be better off.
Bittman: But I know nothing everyone else doesn’t know on this matter. (or most others!)
Comment From Jennifer Raymond: In Mr. Bittman’s’ Manifesto, I LOVED that he called food a ‘Public Health’ issue. How can the public health community help the rest of the country make this connection?
Bittman: Jennifer: I think it already is. Can there be a serious public health commissioner or academic or practitioner in the country who doesn’t recognize that there’s an obesity epidemic, that it’s serious, and that there’s a way out?
Comment From Mud Baron: Childhood Obesity? Solutions? Working models? Or is obesity going to be a likely/given for low-income kids?
Bittman: Is everyone congratulating Tom on his Beard nomination?
Philpott: Why thanks, Mark. Some people are! And i am quite honored.
Bittman: Mr Mud: I was in Philly last week. They are working on attacking it in several ways, and it’s a sound model. More money would help, of course, but it’s progress. I’ll write about it next week.
Philpott: Childhood obesity is really complex, and i doubt there is one solution.
Philpott: But I think one thing worth experimenting with is actually investing decent money in school lunches, with cafeterias equipped for cooking
Philpott: If that sounds too hard, i refer you to a certain cookbook writer’s Minimalist series of books.
Philpott: Cooking decent meals in schools doesn’t require fancy equipment or Adria like skills
Comment From Rachel: Mark and Tom — do you ever feel like your message is only being heard by the “choir” of other people who support the same thing you do? Or the people who disagree so much with your opinions that they read your articles and blogs simply to comment and disagree? Any insights on how to reach out to the people who aren’t actively seeking out information?
Bittman: Rachel: We have to keep plugging away. The choir grows. And everyone in the choir has friends in the congregation, and even people outside the church. Not to beat a metaphor to death.
Comment From Emunah Hauser: Mark, your shift in emphasis from culinary to food politics has given you a unique ability/sympathy to speak to eaters who are not usually oriented towards talking about where our meat comes from or eating less of it. How did you do it? How did your meat-loving, non-political fans react, at least initially? What are some lessons learned for the rest of us in our communication with others?
Bittman: I’m still doing recipes, you know; lots of them. And I still think cooking is among the most important things people can do to shift how food “works.”
Some non-political fans want me to keep my mouth shut. Most of that noise I suspect comes from paid shills. Why would real cooks not want to improve the food “system”?
I’ll tell you what I’ve learned: there are a lot of people out there who think like we do, and a lot more than there were – a hell of a lot more – than there were two years ago. And two years from now it’ll be even better.
And with that … I’m outta here! Thanks for having me, Tom.
Philpott: To me, Mark has always been political, in that he demystifies food
Philpott: Thank you, Mark!
Philpott: Great convo. Btw, my farm partner says, I love your tapioca recipe
Philpott: from how to cook everything
Bittman: Nothing like tapioca!
Bittman: Except maybe red snapper ;)
Philpott: egg whites beaten stiff
Philpott: Snapper tacos!
Philpott: Bye Mark.