I had so far managed to avoid
reading anything by Mark Bittman, who authored a food column
called "The Minimalist" for more than 13 years at
the New York Times. But he recently broke out of the foodie
ghetto and penned
an "Opinionator" column entitled "A Food Manifesto for the
Future", and—aaagh, my eyes!
Rarely will you see such happy-face arrogant totalitarianism encapsulated
in a brief column.
The first danger sign: overuse of the first person plural.
For decades, Americans believed that we
had the world's healthiest and
safest diet. We worried little about this diet's effect on the
environment or on the lives of the animals (or even the workers) it
relies upon. Nor did we worry about its ability to endure -- that is,
Note that when Bittman says "we" here, it's a euphemism. He's not
He really means "you idiots."
But Bittman's primary purpose isn't to berate his fellow citizens for
their blissful ignorance. He's here to advocate.
That didn't mean all was well. And we've come to recognize that
is unhealthful and unsafe.
Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable,
conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would
be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.
Actually, I can pretty easily
discover plenty more "wasteful, damaging, unsustainable" systems
necessary. Bittman's prose isn't meant to be
thought about rationally.
claims a lot of gripes motivate his crusade. I'll concentrate on the
food-nannying here just to keep things manageable. That
shouldn't be interpreted
as saying that I buy into his environmental hysteria,
animal-rights extremism, or think he has anything meaningful
to relieve the drudgery of agricultural workers.
All these things are really just excuses for his advocacy of
government control over what you and I eat.
So let's think a bit about what it means to deem "our" diet to be
"unhealthful and unsafe." It's false not only in its sweeping
generalization over the entire populace,
but also in its implied binary: that there's
a bright easy-to-draw line between evil "unhealthful and unsafe"
diets and the healthy/safe ones.
In fact, it's more like a continuum: there are less-risky and more-risky
diets. There are major
disagreements about some important risk factors.
Worse, what makes a diet risky varies widely between individuals,
and also varies at different stages of life.
Putting things in terms of risk clarifies the issue. For one thing,
people trade off risky behavior for other benefits all the time.
(For many examples, check out the fascinating Wikipedia article
Is "risky" food special, somehow different from all those other risks? Why?
And finally: even if people eat the safest diet possible
(assuming they can figure out how to do that): they still are
gonna die of something—possibly boredom.
It's not really "diets" that are unsafe and
unhealthful: it's life itself. The mortality rate is, as far as
we know, 100%.
Bittman's apocalyptic rhetoric isn't particularly accurate or useful.
It is, however, just a setup for his "manifesto":
Here are some ideas -- frequently discussed, but sadly not yet
implemented -- that would make the growing, preparation and consumption
of food healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and more
Here's what you need to know about Bittman's "ideas": every last one
involves the coercive powers of Your Federal Government: subsidies,
taxes, laws, regulations, mandates, spending. And in addition
to the outright coercion, there will be even
more food-nanny nagging, paid for by tax dollars.
In other words, although Bittman thinks he knows how to make
the food system "healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and
enduring," simply pointing that out won't be enough to make
people actually do anything different voluntarily.
It's very easy to get suckered by Bittman's very first recommendation:
End government subsidies to processed food.
The only possible quibble I have is: that sentence is
three words too long.
But Bittman makes it clear that he's very much in favor
of subsidies. He's just against money going to things he doesn't
… which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.
Oops. Fortunately, Our Federal Government has plenty of cash
that can just be diverted from the present batch
of evildoers to the right people:
Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct
consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living
wages. Markets -- from super- to farmers' -- should be supported when
they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food
rather than junk food. And, of course, we should immediately increase
subsidies for school lunches so we can feed our
youth more real food.
You know, pretty much everyone needs to eat. It's a testament to
Bittman's statist mindset that he can't imagine people being able
to satisfy that need voluntarily, with their own money; instead
let's create vast new swaths of government
Bittman's next recommendation is another libertarian
sucker trap. He giveth:
Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture […]
And then he taketh away:
[…] and empower the Food and Drug Administration.
So it's another shell game where the taxpayer never gets the pea.
Meanwhile, the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety
of our food supply. (Food-related deaths are far more common than those
resulting from terrorism, yet the F.D.A.'s budget is about one-fifteenth
that of Homeland Security.)
Bittman talks about food safety as if it were a looming crisis.
In fact, as near as the Center for Disease Control can tell
most food-borne illnesses are decreasing
. (The only exception
is Vibrio, a relatively small component
of the spectrum
of food-borne illnesses. I suspect this is
due to the increased popularity of sushi.)
Another recommendation that will make sensible folk roll their eyes:
Encourage and subsidize home cooking.
(Someday soon, I'll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking
Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When
families eat together, they're more stable. We should provide food
education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes
for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable
to cook for themselves.
I suppose I could imagine more intrusive proposals than this one.
Needless to say, your level of home cooking will have to be rigorously
monitored in order to make sure you aren't getting more than your
due share of subsidization. There will be forms to fill out,
and itemized receipts to save and submit. You'll have to take that
evil salt shaker off the table.
And someone will have to make sure
that your family is eating together
: perhaps a small camera
to make sure surly teenagers aren't simply skulking off into their
bedrooms with a plateful of Bittman-approved quinoa and black beans.
Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster.
This isn't nanny-state paternalism […]
Comment: of course it is.
[…]but an accepted role of government:
public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer
systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the
relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to
health -- including the sacred cheeseburger and fries.
Obviously, Bittman is not really into making fine distinctions;
otherwise, he might wonder whether slapping a massive tax on your
Chipotle BBQ Bacon Angus Third Pounder is really
by the same argument as that for "sewer
systems and traffic lights."
But otherwise: you know all those crazy libertarians who predicted that
"nanny-state paternalism" was a slippery slope? That "for your own
good" intrusions into personal decisions would inevitably be
used as an excuse for even more?
Yeah. They were right.