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Open the Podcasts app and search for The Doctor’s Farmacy. If you’re viewing this site on your phone, you can just tap on the

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Episode 157
The Doctor's Farmacy

The History Of Our Food System: What’s Wrong And How To Fix It

Open the Podcasts app and search for The Doctor’s Farmacy. If you’re viewing this site on your phone, you can just tap on the

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What do wealth inequality, chronic disease, climate change, and the industrialization of agriculture all have in common? The answer is food, and more specifically our food system.

Very few people are able to connect the dots between some of the world’s most pressing issues in a way that lets us see the big picture. My guest on today’s episode of The Doctor’s Farmacy, Mark Bittman, is someone who does exactly that in an effort to achieve a different future for food.

The latter is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Mark asked the simple question of what a good food system would look like and recognized that what we currently have is a food system geared towards profiting a few at the expense of many. It’s also a system that simply can’t endure over time. He wrote Animal, Vegetable, Junk to look at where we are and how we’re going to get out of it.

Mark’s approach to improvement involves measured, incremental changes. We take a look back at the history behind our modern food system to understand our current situation, which includes sustained systemic racism, health disparities, and poor monocrop practices dating back to the nineteenth century.

Amidst this global pandemic, where we’re seeing huge investments and fast action to find a cure, Mark and I pause to ask why we can’t see that same eagerness in tackling the chronic disease epidemic. Those with food-related illnesses, like type 2 diabetes and obesity, are at a greater risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms and death. Those same food-related chronic diseases were already an epidemic in our country, yet they receive little acknowledgment as the public health crises that they are. Mark and I discuss this and what types of interventions we need to support as part of a solution.

Mark’s key endpoints for a better food system include getting land into the hands of the people who want to farm it with sustainable and regenerative practices, producing a variety of crops that are healthy to consume, and distributing those crops locally and affordably. That won’t happen overnight, but the future of food can most certainly be brighter if we commit to doing the work and starting with small steps.

I hope you’ll tune in to this week’s episode.

This episode is brought to you by Bioptimizers, Thrive Market, and Athletic Greens.

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I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD
Mark Hyman, MD

In this episode, you will learn (video / audio):

  1. Answering the question, what would a good food system look like?
    (5:17 / 9:29)
  2. Looking back at the development and resulting consequences of our agricultural system
    (7:05 / 11:17)
  3. Tracing today’s wealth inequality, food industrialization, and monocrop culture back to the agricultural pursuits of the nineteenth century
    (14:15 / 18:27)
  4. Making measurable, incremental change to improve our modern food system
    (24:22 / 29:43)
  5. What individuals can do to improve our food system
    (27:05 / 32:26)
  6. The cost of failing to name that we are in a national food crisis
    (28:13 / 33:34)
  7. Is Big Food rethinking its role in our food system?
    (33:08 / 38:29)
  8. Incentivizing regenerative agriculture, nationally and internationally
    (35:25 / 40:46)
  9. Improving national food policy
    (42:47 / 48:08)
  10. The link between agriculture and climate change, and the role of animal production in climate change
    (45:09 / 50:30)

Guest

 
Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman, MD is the Founder and Director of The UltraWellness Center, the Head of Strategy and Innovation of Cleveland Clinic's Center for Functional Medicine, and a 13-time New York Times Bestselling author.

If you are looking for personalized medical support, we highly recommend contacting Dr. Hyman’s UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts today.

 
Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman is the author of thirty acclaimed books, including How to Cook Everything and the #1 New York Times bestseller, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health… for Good. He was a New York Times columnist for more than two decades and has hosted four TV series, including the Emmy-winning Years of Living Dangerously. He is currently on the faculty of Columbia University and is the editor in chief of the blog The Bittman Project, and his most recent book is Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal.

Show Notes

  1. Access Mark Bittman’s newsletter The Bittman Project
  2. Get his new book, Animal Vegetable Junk: A History of Food, From Sustainable to Suicidal
  3. Long-latency deficiency disease: insights from calcium and vitamin D
  4. Paradigm Shift: The End of “Normal Science” in Medicine

Transcript

Mark Bittman:
People sometimes say to me, “What can I do to work towards a better food system?” I’m like, “No matter what your passion is, there’s a role for you to make a really better food system.”

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Welcome to the Doctor’s Farmacy. I’m Dr. Mark Hyman, and that’s Farmacy, with an F, F-A-R-M-A-C-Y, a place for conversations that matter. If you care about food and our food system and the declining state of agriculture and our health and the economy and climate, well, this conversation you better listen to because it’s one of the most important conversations we need to have now in 2020. It’s with one of my intellectual heroes, an incredible guy, Mark Bittman, who’s the author of 30 books, which way beats me.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I’m only at 17, including How to Cook Everything, the New York Times bestseller, number one New York Times bestseller, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health for Good. He wrote columns in the New York Times for years. I read every single one. He was also in television hosting for series, including the Emmy Award winning, Years of Living Dangerously. He lives in New York. He’s on the Faculty of Columbia University, the Editor-in-Chief of Bitten, and his most recent book, which we’re going to talk about today, is Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. Welcome, Mark.

Mark Bittman:
Great to be here, Mark.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You’re one of the unicorns out there, who’s a chef, who’s a journalist, who’s a policy wonk, who’s interested in all aspects of food, end-to-end, from farm to fork, and has a systems view and perspective that is pretty unique. There’s a couple of people out there who were thinking like you, but very few people connect the dots and put the whole story together. I saw one of your original TED Talks, which equated eating cows to the atomic bomb. I use that a slide like my dogs.

Mark Bittman:
That’s a nice slide.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Yeah, it was made the point. I think you really have written one of the most important books that I’ve ever read, because it helps us understand why we’re in the predicament we are, where food is something that we think of as joyful and delicious and sustaining and nourishing. Our current food system and the food it produces is massively destructive. You make a case for how we have to address this in Animal, Vegetable, and Junk. Before we get into the interview, I just like to read a quote from the book because it’s really quite powerful.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I think it speaks to the breadth of thinking and the system’s view that you have. You said the following, “To meet the human and environmental crises head on, we must ask ourselves, what would a just food system look like?” I believe we can answer that question. I try to, although getting that place won’t be easy, it’s crucial, because nothing is more important than food. You can’t talk about reforming a toxic diet without talking about reforming the land and the labor laws that determine that diet.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You can’t talk about agriculture without talking about the environment and clean sources of energy, about the water supply. You can’t talk about animal welfare without talking about the welfare of food workers. You can’t talk about food workers without talking about income inequality, racism, and immigration. In fact, you can’t have a serious conversation about food without talking about human rights and climate change and justice, who not only affects everything, it represents everything.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You use in the beginning of your book, one of my favorite quotes from John Muir, who was a naturalist back in the 1800s, and he said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” I think this is the truth about food more than almost anything else. Yet everything we do about food is in silos and is reductionistic. That’s why we’re in the predicament we’re in. Mark, you’ve written so much about all these issues. Why did you decide it was important to write this book? Because it’s quite a different kind of book than your usual books.

Mark Bittman:
I’d really rather listen to you than talk because you’re so articulate and you so get it.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Well, I just quoted you. I didn’t say anything. That was your words, I just read your words.

Mark Bittman:
John Muir, it’s John’s fault.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
That wasn’t me.

Mark Bittman:
You pick the right quote. You pick the right quote. Although I’ll give you another quote, and the John Muir thing is right also. Two things, I’ll answer your question also. The John Muir thing, that’s what he said. No, I don’t think the word ecology had been … Maybe it existed, but it certainly wasn’t popularized in John Muir’s time. Everything is about ecology, which is a way of describing the natural world as the oneness of things. Food is certainly a big part of the ecology of things. Ecology determines food and vice versa. That’s one thing.

Mark Bittman:
Another thing is one goal in writing this book is to get people to ask themselves this question, and the question is, what would a good food system look like? Then when I say to people, what would a good food system look like? The answer usually comes back something like, well, one that feeds as many people well as it can without harming the land any more than it has to, that kind of thing. What we have is a food system that basically is geared toward profiting the few at the expense of the many. That’s the fundamental problem.

Mark Bittman:
That’s why I wrote Animal, Vegetable, Junk, is to say, in a way to explain how we got to this place, because it was a long and complicated road. It could have gone in different directions many times, and then to talk about where we’re at and how we’re going to get out of here. Because to use a word that’s overused all the time, which is what happens in this country, it isn’t sustainable. It can’t endure. The way we’re doing food now doesn’t work. There are people who say, “You’re fantasizing that we can do it better.”

Mark Bittman:
Just as there are people who say, “You’re fantasizing that we can do society better.” The fantasy is to think that things can go on the way they are, because they can’t. Too many people are dying. Too much earth is destroyed. Too many things are being poisoned. We need to make change. The question is how, when, where, and so on.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Well, the beautiful thing about your book, and I feel a little bit guilty of this, which is really having more of a short term history view of what happened. In other words, oh, well, it was just since the turn of the last century when we started to modernize agriculture. You go through this incredible arc of history from pre-hominoid people, how we started eating differently, and hunting, gathering.

Mark Bittman:
Then blame them though.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
No, no. It was fascinating. Then we have the advent of agriculture, which in the book you describe as maybe potentially one of the worst thing that’s ever happened to humanity, because it led to the beginning of all the injustice as we see, the war and slavery and land destruction and colonialism and patriarchy. You just lay it all out. I think that one of the things that struck me about the book is that we didn’t get here by accident, that there were a number of different things that happened historically that led us to this point.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
That we went through this hunter-gatherer phase, the agricultural revolution, which in the span of human existence on the planet is just like a few seconds, maybe five minutes of our existence you said. Yet it’s one of the most massively destructive things we’ve done. Yet there is redemption in actually how to fix it. There’s a way out, which is what’s so beautiful about book. It’s not just, oh (beep), here we got here and we’ve got a junk world of food and a junk agriculture and we’re really creating a junk society. We’re seeing the effects of this. There’s a way out.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You described that in the book too. Talk to us, take us through that narrative just briefly around animal, which is the hunter-gatherer, the vegetable, which is farming, and the junk, which is the industrialization of the food system. Take us through that arc in a way that we can understand that trajectory and how we got to where we are. Then let’s talk about how we get out.

Mark Bittman:
I’ll try to do that. It’s three or four major turning points, and so lot to talk about. I think just before …

Dr. Mark Hyman:
By the way, this book is so meticulously researched and so beautifully written. It’s one of the most breathtaking books I’ve read on the subject. I wish I’d written it. I encourage everybody get a copy. It’s called Animal, Vegetable, Junk by Mark Bittman.

Mark Bittman:
Here.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
There you go. You can see a copy of it, beautiful cover.

Mark Bittman:
Backwards. There’s an interesting thing that I’ve been thinking about since I finished the book. That is that we see how things happen only retroactively, only in hindsight. We don’t really see how things are happening while they’re happening. That’s why history is interesting, even contemporary history. What happened two weeks ago, you can be more reflective about than you can when it was happening. When something was happening 10,000 or 500 or 200 or 20 years ago, you can say, oh, look at these decisions that were made that really changed the course of history.

Mark Bittman:
What if we had done it a different way? That’s the stuff of science fiction movies mostly. Or we can actually make decisions now that change history. Now we have the knowledge to make these decisions consciously and with intent. We know the consequences. We know the consequences of putting 100 million cars on the road, for example, we know the consequences of eating a diet in which the majority of calories come from ultra-processed foods. We know what happens when you do these things. Now we didn’t know what happened when we started doing them.

Mark Bittman:
Now we know so we can make conscious changes. We can make smart conscious changes. It’s obviously not that easy. It’s easier for many people in their personal lives to do it. It can be done. I’m convinced that humans are going to do this at some point, to make decisions, intelligent decisions with the future in mind. We haven’t really started to do it yet. Anyway, the arc of history.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You’re an optimist.

Mark Bittman:
Well, I may not live to see it, but it doesn’t mean I don’t believe it can happen. The arc of history is that there were hunter-gatherers. It didn’t take a genius to notice that if you put a seed in the ground, a plant, a similar plants would grow. It didn’t take a genius to know that animals had babies, the growth of those babies could be encouraged. What happened at the beginning of agriculture was that people started to plant seeds intentionally and to protect those crops. People started to breed animals, domesticate animals, and to protect those animals.

Mark Bittman:
Foragers couldn’t forage if you were planting crops. They couldn’t forage those crops. Hunters couldn’t hunt the animals that you were domesticating. That was the beginning of rulemaking and the beginning of lawmaking. That was the beginning of the structure of society. Nothing wrong with that. There is an argument to be made that agriculture was a big mistake. Hunter-gatherers, there’s archaeological evidence that hunter-gatherers lived longer than Romans, for example, and were taller than Romans and healthier, in general, than Romans. There’s no going back. There was no going back.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You said, basically, the hunter-gatherers were five-foot nine males average. By the time we started growing our own food, was five-foot three.

Mark Bittman:
Yeah, [crosstalk 00:12:21].

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I know that’s got to be true, because I’m so tall that I go on these old houses that were built 300 years ago and I hit my head on all the doors. My feet don’t fit on the steps.

Mark Bittman:
Yeah, the steps are tough. When you … Let’s see. Where do I want to go here? When hunter-gatherers became agriculturalists, populations grew because there was more food. Also, hunter-gatherers didn’t want lots of children, but farmers generally did want lots of children, for obvious reasons. They wanted more labor. Populations grew, which made for more agriculture, more agriculture was able to feed larger populations, and so on. There was no going back. You fast forward to about 500 years ago, there’s a basic rule of agriculture.

Mark Bittman:
Which is that if you’re … You know this, if you’re dependent on vegetables for the primary plants primarily in your diet, you don’t need as much land to grow those vegetables as you do if you have a diet that’s high in animal products. Because there’s no intermediary. You’re eating the food you’re growing. Whereas with animals, you’re concentrating that food into animal flesh. Very simply, this explains the historically higher populations of Asia compared to Europe, which is that vegetarianism or dear vegetarianism was more traditional in Asia.

Mark Bittman:
Omnivorism or carnivorism was more popular in Europe, for reasons that aren’t really worth going into. The upshot of it was that Europeans were running out of land. The fact that Europeans are running out of land forced them to go explore in the rest of the world. The Chinese had already sailed to Africa, which is a much longer voyage than from Europe to North America. They had the technology to go wherever they want to in the world, but they didn’t need to because they had enough land for their needs. Europeans needed land, and so they came to North America.

Mark Bittman:
Now you have the sordid history of the killing of the indigenous people taking over, the conquering of North and South America for that matter, and the establishment of agriculture on what’s arguably the richest continent in the world, the best water, good sun, good soil, and so on. What ultimately happened, I’m trying to … At the same time, you are seeing the spread of luxury items like tea and coffee and sugar, which needed more labor, and you then begin to see. It’s so hard to shortcut all of this. As you can tell, I don’t have a lot of …

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Slavery.

Mark Bittman:
… elevator pitch. You saw then the beginning of slavery. Slavery moved from east to west pretty much with the development of sugar. When sugar reached the new world, that’s pretty much when slavery reached the new world. Fast forward again to the 19th century, when two things happen, one, land was given away. Land was stolen from the indigenous people and given mostly to White European males, which really explains today’s wealth inequality. Because the foundation of wealth, to a large extent, is land.

Mark Bittman:
Land, in the United States at least, has long been concentrated in the hands of White males, because that’s who the government gave it to in the late 19th century. That’s one aspect of the story. Another aspect of the story is the industrialization of food. The farm has factory, the Taylorism of farming, the increasing efficiency of farming, the desire to say, instead of growing crops to ourselves, in our neighbors, in our village, in our region, we’re going to grow crops to sell.

Mark Bittman:
We’re going to use that money to buy whatever food we want from people who are growing different things. From now on, everybody is going to be selling most of what they grow. People are going to need to be in the cash economy in order to buy food. What happened was that, farming became commodity farming. We started growing first week, but later corn and even later soybeans. Those products were increasingly processed into foods.

Mark Bittman:
They were easier to ship, had better shelf lives, and so on, at great cost, as you know as well as anybody, at great cost to everybody’s nutrition. Here we are today, most farming is monoculture, which means growing one crop at a time. That means chemical fertilizer, that means loads of pesticides, and that means foods that are destined to be hyperprocessed foods, which as you know are not only bad for the environment, bad for farmers, but bad for our health. End of story. Not quite. That’s a summary.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
That was very interesting. None of this really happened with bad intentions. We fumbled along, as human beings, emerging out of the hunter-gatherer period, started developing agriculture, and it wasn’t all uniform. There were some agricultural systems like in the Mesoamerica, where they created a really sustainable model of the three sisters, which is the corn, beans, and squash, where the corn provides us the place for the whole beans to grow and the beans actually fix nitrogen in the soil, and you get this wonderful regenerative agricultural system. In other areas, it was really raping the land. It was depleting the land to turn a desert and then moving in the next spot. Right now, we have nowhere to move like [crosstalk 00:18:22] …

Mark Bittman:
There’s no more land.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
There’s no more land.

Mark Bittman:
All the land in the world that’s been refarmed is being farmed. There’s no more land.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Well, I got a nice land in front of me. I could probably plant a garden. I don’t know if that’s true, Mark, because World War II, we had the victory gardens. 40% of our food was grown in people’s backyards. I think there’s more land than we think.

Mark Bittman:
Well, you know what, that’s a good point. That’s a good point.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I think that nobody really had bad intentions, but we’ve done a lot of destructive things. Talk about many books you’ve read during there, the Montgomery’s book about soil and the destruction of soil, millennia. You talk about the sapiens. When I read sapiens, I was like, oh my god, I thought I had this idyllic view of past humans who lived in harmony with nature and didn’t destroy their environments. We’ve been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years. Now our tools of destruction are much greater.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
We’ve entered an era we call the Anthropocene, which is where human behavior is damaging or altering the natural environment, including climate. A lot of this has to do with agriculture. I think people don’t understand it. Talk about the USDA, that’s like a branch of government that … Alright, it’s boring, the Farm Bill, who care? Farming, grow food. It turns out, it’s probably the most consequential piece of legislation that determines so much about our health because of the food we grow or don’t grow, the environment because of the methods of growing drive climate change, because of the farm worker and the food workers who are undergoing tremendous strain under the poor wages and all kinds of human rights violations.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
The whole system is intersected. We not only find ourselves by other just ignorance, maybe a few bad intentions, but mostly well intentioned efforts to feed the world, except it’s done the opposite. It’s created a massive obesity, massive chronic disease, massive environmental impact, economic impact, national security threats. We came out in army because they’re all too overweight to fight. Even kids performance in school, academic performance, and cognitive function, violence, behavior, all these things are driven by the poor quality of food we’re eating.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
As a doctor treating patients, using food as medicine, it’s so obvious to me these effects on our cognitive function or biological function. Then when you start to pull that thread like John Muir said, you keep going back up and up and upstream, which is where you got to, which is we have to look at everything from seed to farm, to food production, distribution, marketing, and consumption. It’s a massive task that requires a real rethinking of our entire food system.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You’ve thought more about this and more deeply about this and longer about this and most humans on the planet, and I’ve talked to more people and experts than most people. How do you take all this that you’re holding, which has got to be quite emotional, intellectual, spiritual burden to see the problem, see the solution, and see nobody talking about it. We have this new administration come in. This isn’t on the agenda. If you look at Biden’s for policy objectives, the economy, climate, COVID, racism, they’re all connected by food.

Mark Bittman:
They are.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Nobody is saying a word about using that to actually solve the problem. Mark …

Mark Bittman:
He doesn’t know it, that’s the problem. You know it, he doesn’t know it.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I know. I’m trying to get to him. We’re trying to have conversations. How do you, from your perspective, see that we can start to undo some of the harms and reimagine the food system? Where do we start? How do we start to move through it in a way that that gets to solve some of these big issues that you outlined in your book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk, which everybody should immediately go to Amazon, go to their bookstore if it’s still open, and get a copy. Because it is really an important book that it defines … I would say, it’s almost like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It defines this moment in time of what happened, what’s going on, and the impact. If we don’t deal with it, it’s catastrophic.
Speaker 3:
Hi, everyone. Hope you’re enjoying the episode. Before we continue, we have a quick message from Dr. Mark Hyman about his new company, Farmacy, and their first product, The 10-Day Reset.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Hey, it’s Dr. Hyman. Do you have FLC? What’s FLC? It’s when you feel like crap. It’s a problem that’s so many people suffer from and often have no idea that it’s not normal, or that you can fix it. You know the feeling. It’s when you’re super sluggish, your digestion is off, you can’t think clearly, or you have brain fog, or you just feel rundown. Can you relate? I know most people can. The real question is, what the heck do we do about it? Well, I hate to break the news, but there is no magic bullet. FLC isn’t caused by one single thing. There’s not one single solution.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
However, there is a systems-based approach, a way to tackle a multiple root factors that contribute to FLC. I call that system The 10-Day Reset, The 10-Day Reset combines food, key lifestyle habits, and targeted supplements to address FLC straight on. It’s a protocol that I’ve used with thousands of my community members to help them get their health back on track. It’s not a magic bullet, it’s not a quick fix. It’s a system that works. If you want to learn more and get your health back on track, click on the button below or visit getfarmacy.com, that’s getfarmacy with an F, F-A-R-M-A-C-Y.com.
Speaker 3:
Now back to this week’s episode.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
The price of inaction, you say this very clear in the book, is really catastrophic to humanity and is catastrophic to the planet. The planet will be fine once we go. In the meantime, it’s going to be a pretty messy place to live.

Mark Bittman:
The change has to be incremental. It would be really helpful if the Biden administration recognize the importance of food, which is why you and I were both pushing for progressive Secretary of Agriculture. We don’t have that. Anything is an upgrade from the last Secretary of Agriculture. At least, I think that Vilsack has already shown an indication that he’s willing to listen. Maybe it’ll be better than it was last time around. I think that change has to be not necessarily slow, but incremental, and that you have to make change that you can evaluate so that you know how it’s working.

Mark Bittman:
If it works well, you keep going in that direction. If it doesn’t work well, you evaluate and make some new change. I think soda taxes are a really terrific idea, which are an idea that’s in the process of being shown to be a good idea. We didn’t know that five years ago. Five years ago or six, Berkeley passed the country’s first soda tax, and then some other Bay Area cities, including San Francisco and Oakland. What we’ve seen is that if you tax soda as we tax tobacco, you discourage its consumption.

Mark Bittman:
If you decrease the consumption of soda, you decrease the consumption of useless calories or harmful calories. If you decrease the consumption of harmful calories, you decrease chronic disease. These are all good things. That’s just one example of the kind of thing you can do and say, well, this is working. Let’s do more of it. Similarly, encouraging shopping at farmer’s markets, encouraging enrollment at CSA, community supported agriculture. As people do that, they’re naturally buying and being forced to prepare more fruits and vegetables. Their diets are changing.

Mark Bittman:
Similarly, you improve school lunches. You improve food and institutions, in general. You set out guidelines for those institutions and you say, more whole grains, less hyperprocessed food, fewer added sugars, and so on down the line. When you change those guidelines, you see, oh, look, we’re creating a healthier diet in a controlled population. We’re seeing that there are positive effects of that healthier diet in that controlled … I mean, there are dozens of ideas like this. People sometimes say to me, “What can I do to work towards a better food system?”

Mark Bittman:
I’m like, “No matter what your passion is, there’s a role for you to make a better food system.” If you’re a person who believes in fighting for immigrant rights, countering racism, fighting for labor rights, then you can look at the fact that 5 out of 10 of the worst paying jobs in the United States are in the food system. Most of those jobs are held by women, immigrants, and people of color. Most of those jobs are under pay. Struggle for better payments in that arena that’s building a better food system too.

Mark Bittman:
Try to get land into the hands of people who want to farm it and farm it well, that’s building a bit … All of these things, and build better governance. Because we need … I mean, even, as you said, it’s not really on Biden’s agenda. On the other hand, if he does what he says he’s going to do, he will improve agriculture and improve food, even if it’s unintentional.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Yeah, absolutely. I think in your book, you talk about this extraordinary moment where we’re in now or COVID has led to the funneling of literally trillions of dollars.

Mark Bittman:
Literally trillions, yeah.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Like $1 trillion, $2 trillion package after the other. Up to six trillion now, I don’t know how many trillions. You speak about FDR’s new deal, where he was able to implement a sweeping set of changes that brought us out of the depression by putting people to work, by building roads, by building bridges, by making national parks, by employing people through public works programs and improving infrastructure at a time when it was all very new, bringing electricity to homes.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Right now, for me, the problem is that I feel like I’m in a glass booth where I’m screaming and no one can hear me. No one recognizes the problem. In the depression, everybody knew there was a depression. Most of us agree that climate change is an issue, that racism is an issue, that income inequality is an issue. I think we haven’t even named this problem as a society and said, food is central to solving this issue. It’s so frustrating to me because you and I see it, people like our friends, Dariush Mozaffarian, see it.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
There’s not that many people who are systems thinkers and think in ecological terms about these issues. One of the thing you proposed in your book, which I really love, which is the idea of taking this as a national crisis, as a national emergency, just like we did with COVID, because it really is. Even though these issues are siloed and seems separate, they’re really connected. They can be solved at the root cause, which then create all these downstream benefits.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I think if we had some kind of food new deal or the Green New Deal is, I guess, part of that, although that’s controversial, it really speaks to the fact. We could have taken with that money from COVID. We could literally train 10 million new farmers who said we could actually help to transform agriculture and support regenerative agriculture and change food production, which, as you say, changes food consumption. We’re only eating the stuff that’s grown. Whatever grown and stuff, we need different stuff.

Mark Bittman:
It’s all you can do.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Can you talk a little bit about this idea and how we might … Like if you were advising the president, how would you convince him to start to understand why this is an interconnected issue and a central issue that’s being ignored? Two, what would be the key ideas that you would want him to implement that are the biggest levers, would get the leverage to make the biggest changes?

Mark Bittman:
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, obviously. It’s a tough question.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Well, you have more than most, have more than most.

Mark Bittman:
Greta Thunberg says that we really only deal with crises and emergencies. We don’t really consider the climate crisis a crisis. We don’t really consider the food crisis a crisis. We do consider COVID a crisis. Yet as you know, let’s say 300,000 Americans died from complications of COVID in 2020. Put aside the fact that some large percentage of those people died because they had complications that were the result of their diet that was already a food problem. Put that aside for the moment.

Mark Bittman:
Consider that 1.5 to 2 million people every year in the United States die of diet related chronic disease. Why is COVID a crisis, which is going to be in the next year or two solved or more or less solved by a vaccine when diet, which we’re making no attempts to address, almost no attempts to address, kills five times as many people per year and is largely ignored? I feel the same way you do. It’s a little bit like shouting in the wilderness. It’s all we can do. Between the two of us, we have a fairly big audience and some people are listening.

Mark Bittman:
I don’t know exactly how to turn this battleship around. That’s why I said before, I think you make these small changes and you see that things are moving in the right direction, rather than saying we’re overturning the food system tomorrow because it’s not going to happen.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Well, you do point out in the book that these big companies that are part of the problem are starting to realize they need to be part of the solution, and that they’re …

Mark Bittman:
Do I? Because I don’t really feel that optimistic, but okay.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Well, I mean, you talked about how … Maybe they are buying up organic brands and their general mills and the known and other companies are supporting regenerative agriculture. I think Nestle’s is looking at how to become a health company. While they still have a legacy of products that are killing all of us, they’re also starting to rethink what they need to be doing for the future.

Mark Bittman:
I think that’s greenwashing, but okay.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It might be, but I don’t know. I’ve talked to leaders in Walmart and they’re very focused on how do we create a healthier population, how do we shift our products, how do we start to create a more equitable food system. They are the biggest organic grocers in America right now, well, probably the world. I think …

Mark Bittman:
Right. If you go on their website and you start shopping, all of the suggestions that they make that you would be adding to your cart are junk food. Maybe the next time they tell you that, you can make that … If they want to know one thing they can do better, that would be to encourage the consumption of that organic food that they’re the largest suppliers of, instead of …

Dr. Mark Hyman:
For sure.

Mark Bittman:
… encouraging the consumption of Hershey’s Kisses, which is where they’re at.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I agree. I think that one of the challenges is that there’s a lot of … Let’s call it fake news about the food system.

Mark Bittman:
For lack of a better term.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
We need to have this industrial agricultural system to feed the growing population, which will be 10 billion in another decade or two and that we …

Mark Bittman:
That is a lot, yes.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Yes. This is the Green Revolution, which was designed to bring agriculture to developing countries and give them our seeds and our chemicals and increase production and reduce starvation and famine. I think there was some good intentions. There was some good done by Norman Borlaug and dwarf wheat. It wasn’t a complete disaster. It turned out that it actually subverted a lot of these countries indigenous systems.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You point out that 75% of the food grown in the world is actually grown by these small indigenous, peasant farmers, which use techniques that are often sustainable or regenerative. The 25% of food that’s being produced by the big ag firms is the ones that’s killing all the rest of us. The idea that we can actually come up with a different agricultural system, because it has to start there, it’s based on regeneration. You used the word sustainable. I think we have to go beyond sustainable because we don’t want to sustain what we have. We want to have a much better system.

Mark Bittman:
That was a good point.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Yeah. I think this whole buzzword of regenerative agriculture talks about how do we regenerate agriculture, regenerate soils, water systems, ecosystems, pollinators, even human health, regenerate human health. The question is, how do we start to break down that myth? How do we start to incentivize agricultural production in a way that is going to drive the right changes? Because we have a new administration, and there’s a chance that we might get a voice or be heard in this conversation a little bit more now. If you were sitting there with President Biden and Secretary Vilsack and you’re on the hot seat, what would you tell them to do around agriculture?

Mark Bittman:
Internationally, I would say we should be minding our own business and letting … If we want to intervene or help other people, we should be helping them farm the way they know how to farm or we should at least not be attacking their way of farming, which is what the Green Revolution was about. I would say, let’s support what you’re calling regenerative agriculture, I call agroecology. In any case, let’s support the development of good agriculture.

Mark Bittman:
Let’s get land into the hands of people, especially people of color and women who were shut out from the land distribution of the 19th century. Let’s get land into the hands of people who want to farm right. Let’s start farming right, producing a variety of crops that are good for people to eat and distribute them locally at prices that people can afford. That’s the Green Revolution. That’s the real Green Revolution.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
The thing is, Mark, the argument is that, well, that’s all well and good. That’s nice. That’s a marginal part of agriculture. It’s not really going to solve our global hunger problems. It’s not really going to be able to scale to a growing population.

Mark Bittman:
Hang on. Hang on. There’s no global hunger problem, there’s a global income problem. No one with money is hungry. The only people who are hungry are people who can’t afford to eat. The UN says there’s enough, there are enough calories right now to feed not only the 7 billion people alive, but those mythical 10 billion people that are supposed to be here in 20 or 30 years. It’s really not an issue of growing enough food. It’s an issue of, A, people being able to afford good food, and, B, growing food that’s good for people to eat.

Mark Bittman:
Because a lot of the food that we’re growing now, as you know, is not good for people to eat. There’s those two changes. Make good food, produce good food, and make it available to everybody. That solves the problem. It’s a huge undertaking. That’s why I’m saying start small. If you’re asking what the big question is and what the big solution is, it’s not exporting industrial agriculture to the rest of the world. It’s letting the rest of the world teach us how to grow food in a way that that will endure that will be regenerative.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You think this has got to come from the bottom up or you think this has also got it really come from top down. Because we can joint all the farmers markets and CSAs and all the compost our vegetables and do all these wonderful things that are good for us and help the planet. Unless we have large scale policy changes, how can we achieve that goal?

Mark Bittman:
Well, we can’t. It has to be both. It’s great if individuals can and do change their lives. There’s no reason to argue against that. Obviously, not everybody can or will do that. There’s this statistic, which basically says, 60% of the calories available in the United States today are in the form of ultra-processed food. That means that someone’s got to eat that stuff. That’s what’s out there to eat. You can only eat what there is. You can’t eat food that doesn’t exist. There’s not enough real food to go around. Someone’s got to eat ultra-processed stuff. We have to change agriculture.

Mark Bittman:
As individuals, as you say, we can compost all we want, we can eat all the plant-based diets we want, blah, blah, blah, we can’t change agriculture without government support for changing agriculture. It has to be bottom up and top down. We do as, I think, we’ve seen in recent weeks, we do live in a kind of democracy where we have some control over our leadership. We need leadership that understands what food issues are and leadership that wants to build healthy agriculture, healthy land ownership, healthy diets.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I think this is so key. I know we always have new administrations always helpful. It seems to me that there are forces at play that are subverting the truth, subverting the right information. Now, we both know Sam Kass and one of the most striking things he said to me, he was a White House advisor on food, he was a chef in the Obama administration. He said, “Every day, the food industry lobbyists would show up. They would present these beautiful regulations all written out. They have beautiful bills and legislation.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
They’d have their big binders of all their research and data to back up everything. They literally present the lawmakers with exactly what to do, who basically, to their defense, really have no expertise in this area and no real understanding of the depths of the science. They all, this sounds good. You guys sound smart. This is good.” He said there was not one person who came from the kind of … Let’s say other side to present another story of what we should be doing with equal strength. I think that really disturbed me because hearing this one-sided lopsided view.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I sat last summer on a boat with a senator, a democratic senator, who’s fairly open and progressive. I laid all these intersections that you’ve mapped out in your book, Animal, Vegetable, and Junk, which everybody should get. His jaw was hanging down. He was dumbfounded by it and was shocked, and didn’t really even know that these issues were connected. I think we have a lot of education to do in Washington if we’re going to move the needle. I think there are examples of this.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
There are examples around other movements, whether it’s civil rights, gay rights, whether it’s just all the things that we’ve seen have really legs that have been pushed forward through to really deliberate education, both of consumers and policymakers. It seems like we have a lot of work to do, but it seems to me an existential threat. You quote David Foster Wallace in your book. He’s talking about climate change, is worse, it’s far worse than we think. I think it’s this way I feel and you and I both feel that way. I feel like we’re wandering around the wilderness and nobody is really getting it. I’m not sure if we’re going to get it in time. That’s what worries me.

Mark Bittman:
Well, we’ll probably be dead. It shouldn’t worry you that much.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Hey, wait, I don’t know about you, Mark. I want to be living to 120, maybe I’m going for 150.

Mark Bittman:
Yeah, but that’s probably too soon [inaudible 00:43:52]. Look, things are so interconnected, that if someone says, how do I fix the food system, how do I help fix the food system, I would say, go work for local progressive candidates who understand the relationship between food and farming and eating and health. Don’t even think about food policy. Just let’s get the right people in office. Then the lobbyists may have less power or we may be able to abolish the electoral college. There’s so many issues that are interrelated on this. Because, really, the bottom line is, how do you make significant lasting good change? It’s not just around food. It’s about every issue you can think of.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Yeah, it seems like we need to be better organized. We just need a compelling narrative. We need a compelling story that allows us to drive this narrative through the population. It’s something I’ve been chewing on a struggle with for a long time. I know you have. I think hopefully we’re getting there by these conversations, by books like yours, Animal, Vegetable, Junk, and by my book, Food Fix, that I released last year as well. I think we’re in this pivotal moment.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
One of the things that I want to touch on that you touched on the book, which I think people are really focused on and even in the media, in politics. You don’t really hear about it. It’s a mass of conversation about climate change. Biden wants to put forth a $2 trillion climate initiative. There’s a real thrust with John Kerry being a cabinet level position on climate. Yet absent from the conversation seems to be any conversation about how agriculture and our agricultural system and food system is either equal to or greater contributor overall and to climate change.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
That ultimately, we can’t solve climate change unless we solve our food and agriculture issues well. It’s not just about fossil fuels and solar and wind and all that’s important. It’s like, wait a minute, over here, the elephant in the room. Can you talk about that connection? Why is that so? How do we need to start thinking differently about it?

Mark Bittman:
Well, I think anyone who takes climate change seriously has to look at agriculture. Hopefully, when people start doing that, they will. There were provisions in the Green Revolution … Sorry, the Green New Deal proposal originally that did take agriculture into account. I’m hopeful that by taking climate more seriously, the administration will understand that agriculture is a big contributor to climate change and needs to be addressed. Again, it’s up to us to remind them if they don’t see it.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
How do you sort through the data on the promise of regenerative agriculture to build soil, draw it on carbon and have all the secondary benefits of water conservation, reduction in chemical use, and increase in biodiversity, and pollinator species, so forth, and production of more and better food where farmers have better lives and make more money? How do you think about that conversation? Because regenerative agriculture, by definition, is about building soil and the science of agroecology points to the fact that you need animals integrated into ecosystems to build that soil.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Just as we build 50 feet of topsoil in the Midwest through the bison and the 170 million ruminants that were grazing and mobs and chewing and spitting, which made the grass grow and pooping and peeing and fertilizing it, and then moving on. How do you address that conversation? Because the conversation is eat less meat … It’s like feedlot meat or no meat. I think there’s a interesting conversation to be had there and what your perspective is, I’d love to hear.

Mark Bittman:
Like you, I don’t believe that argument that it’s feedlot meat or no meat. There is such a thing as regenerative animal production. I think there’s a role for animals in agriculture. Long term? I’m not as sure. We’re in a transitional period that hasn’t really even started yet. We’re just at the beginning of a period where we’re trying to figure out and we’re trying to act on building an agricultural system, a food system that actually works. We’re not going to end animal production anytime soon.

Mark Bittman:
Perhaps we can end CAFOs in the next 5 or 10 years, and start to raise animals in kinder and more sustainable, more regenerative ways. Certainly, animals have a contribution to make when it comes to soil building. I do believe there are probably ways to build soil without animal production. Given that people still want to eat meat, many people still want to eat meat, but those same people, for the most part, want to see animals treated better and want to see the raising of animals, not poisoned the environment.

Mark Bittman:
I’d suggest that we start by restricting CAFOs and ultimately eliminate … When I say, if anyone doesn’t know, let’s say factory farming of animals. CAFOs means consolidated animal feeding operations. Let’s regulate those as they should be regulated, reduce the amount of poison that they’re producing, reduce the cruelty to animals that they’re responsible for, and start to raise animals in a way that’s kinder and gentler for more appropriate term, but still contributes to agriculture and still allows people to eat some meat.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Yeah, I think that’s right. I think what people also don’t realize is that 40% of agricultural lands are unsuitable for growing crops for human consumption. We don’t have four stomachs. We can’t chew for 12 hours a day. Turns out, what these animals do is they upcycle inedible food substuffs into highly nutrient dense food that otherwise we wouldn’t have, because we actually have land that you can’t actually grow the crops on. I think there’s a bigger conversation about how to do it, how it scales. I think we are unfortunately not having these more nuanced conversations. It’s all extremism. I think that’s really unfortunate, because I think that the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. I think we really have an opportunity to do something quite different.

Mark Bittman:
I think that’s why I’m preaching, a little bit preaching, incrementalism. Let’s make the changes that we can make and let’s … I mean, if we even enforce existing laws on CAFOs, they’d be reduced. The FDA doesn’t even know how many CAFOs there are in this country. It doesn’t know where they are. It doesn’t know how many animals are being raised in confinement. These things are poisoning the land around them, the boiling water, and the air around them. They’re poisoning the communities they’re in, which, of course, are disproportionately of people of low income, and usually people of color.

Mark Bittman:
It’s a form of environmental racism that needs to be regulated and that needs to be changed. That’s not in the grand scheme of things. That’s not saying we’re not eating meat anymore. That’s just saying, let’s try to produce meat in a responsible manner.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Yeah. You also talk about technology and food. Food and ag tech are one of the biggest growing sectors of investment. Some of the all-stars in that crew are the fake meats, Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger. They have a tremendous amount of buzz. They’ve got high profile investors like Bill Gates and Richard Branson. This whole idea that we can save the world by getting rid of animals and eating fake meats is caught on. Yet there’s some fundamental issues with that.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You talk about the industrialization of food and particularly, the industrialization of fake meats as being a ultra-processed technological solution that really subverts the bigger idea, which is that we need to go back to basic principles of agroecology in order to grow food. Because you can grow all this fake meat ingredients, whether it’s pea protein or soy protein. You can grow it in large monocrop cultures using glyphosate and pesticides and depleting water resources.

Mark Bittman:
They do.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s like, wait a minute, that’s not exactly what we should be doing. What’s your perspective on this whole technology approach to solving this and the fake meat craze?

Mark Bittman:
We can only go on what we’ve seen. What we’ve seen is that as food becomes more processed, people become sicker. The land isn’t as productive. It’s treated worse. It’s degrading. We’re poisoning soil, we’re poisoning air. This is a result of ultra-processed food. This is not a result of growing lima beans, broccoli, rice, and even wheat, which is hard on the soil. This is a result of that kind … You’ve mentioned at the beginning, of reductionist thinking, of thinking that food is about nutrients. Food is actually not about nutrients.

Mark Bittman:
There are nutrients in food, but food is not nutrients. Food is food. You have to grow food and eat food to get the benefits of food. They can’t be reduced to their individual components and doled out like vitamin by vitamin, nutrient by nutrients. The whole I do this and I go through this in the book, but the whole thing about when industrial processing began and when we was first stripped of brand and germ on an industrial level and white flour became the commodity. Then later, white bread replaced real bread, brown bread.

Mark Bittman:
People started to get sick because they weren’t getting enough nutrients. We’re still getting sick from eating stripped down foods more in the form of cancers and insulin resistance as you know. Because we’re not getting the full benefit of whole grains, of real vegetables, and so on, and so forth. The answer is not to make pea protein, make soy protein, et cetera, et cetera, and call that meat. The answer is to eat vegetables.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
That’s right. I think we are in a crazy time of technology solving everything, and it really might not. These ultra-processed foods, whether it’s the K-rations and the meals ready to eat that the military eat or whether it’s these fake meat burgers are not necessarily solving the problems that we want around whole food nutrition. You mentioned the vitamin deficiency indirectly, the vitamin deficiencies were discovered because we polished rice and polished weed and [crosstalk 00:55:18].

Mark Bittman:
Exactly, exactly.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You had all these people with pellagra and beriberi and xerophthalmia and all these horrible diseases, but were remedied by simply taking vitamins. Robert Heaney is a professor. I think he’s recently died. He studied vitamin D a lot. He wrote an interesting article called long latency deficiency diseases. If you don’t have niacin or riboflavin in these things, you’ll get these short quick vitamin deficiencies like scurvy or pellagra. If you eat these ultra-processed foods, which have lack of phytochemicals like a fiber, lack of vitamins and minerals, and all the antioxidants and all these medicine components, you get what we call long latency deficiency diseases.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
For example, if a diet is low, in the short run, in vitamin D, any vitamin D because you’re not eating herring and mushrooms all the time, then you’ll get rickets. If you don’t need vitamin D, maybe you have enough to prevent rickets, over the long term, you will get osteoporosis or heart disease. Same thing with folate. If you have short-term folate deficiency, you’ll get anemia. If you have long-term folate deficiency, you might get cancer or heart disease or dementia. I think this is a concept that’s super important as long latency deficiency diseases.

Mark Bittman:
It’s interesting stuff. I’d like to read about that.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Yeah, Robert Heaney. I can send you his paper.

Mark Bittman:
Please.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I will have in the show notes. It’s a brilliant analysis. You’ll really love it. Actually, I wrote an article years ago where I talked a lot about this. I’ll send you, it’s called the paradigm shift about changing our notions of disease. I wrote that 15 years ago. I think it’s still pretty relevant, because paradigms take forever to change. I think we’re still not there. Well, Mark, you are just one of my heroes, honestly, truly. Actually, the funny story is that my first book, Ultraprevention, Mark’s daughter, Kate, was the publicist. I haven’t seen her in, god, 20 years [inaudible 00:57:12].

Mark Bittman:
She says hello, by the way.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Hello, I hope you’re doing well.

Mark Bittman:
She talks about you. She loves setting up these interviews, because she has an excuse to talk about you.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I know, it’s great. You really inspired a lot of my thinking, reading your articles, New York Times over the years, your incredible books. For people who are interested in Mark, he’s not just taking his high level philosophical views in the arc of history and politics. You can go to Mark’s website, markbittman.com. You can look at all the books he’s written, how to cook everything, and pretty much, how to cook this, how to cook that. They’re just delicious, amazing recipes. He’s an incredible chef. He’s had lots of online videos and so forth of cooking. I used to see his New York Times things when I flew on airplanes, which I love.

Mark Bittman:
Right, that was fun.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I think, Mark is a wonderful resource who’s sane, who teach you how to make delicious food and eat real food, and also highlight some of these important issues in our society. He’s written some brilliant articles in newspapers and magazines about how we need to think about food policy differently and letters to the president. You got to check out his work if you haven’t, and make sure you get Animal, Vegetable, Junk. It’s an incredible book. It’s a history of food from sustainable to suicidal. I think we’re not that far away from suicide right now. Mark, thank you so much for …

Mark Bittman:
It’s a joy.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
… being on the Doctor’s Farmacy podcast today. Really, keep up what you’re doing. I’m always surprised how I keep learning from you over and over. Thank you so much for all the work you do. For those listening, if you love this podcast, share with your friends and family on social media. Leave a comment. I would love to hear from you and your thoughts about how we can have a better food system. Subscribe wherever you get your podcast. We’ll see you next week on the Doctor’s Farmacy.

If you are looking for personalized medical support, we highly recommend contacting Dr. Hyman’s UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts today.

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