Review: “A Bone to Pick,” Mark Bittman

Pros: Many excellent points; thought-provoking
Rating: 4 out of 5

Mark Bittman’s A Bone to Pick: The good and bad news about food, with wisdom and advice on diets, food safety, GMOs, farming, and more is a collection of his essays on food and how it relates to: health, income, diets, public policy, GMOs, factory farming, costs and prices, animal cruelty, environmental damage…. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few in there somewhere!

There’s a lot of frustration that leaks out of the pages; you can hear how sick Bittman is of all the things we should be doing differently, especially when we have all the evidence we need to show that we’re doing the wrong thing. It’s easy to get swept up in his dissatisfaction with the current state of things.

There are a couple of things that made this book less-than-perfect for me. I understand the reasoning behind organizing the essays by topic rather than time. Unfortunately, this resulted in some cases where I read two somewhat different views on something and had no idea which came first; it made it harder to see how Bittman’s opinions developed over time. I also found one example of an odd break in format. Bittman is admirably careful about relying on data, surveys, and studies rather than anecdote–until he gets into the reasons why he’s cut dairy from his diet. That essay ran entirely on anecdotal evidence, and it was a weird divergence.

I felt as though when he got into the topic of poor people not being able to afford fresh foods, he missed one or two issues that contribute to that problem, and thus classified it as easier to solve than it really is. Also, he makes several references to Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” documentary, and last I heard it has been largely dismissed as having non-reproducible results, as well as containing inaccurate information. (That said, some of these essays are from a handful of years ago, so that might not have been known at the time.)

One of the great things about this book is that I felt Bittman was generally very even-handed. For example, while he does rail against some of the environmental side effects of current GMO crops, he explains that he’s more disappointed in the current state of GMO research than he is against GMOs in general. There are a ton of great things GMOs could be used to accomplish, but most of what we’ve done is use it to better deal with pests and weeds–both of which are evolving to withstand the current GMO changes, and both of which can have negative repercussions for the environment. (Dumping extra weed killer onto farms tends to end up with it getting into water supplies via runoff, for example.)

Whether Bittman is talking about ways to encourage poor families to eat better (such as doubling the value of food stamps used at some farmer’s markets), quasi-fast food establishments that would move us toward healthier eating in small steps, or how diet impacts Alzheimer’s disease, he makes his points very eloquently. You can learn a lot about, for example, how public policy affects what farmers plant and produce. His arguments are clear and concise, and he often references studies and information that shed more light on what he’s discussing. If you have any interest in food, the environment, etc., I think you’ll find A Bone to Pick to be a fascinating read.


I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

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