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The Modern Food System: A Brief Overview

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks and I have sadly had to neglect this blog in order to meet a number of deadlines.  The life of a junior academic is largely about begging for money, and grant proposals and the like take precedent until the next stretch of time is secured and we can return to our research and writing.  I have a number of entries to post and will get them up as soon as I can.  To start, the following is a brief overview of the modern food system that I put together to give a little snapshot of the big picture.  I will elaborate on many of these themes, and I’m hoping this will provide helpful background material for future reference.  


Historical Overview – North America’s Food System

The roots of the modern day agro-industrial complex can be traced back 13,000 years at least, when the first humans came to the Americas, forever altering its landscape.  While popular understanding is that the pre-modern populations of the New World lived in nature without altering it, they in fact carefully and intentionally manipulated their environment to maximize food production. If it hadn’t been for the environmental structure provided by indigenous populations, European colonization – which depended heavily upon the ability to raise cattle and wheat – would have been substantially impeded.

As it was, the Americas were ripe for the picking (so to speak), particularly the great plains of North America.  With so much land available, agriculture expanded to meet the space.  First wheat, then corn and now soy was produced in such quantities that the region has become known as the Breadbasket of the World.  Furthermore, what seemed like indefinite expansion led to unsustainable farming practices and ideology, with settlers simply moving on as the land lost its fertility.  With industrialization and the steel plow, agricultural practices of the19th and early 20th century reduced the rich black soil of the Great Plains – which took millennia to create – to dust in under three generations. 

The ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl, coupled with the Great Depression, led to mass migration and hundreds of thousands of homeless in the United States in the early 1930s.  In an attempt to restore the economy, New Deal policies were launched, many of which were aimed at farming.  The belief was that over-production led to price crashes, and reduction of production to keep prices high became paramount. 


Food Aid and the Military Industrial Complex

After World War II, through the Marshall Plan, the US government invented food aid as a means of increasing trade with countries that lacked dollars and simultaneously managing any national over-production problems.  The developing world, in turn, welcomed cheap food as a means of facilitating industrialization.  Quickly, however, these previously agrarian countries became dependent on imported food.  Food aid remains highly contentious to this day, with USAID being an integral part of the US National Security structure.

Also emerging from World War II was the Green Revolution – the application to farming of technologies developed during the war.  Munitions plants and chemical weapons were transformed into petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.  Combined with genetically modified seeds, this vastly increased production.  At least initially.  Sold as the solution to world hunger, the Green Revolution swept the globe, radically changing farming practices and leading to the vast mono-cropping practices we see today. 

Highly toxic and unsustainable, this means of production kills the soil, rendering farmers dependent on annual purchases of fertilizer and pesticides to avoid crop failure.  Furthermore, seeds have been modified to work specifically, and exclusively, with those pesticides, and some have even been impregnated with a “terminator” gene making their annual purchase also necessary.  The Green Revolution has, in one generation, turned farmers into “growers,” no longer owning the means of production, but rather managing it for the handful of corporations that now dominate the global food system. 


The Green Revolution

In addition to creating a total dependency of food production on corporations, the Green Revolution led to a tremendous shift in the type and quantity of food produced.  Wheat, corn and soy – products that can survive large-scale industrial mono-cropping – became the dominant foods produced, vastly reducing diversity in both production and consumption.  As quantities increased, new means of consumption were necessary.  With the domestic and global markets saturated, industry turned to processing as a means of using up the excess grain.  Turning corn and soy into meat (and subsequently lowering the cost of beef, pork and chicken) resulted in the dramatic meatification of our diets.  Breaking these grains down into various substances, for example High Fructose Corn Syrup, and building them into processed food, has also served as a means of consumption.  Today, nearly all processed food contains derivatives of either corn or soy, and often both, the vast majority of which has been genetically modified.

Around 1980, a new ideology was launched through the food industry: nutritionism.  Instead of food taken as a whole, it was ‘scientifically’ broken down into its various components and analysed for what might be good or bad for us.  This led to wave after wave of fad nutrients – beginning with oat bran and culminating in today’s obsession with Omega-3 fatty acids.  Whole foods became suspect, while process foods could quickly adjust to include or exclude the latest fad or banned “nutrients.”

  How these nutrients interact with each other, and with the body, is treated as being immaterial.  In keeping with the scientific ideology of modernity, both food production (farming) and food itself is now seen as a whole that is merely the sum of its parts. 


The Organic Revolution

The first contemporary wave of resistance to conventional farming came in the 1960s as protestors of Vietnam demanded food that was not linked to the war machine.  Many turned to producing food themselves, which for some became a lucrative undertaking.  The largest organic producers today – now completely industrialized and difficult to differentiate from their conventional counterparts – are owned and managed by the very protestors of the 1960s.

Very recently, and particularly over the past year, public attention has once again begun to focus on food production.  Most likely linked to the current wave of environmental consciousness and recent food toxin scares, people are demanding safer food.  For many the label ‘organic’ offers a sense of security, and corporations have been quick to respond.  While five years ago importing California organics to Ontario was a dicey venture, today it has become a booming business.  As demand for chemical free food steadily increases, supermarkets selling Big Organic products are trying to turn ‘organic’ into a brand, a guarantee of a ‘freedom from’ chemicals.  This is moving organics away from the carefully tended philosophy and practice based on small-scale, ecologically sustainable, local production techniques it represents to most.  The result is a multi-faceted movement of resistance to conventional industrial food production that can be divided roughly as follow: organic (regardless of distance traveled), local (typically food produced within some spatial limit, such as the 100 mile diet), fair trade (imported with a social conscience) and a return to the local, sustainable, chemical free philosophy of the 1960s that some are now referring to as “post-organic.”


One Response

  1. Nice primer on how we got here!

    Whatever happened to the dust bowl areas, anyway?

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