Food is not what it used to be, at least not the food found at the supermarket. The modern world boasts of a bountiful harvest provided by technology – the wonders of industrialization applied to agriculture. But the result of this production system has largely become one of turning a few crops into commodities and engineering a vast new sea of “foods” from them. The modern western (and especially U.S.) diet largely consists of highly processed food products, far removed in form and nutrition from the original life form that they came from.
The Industrialization of Food
This commoditization of food has been greatly aided by government subsidies for corn and soy, to the benefit of the food processing and fast food/junk food industries. The creation of very cheap inputs into factory foods by government policy is a foundational contributor to the change in the nature of food in America over the past several decades. This, combined with the cultural changes valuing mobility and convenience over family time and traditional cooking, have led the sea change in the way that Americans interact with food.
The results have been devastating. We now have widespread (if not epidemic) rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer of all kinds, food allergies, and behavioral problems linked to poor digestion and gut health. It is not coincidental that these changes have come with the change in the American diet and lifestyle. Causal is a better term to describe it.
Industrial farming has leveraged economies of scale to produce for the mass market through factory farming, but the land, animals, and humans have suffered the consequences in falling nutritional quality and illness caused by chemical farming techniques. And industrial farming is petroleum based farming, turning oil into food.
The era of cheap food is over.
Even before the great American drought of 2012, rising oil prices have combined with third world nations’ rising incomes and increasing demand for more meat and other higher-cost food, to drive food commodity prices ever-higher. Food has traditionally gone down in price, at least the trend had been that way for the last 100 years. According to Global Financial Data, food prices have dropped over the last 100 years by 82%, and looking at the economic business cycle for food, it would seem this would just be another “bust.”
But two important factors reveal that this may be a more long term trend. First, oil is now more than ever a critical input to commodity crops, and therefore food production. According to a study by Cornell University, it takes 140 gallons of fossil fuel to grow and harvest one acre of corn. This fuel is not just for the tractor; this includes all the petroleum used to make the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and this number does not include the cost of transporting the corn to a market, or the petroleum used in the packaging of the food. As volatile geopolitical situations arise, and as sources of oil continue to diminish, the price of food will rise regardless of regional food price differences. Ill-conceived government subsidies for ethanol that is turning food crops into fuel have only exacerbated this trend.
A second factor at play is the diminishing amount of farmland. The demographic trend continues to be individuals gravitating towards large urban population centers, and not out to the farmland. The American Farmland Trust estimates that American farmland is disappearing at the rate of 2 acres per minute. As farmers and their land become more scarce through industrialization, the system becomes more susceptible to shocks and rising food prices.
With a severe global economic downturn setting in and millions of families worldwide facing difficulty in figuring out how to feed their families, we have now entered a global Food Crisis. The “Arab Spring” was one of the many indications that the global food system is precariously balanced at the edge of a cliff.
But the crisis caused for millions due to the increasing price of food is a lagging indicator. More fundamental is the drastic way that food production, distribution, and consumption has changed over the past few decades. With increasing urbanization has come the loss of productive farmland and the decline of family farming around the globe. This makes the modern food system much more susceptible to risks of various sorts, everything from weather and crop failures, to market conditions in oil markets and global geopolitical events. The 2012 drought in America’s heartland – the worst ever – is an important recent example. Even local disasters can produce serious problems with respect to food availability due to the long supply lines in modern food systems.
What is the Solution?
With so many systemic problems in our food system, what is the solution? The solution to all of these problems – to our depleted soil, shrinking and aging farmer population, our toxic environment, diminishing nutrition, chronic health problems, and rising prices – is YOU. You are the solution!
As much as you are able, grow your own food. Being productive with what you have is an essential first step. Buy fresh and buy local. Know your farmer and support your local economy. Buy from a farmer you can trust, one whose farm is not entrenched in the factory farm system. Join a CSA or community garden. Localization is a key to transforming the food system.
Know the risks associated with buying chemically-produced food, and choose to buy organic and sustainable products. Self-education is a critical foundation for transforming the way your family deals with food. Don’t rely on someone else to do it all for you. Further, research and implement traditional food preparation methods, which will help you maximize the nutrition that your family receives and keep them healthy.
Plan ahead and buy in bulk from trusted suppliers. Join a food co-op or buying club to get better deals on whole foods, buying in bulk to utilize aggregated purchasing power. Build up a food storage supply – the larder of olden days – to be prepared for emergencies and ready to share with neighbors in need. Forward thinking is required to get out of the rat race that comes with “convenience”.
Is It Really That Simple?
With such huge challenges facing us with our broken modern food system, could it really be that simple? Yes, it is that simple. You are the Solution. It requires action by individuals and families to change the system, because food choices are what support the system. It was, in fact, only because people changed the way they acquired, prepared, and ate food – adopting “convenience” and price as determining factors – that our current system became what it is. Stop feeding the beast with your purchases – opt out, as much as you are able. Change what you are demanding, and the market will change to accommodate you. In fact, it already has begun to do so.
Grow a garden. Know and support your local farmers. Join a buying club. Build your food storage. Grow community around food. It really is that simple. It starts and ends with you. You are the Solution.