A Brief and Oversimplified History of How our Food System Came to Be

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

Today’s food system in the United States is built on having cheap fuel. Following World War II, transporting food became cheap enough that we were able to import food from all over the world, as well as move it across the country, all while keeping prices low. America loves cheap food. Though we may feel like we spend a lot on groceries, the United States actually spends less on groceries than any other country in the world. According to the World Economic Forum, Americans spend an average of 6.4% of household income on groceries while Nigeria, at the opposite end, spends 56.4%.

Taking us back to history class: The Dust Bowl, a time of severe turmoil during the 1930s when severe drought in the Midwest led to a mass migration, was a result of poor soil conservation stemming from newly mechanized methods farmers were using to till the land, which is how farmers have historically turned over the land to plant a new crop. To aid in the recovery, many New Deal plans sought to protect the soil and help family farms. But since then, government policy has shifted to supporting specialized, large-scale farms that have become increasingly tied into industrial food processing and corporate interests, which has encouraged farms to get bigger to make more money. The government, in the name of feeding the growing global population, encouraged our farms to “get big or get out," a phrase used by Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon and Ford administrations, that encapsulates the past 50 years in farming.

Image by Dorathea Lange/Wix

Under these policies, the government encouraged farmers to prioritize increasing production and ensured they would be paid for every bushel produced, which meant growing only one crop (primarily the commodities corn or soybeans). Farmers became dependent on large amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides as they pushed their land beyond normal capacity. This caused two problems. First, the practices used to increase production - the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides as well as the repeated use of tillage to turn over the soil– significantly damaged soil health. Second, overproduction led to falling prices, which has prompted the federal government to maintain subsidy systems and price protections for commodity farmers. That, in turn, kept these commodity prices low and encouraged food manufacturers to include these ingredients in highly processed foods, which is why we have so much high fructose corn syrup and other corn/soybean byproducts in our food.

And, by the way, it is not entirely correct to say our farmers are feeding the world. In fact, about 40% of United State's corn production is used to produce ethanol for vehicles while the rest is mostly used to feed animals in the United States and abroad.

As eaters, we rarely think about the soil. It’s hard to care about soil health when our connection to food mostly comes from the grocery store. But the reality is, our soils are degraded and most of the large-scale farms in this country are only able to grow food with expensive additives (fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides).

Healthy soil is something you can see. Many of the farmers I visited on my trip across the United Sates (as written about here) were proud to show me a shovel full of their soil containing earthworms and other organic matter. The fact is, if we don’t have healthy soil, we don’t have a sustainable food supply. Other cultures around the world acknowledge this and treat their soil the way we treat oil, like a precious, finite resource. We must learn from them because, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, we only have 60 harvest lefts before our soil won’t produce food.

In addition, the chemicals that we use to grow high yields without disease or weeds drains from the fields into our water supply, polluting our rivers and drinking water and creating dead zones in the oceans.

This cycle has also produced poor quality food that many experts believe has caused serious health issues for millions of people. For example, due to poor diet, three in four adults in the United States are overweight or obese, and almost half the entire adult population have pre-diabetes or diabetes. These issues are highlighted in documentaries such as Fed Up and Food Inc. These are structural issues that will take more than consumer education to resolve. Those of us who can afford to make different choices, let's do it. But we must also address the food justice issues for those who do not have so many choices.

By now you can probably see how food isn’t really a niche issue. It’s connected to the environment, health, government policy, history, globalization, inequality, climate change–everything!

I don’t have all the answers. But using this platform, I will continue to explore the promise of the regenerative agriculture movement in offering solutions to our food problems. And for eaters, I will help shed light (illuminate) on where your food actually comes from, and how you can use your purchasing power to make better choices for yourself, your family, your community and the world.

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