Food and eating for our society has evolved far beyond the need for sustenance, but instead now has a myriad of social conventions associated with it. We share big announcements over dinner, engagements are made, careers are toasted and yearly rites of passage are commemorated. Food consumption is not just about eating to survive any longer but instead has become a venue for entertainment and social activity. Unfortunately though, this shift in our diet and our eating habits has translated into 36% of all Americans today being obese with estimates from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) that by 2030, the rate will rise to 50%. That’s huge; no pun intended. Current trends indicate that in less than 18 years, one half of all Americans will be obese.
There’s been a breakdown in communication, a falling out of sorts between us and food. As populations thrived and the industrial revolution took hold, supply needs changed and food began developing into a commodity with which society grew unfamiliar. Even a few decades ago, Americans were becoming less in touch with their food’s origin but today, ask 1st graders where their popcorn came from and most will answer the microwave or the grocery store! How did this breakdown in our relationship occur? Who’s to blame for our resulting obesity epidemic and escalating heart disease rates, type 2 diabetes and obesity related illnesses like debilitating arthritis and joint conditions? What can we do to rekindle that relationship and bring back that good ole’, familiarity for food?
Agriculture began its monumental shift or some might say decline, some one and a half to two and a half centuries ago with the Industrial Revolution. Along with the need for greater production was the need to reduce the amount of labor it took to produce these larger quantities of food. The invention of machinery like the seeder from Jethro Tull, that could sow a whole field at once meant that fewer people could produce more food for more people. Then the advent of chemical fertilizers and antibiotics meant growing both plants and livestock in greater concentrations and eventually led to what is present day factory farming and industrialized agriculture. More food was being produced in greater quantities by fewer and fewer people. Compared to just the turn of the century, nearly one fourth of all Americans worked in agriculture compared to less than 2% today.(1) To make matters worse, the majority of that small percentage of farmers left today are nearing retirement age while the population and consumption rates continue to soar.
This industrial age of agriculture created a host of other problems too. The need for cheap, abundant and convenient food was exacting great costs elsewhere. Aside from the increased health risks for consumers from pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, the environmental toll was tremendous. Heavy feed lots contaminated and polluted surface and groundwater reserves with animal wastes, fisheries discharged high levels of wastes into fresh water supplies and the ozone is being critically depleted by the increased methane production from mass quantities of livestock. Add to this an alarming consumption of petro chemical intensive fuels and the subsequent effects on global warming. Modern agriculture also accounts for the usage of nearly 70% of all the earth’s land mass and almost 90% of its fresh water reserves. The resources consumed by modern agriculture just simply exceed the planets ability to feed its 6.5 billion inhabitants.
More environmental degradation continues to occur as a result of modern agriculture and what is now evolved to being called “Big Ag “. The steady manipulation of nature to grow foods larger and faster has contributed to the creation of super bugs and weeds necessitating even more harsh chemical pesticides and herbicides. Big Ag’s answer to this dilemma is creating genetically engineered foods or GMO’s, a Genetically Modified Organism. The long term health effects of GMO’s are still unknown however the USDA, the government organization tasked with protecting consumers, allows their use. Meanwhile organic and non GE farmers are concerned about cross contamination with their organic and non GE crops. Although a recent French study was criticized for some of its methods, there was overwhelming evidence demonstrating a relationship between GMO’s and cancer found in laboratory rats.
Beyond the issues and concerns posed by GM crops and large intensive agriculture, there is also the problem of confined animal feed operations or CAFO’s. In these operations, there is greater use of antibiotics and growth hormones and heightened environmental stressors like air pollution and ground water contamination. For many, there is also the ethical consideration for animals raised in CAFO’s. Often the conditions are deplorable and the animals are in strict confinement. Sometimes they are even modified. Chicken beaks are sometimes removed to minimize fight damage in extremely dense conditions while cows live in filth in feed lots where they are pumped full of GMO grains like corn.
The industrial revolution and the planet’s population explosion were certainly both catalysts behind our agricultural evolution that led to our current health crisis but also to our lack of connection with our food. With the onset of mass production, more highly mechanized and industrialized processes and less human involvement, the small or family farm began to disappear. With the growth of the industrialized sector, small farms struggled to compete with the agricultural giants growing the majority of all the food. Then as family farms faded from the landscape, so did our last real connection to our food supply. Food started coming more and more from grocery stores and out of boxes instead of fresh from the market or the farm. Rapidly, small grocers and farm stands disappeared and were replaced with the convenience of big box stores and fast food restaurants.
For the last several years, foodies or food advocates have championed the term “the Food or the Good Food Revolution” and we undoubtedly need to revolutionize the way our culture eats but I have always thought that the Food Revolution can’t truly take hold until we revolutionize farming first. We need to change the way we grow and get our food by resurrecting small scale, sustainable farms that build relationships and connections with their community and local market and help consumers rekindle that connection to their food. It’s about knowing your farmer and knowing your food and having a face to face relationship with people you can trust and a story you can relate. It’s the human element and one Big Ag will never have. Two years ago I called it the Farm Revolution and with it we can change the face of agriculture one small farm at a time. Viva la Revolución!
(1) Wikipedia - "Agriculture"