Where Does Our Food Come From? is an ongoing investigation into the current condition of our food systems. I strongly encourage your input and questions…I have no idea where this process might take us but, hopefully, through forums like this, together we may uncover ways to reclaim our food sovereignty and security.
Once Upon a Time
Not very long ago, every man, woman and child in America knew exactly where their food came from: the Farm. Maybe they owned the Farm. Maybe it belonged to their neighbor. Maybe there were several small farms feeding their local community, regardless…there was a Farm. Real people. Real animals. Real produce. There was soil and sweat and blood. Fields were tilled, planted and harvested. Animals birthed and died. And there was shit everywhere. In the barns. In the pastures. On the bottoms of boots. And, importantly, in the fields. It was an auspicious thing, the shit being everywhere, because shit is chock full of organic matter and minerals and bacteria and many other things that help plants grow. Some of these farms still exist – I know because we have been living and working on a few of them…but these farms are NOT where most of America’s food comes from.
As a child, my grandmother, spent her summers in Ottawa, Canada on her grandparents’ farm. She knew intimately where her food came from and she understood the stakes of farming and hunting and gathering food. She fished. She foraged. She milked cows. She baked bread. When I was five-years old she shot a deer, butchered it and sewed me a Davy Crockett-style fringed deer skin jacket (what a cool jacket that was). People of her generation had an appreciation for where their food came from and how it got to the table.
As a child, I was raised on Jolly Green Giant boiled-in-a-bag vegetables…green and yellow and orange bits floating in a butter-like sauce. Fish came in small breaded frozen rectangles. We ate many other frozen meals…Salisbury steak, ham, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots and a little squares of cobbler all cooked and eaten in disposable aluminum trays. Bread came from a plastic bag…or a small cardboard tube that burst open when struck on the corner of the counter top. Juice came from a can labeled Hi-C. I drank what astronauts drank: Tang. And Tab. Most everything came from a box or a bag or a can…fresh fruit being the one exception in our house.
Today, breakfast for many Americans is a bowl of genetically-modified corn cereal in myriad disguises – flakes, puffs, O’s, crisps, stars, moons, crowns, etc. Lunch is often a drive-thru of processed beef patties and cheese-foods and a liter of genetically-modified high-fructose corn syrup, water and caffeine. Nearly all industrial-processed beef, pork and chicken are fed an enriched protein diet of genetically-modified corn, soy and molasses. Food animals are typically treated with growth hormones and antibiotics to help them survive their unnatural diet and environment. Chicken parts are flaked and formed into small breaded nuggets and fried and served with various flavors of genetically-modified corn syrup called “dipping sauces”. Salads are dressed with preservatives, spices, thickeners and the same genetically-modified high-fructose corn syrup. The average American diet contains highly-processed foods with low nutritional value – store bought, drive-thru, frozen or hastily prepared meals whose sole purpose seems to be filling the stomach.
I need no government panel or consumer study to verify these changes for they have happened over the course of my lifetime. The change is evident – I know it, and you know it too. It is something that we, as a nation, are only now beginning to talk about – we need to understand what caused the quality of our food to change so radically over the last 50 years? And how did we let it happen?
Before I attempt to shed what little light I may on this subject, let me make a few important things known: First, my qualifications are ordinary – I am simply a man looking at my world and asking questions. I have no science or medical degree. I am not an industrial or organic farmer. I will include my sources throughout my posts and I encourage you to read more about each claim and come to whatever conclusions you feel are right for you. Second, I believe in mathematics…I realize that many media personalities, politicians and religious leaders compel us to deny mathematical proofs, so, if you’re a non-believer or are simply new to math, don’t worry, I’ll go slowly and try to summarize. Finally, I believe that raw data does not have an agenda nor does it attempt to distort or sway opinion or garner support. I do, however, recognize that data is often a tool of the men and women hired to distort and sway opinion – I will do my best to merely present the data for you to decipher.
World Population Growth
July 1913 1.8 billion
July 1963 3.12 billion (year of my birth)
July 2013 7.16 billion people (my 50th birthday)
(population calculations from www.worldometers.info)
U.S. Census Bureau (2010 census) states that U.S urban areas account for 80.7 percent of the U.S. population
United Nations State of the World Population 2007 reports 50% of all persons worldwide live in urban areas
World Health Organization reports, “By the middle of the 21st century, the urban population will almost double, increasing from approximately 3.4 billion in 2009 to 6.4 billion in 2050.”
Parsing the Data
World population has more than doubled during my lifetime and, when I look back over the last 100 years, that doubling effect is consistent: There are four times as many people alive today as there were 100 years ago. While the total population has increased, the greatest growth has occurred in urban areas. This worldwide trend reached a tipping point in 2007 and is expected to follow the pattern set by the state of California where less than 5% of the population currently lives in a rural environment.
As people have moved from farmlands into cities, the total number of U.S. farms has decreased from a high of 6,454,000 farms in 1920 to a low of 2,170,000 in 2012 (USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Farms, Land in Farms, and Livestock Operations 2012 Summary). With less farms producing food, the remaining farms must strive not only to offset the production of lost farms but also the increase in overall population. The result has been fewer overall farms, larger industrialized farms and far fewer people employed in the farming industry. In 1790, right after the founding of the U.S., a whopping 90% of our population worked on farms; today, less than 2% of our population produces food for the remaining 98% (USDA Economic Information Bulletin Number 3, The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, June 2005).
There are several causes for the move away from the farm and toward urbanization, many of which were, and continue to be, economic. The high cost of new farming technologies introduced in first half of the 20th Century and the overwhelming debts that many farms incurred while trying to implement these new industrial efficiencies forced many farmers out of the business of producing food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in one single decade (1950 to 1959) over two million farms closed and nearly 10 million people were migrated out of farm labor and into other parts of the economy (unfortunately, I could find no records indicating how many farmers were “migrated” into unemployment or welfare).
Historically, the cost of U.S. farmland has been extremely erratic making the purchase of new farmland risky, and often prohibitive, to the small farmer. In Iowa, after five years of price inflation, farmland real estate values declined a whopping 63% in 1981 and one-third of the state’s farms went out of business. Today, family farms, which have traditionally passed from generation to generation, are often subject to an inheritance tax based on the current value of the land and many families must choose between selling the family farm or incurring a new, highly-inflated farm mortgage simply to cover the costs of estate taxes.
Ultimately, thousands of communities that were built around regional and family farms have collapsed. Suppliers, hardware shops, repair shops, food processors, distributors, schools and local businesses all relied on a local economy with the Farm at its foundation. On our journey, we have driven through at least 100 of these ghost towns from Texas, across the South, throughout the Midwest and northeast – we have seen no area of our country left untouched by this massive migration away from the farm.
That’s Just the Way It Is…Or is It?
Millions of family farms, small farms and regional farms have disappeared over the course of my lifetime and the production of food on large, industrial corporate farms has increased to offset the move toward urbanization. The industrialized production of food has dramatically changed the way we eat and what we allow ourselves to eat. Though this IS our current situation, was it necessarily so? Could we, as a nation, have chosen otherwise? What were the forces that moved our agricultural choices in this particular direction? And what are the forces that keep moving us along the current path?
Send me your thoughts and comments…I’ll keep researching and reading the data looking for clues.
Next up…Two Ways to Feed the World