It has been a while since my last official series on this blog. I have been reading several books and watching several films on this subject. Food is an important facet of our existence, for obvious reasons. And yet, for some strange reason, few of us know from where the things we put into our body come. A little disclaimer first: I am not a nutritionist, I am simply a concerned citizen who wants people to start asking some very important questions. There are many people who know much more about this subject than I do, and fortunately for you, they have written extensively about their knowledge. If you are interested in this series, I suggest you read the writings of Michael Pollan, Frances Moore Lappe, Barbara Kingsolver, Eric Schlosser, and/or Vandana Shiva. So without any further ado, I present: A Strange System: Food.
The Stage is Set
When you picture a farm, what do you see? Probably chickens and chicks pecking around for seeds underfoot, cows sitting in a pasture, contentedly mooing, perhaps a farmer, chewing a piece of straw, of course, checking to see if there are any weeds choking out his corn crop. This is the typical, idyllic scene we all grew up with, and like most things we grew up with, it is largely dead wrong.
We live in a time when food production has shifted from the hands of farming families to agribusiness conglomerates. Businesses most of us don’t even know exist, like Monsanto and Cargill. The whole food system revolves around these players. The web they weave is so thick and tangled that I almost don’t know where to start. But perhaps, I should begin with the beginning.
When humans were first evolving on the African Savannah, we had appetites similar to those we have today. The appetite was developed to encourage people to eat what they needed. The African Savannah had plenty of grazing animals for us to kill and eat. This gives us our proteins, minerals, and some vitamins. There are also plenty of edible roots, nuts, and plants which provide us with fiber, oils, and more minerals and vitamins. However, there was a problem. Humans need some fat to survive, and grazing animals, which eat grass (more on that later), don’t have too much of that. It was also rather difficult to find salt and sugar. So, if you found something with salts or sugars, evolution encouraged us to gorge ourselves. And so, we spent our formative years as a collective species discovering new ways to provide our communities with food. We learned how to hunt more efficiently; how to gather edible plants.
Fast forward to about 11,000 BC. Scientists are pretty sure that humans learned how to domesticate certain plant species at this point in time. Annuals like peas and wheat were being domesticated in area of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent. There, the dry-summer allowed for a long growing period and variety of elevations led to a great number of plant species being domesticated.
Skip to the next scene when, about 1000 years later, in 10,000 BC., animals like the sheep and goat were being domesticated. Pigs, cows, and chickens followed in the subsequent millenia.
The domestication of plants and animals was probably the single most important event in the evolution of civilization. Slowly but surely, as we began to farm, humans shifted from being hunter-gatherers to a settled agricultural society.
Through the Middle Ages, everyone seemed to either have a farm or know a local farmer who could produce food for them. Farming methods were being fine tuned. Farmers in drier regions developed hydraulic irrigation systems. People explored the reasons why farming different crops worked better in one place than another. They expanded the number of species of plants being grown. Crop rotation was developed. The Chinese developed a moldboard plow which helped till the soil leading to better crop yields. Things were on the up and up, but progress was relatively slow.
Once again, we step into our little time machine and zoom to 17th century England. The Agricultural Revolution is about to begin. One of the first big changes was enclosure. Before this point in time, most agricultural systems worked in an open field system. Each farmer grew subsistence levels of crops and fed their livestock on tracts of land nobody really owned. Then, come the 17th century, wealthy farmers began buying up the land. This led to most farmers losing their land. Mechanical advancements came soon after. Jethro Tull, the inventor, not the band, invented a seed drill: a mechanical seeder which distributed seeds evenly and efficiently across a plot of land. This was much faster than spreading seeds by hand. Joseph Folijambe invented the Rotherham plow in 1730, the first commercially available iron plough in Europe. In 1786, Andrew Meikle invented a threshing machine. When steam engines came out on the market in the 1850’s, they were quickly put to use for plowing and digging in agricultural settings. Excellent news. Food production skyrocketed, and with it, population.
We have one more stop for today. Let’s travel to the United States around 1920. Scientists have identified nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus as the main factors behind plant growth. So to max out crop yields, they create synthetic fertilizers leading to more intensive agriculture. Vitamins and antibiotics are discovered. This allowed livestock to be raised inside, reducing their exposure to the harsh side of Mother Nature. They could be fed these antibiotics allowing for livestock to be grown in concentrated areas without the risk of spreading disease. They also grew larger and faster. After World War II, everybody just wanted to kick back. But the chemical companies have a problem. They just spent the last six years producing chemicals to be used in the war. No war means no sales, so they convert their factories to produce synthetic pesticides. An interstate highway system is constructed allowing for food to be distributed all across the country. Oil is plentiful and cheap, so it’s all systems go. Agricultural production across the world doubled four times between 1820 and 1975 to feed a global population of one billion human beings in 1800 and 6.5 billion in 2002. Oddly enough, during this same time, the number of farmers actually farming dropped. Well, the stage is set. We’ll return to the second act in our next installment.