Photo by Joao Marcelo Marques on Unsplash

The state of the American food industry

Why are we eating more corn syrup than actual corn?

In Episode 6: Knowing your food, The Industry, I dug deep into the food industry in America. How did it get to where it is now? What forces shaped the industry? What effects is it having on our society, environment, and economy? All these questions are answered.

You can listen to Episode 6 here: Spotify Itunes Google Play Music Stitcher

So, let’s dig into the meat (or corn) of the food industry. Basically, the vast majority of our food used to be produced in sustainable family farms with a variety of crops and animals like this:

After the 1950’s, when the post-WWII military industry machine absorbed the food production industry, most of our food comes from vast mono-cropping operations resembling this:

Notice the huge machines and uniformity of crops

You (probably): So what the hell happened in between those two realities?

Great question! I was wondering the exact same thing. So I did a lot of research (likely more than I should’ve) and I came upon a few core causes of our large-scale, mechanized food production industry:

Maybe also you: I don’t care how it happened, I just want to know about the consequences — scroll down to “The consequences of this new paradigm.” 👇

The conversion of the post-WWII military industry machine to produce large amounts of food.

War to agriculture? Death and destruction to growth and nourishment? How could those two industries possibly intersect? The connection surprised me as well. The best answer I can give you is this:

Hungry soldiers, highways, and ammonium nitrate.

Hungry Soldiers: Basically, soldiers in WWII needed preserved food that was guaranteed to last and provide basic nourishment. Food processing wasn’t really a thing before, but after soldiers consumed 100 million pounds of SPAM over the course of the war, the companies who provided soldiers with preserved and processed food needed a new market for their product. Because who changes their product offering to match market demand? It’s so much easier to just create the market demand by advertising the shit out of your product.

So the companies who made products like SPAM spent their influx of cash from their war contributions to market their processed food products to normal people. And it worked! They targeted the burgeoning feminists who were going into the workforce and couldn’t spend as much time cooking. Now we’re cooking only 27 minutes a day (50% less than the time spent during the 60’s). So these processed, convenient foods did a great job of helping mothers get out of the kitchen and into the workforce.

Highways: As many of you may know, Dwight Eisenhower wanted more interstate mobility for the military. The comprehensive highway system that was a product of this desire played a significant role in shaping the orientation of our food industry towards huge production quantities. These highways, in addition to subsidies for oil ($10–$50 billion annually) made it economically and logistically feasible to produce huge surpluses of corn, soy, and wheat, then truck them all over the country to central processing and distribution centers, where the crops are driven further to their eventual destination. Lowering these transportation costs has resulted in some interesting situations where a community that produces a lot of food struggles to feed themselves.

Ammonium Nitrate: Ammonium nitrate is a principle ingredient in creating explosives (and fertilizer). It’s a combination of nitric acid and ammonium that provides an explosive substance that also contains a high concentration of digestible nitrogen for plants. The explosives industry had a smart idea when they converted munitions plants to fertilizer production plants, and this transition fueled a 20 million ton increase in fertilizer use from the 50’s to the 70’s (compare that to a 3 million ton increase from 1900–1940). I’ll discuss the environmental and social costs of synthetic fertilizer later in the article.

Hopefully now you understand how the industry forces catalyzed by WWII set the scene for our agriculture industry to become more centralized and mechanized.

Policy Shifts

There are also policy changes other than oil subsidies that pushed farmers to mass produce certain commodities (especially corn). While describing the intricacies of farm policy could take up a whole book, I’m going to zoom in on a single change that incentivized farmers to maximize quantity over anything. It all happened like this…

A man named Earl Butz wanted to lower commodity prices after our exports started driving prices up in the 1970s. How do you lower prices in markets? Economics 101 people: you increase supply. So, Butz instituted a subsidy system where the government would set a purchase price for commodities based on production cost, not market forces. They would directly pay the difference between the market price of corn and the govt’s set price. So, if a farmer grows 10 bushels of corn and the price in a saturated market is only $1.50 a bushel, but the price the gov’t set for the subsidy payouts was $3.00, the farmer gets paid $1.50(difference between two prices) * 10 bushels = $15 total dollars for that yield with taxpayer money. They also get the $15 from the market.

So now as a farmer, you’re guaranteed a certain amount of profit per bushel of whatever commodity you choose to grow. This means your goal now is to grow as many bushels of that crop as possible per acre of land, because more units = more profit. Earl Butz also spread the gospel of centralized, scaled agriculture. He wanted farmers to consolidate (wiping out small, local operations) to reap the benefits of scale. He changed farmers attitudes of food from the nourishment for our spirits to units of production that need to be efficiently maximized.

A Shift in how our culture views food

This changing of attitudes towards our food was also reflected in the popular culture of America. People were placing more value on convenience than being connected to their own food. The increased complexity of food production and the heavy marketing made us less inclined to ask questions about where our food came from, what was in it, and how it got on our plate.

The food industry quickly exploited this disconnection, as well as our ignorance to the damages to consuming sugar and the overestimation of those in fats. The presence of salt, fat, and sugar increased in the processed foods we’d become accustomed to eating. A large amount of these processed foods were some permutation of the commodities the farmers were incentivized to grow in excess. Here’s some stats about what’s in our food:

I got most of these from Mark Bittman’s appearance on Ted Radio Hour

  • 75% of food in supermarkets has added sugar.
  • At least 25% of food in supermarkets contain some form of corn.
  • 20 of top 25 fast food chains earned F or didn’t answer survey on use of antibiotics.
  • The average sugar consumption of an American is 153 grams/day. The recommended amount is 50 grams.

This disconnection from our food has led to some profound consequences for our health, economy, and environment. How profound are these consequences? I think the severity will surprise you.

The consequences of this new paradigm.

This new way of agriculture and food consumption has wreaked havoc on three main sectors: Health, Economy, and Environment. I’ll break down the highlights (or lowlights?) of each sector.

Environmental

  • It requires 50 gallons of oil per acre of industrial corn. This equates to more than one calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of corn energy.
  • We eat 3,496 litres of water a day compared to 137 for domestic consumption. Roughly 3,500 litres of water go in to the production of our food for just a day. Read more about the water impacts of our food here.
  • A 2007 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessment reported the detection of pesticide compounds in streams of developed watersheds more than 90 percent of the time.
  • Excessive nitrogen fertilizer application (remember the bomb-making chemicals?) contaminates surrounding ecosystem — especially bodies of water. When farmers mono-crop use large amounts of synthetic fertilizer, the soil is thin, and runs off into nearby water ways extremely easily. The result of this: 95,000 square feet of “dead zones”, where excess nitrogen causes algae blooms that suck all the oxygen out of the water, preventing any other organism from living.
  • http://www.vims.edu/research/topics/dead_zones/index.php million metric tons of nitrogen are delivered annually into the Gulf of Mexico from agricultural lands lying upstream in the Mississippi River Basin.
  • Production of crops and livestock contribute to ⅛ of all human emissions.
  • ⅓ of honeybees have been killed in a few years because of pesticide use

So, we aren’t living in harmony with the land. And that’s to put it lightly. Most would say we’re actively destroying the earth with the current agricultural practices.

Economic

  • Roughly $1 trillion is being spent on the effects of poor diets per year. These effects include hypertension, diabetes, heart disease,
  • Researchers estimate that the cost of nitrogen pollution from growing corn is more than twice the market value of the corn itself.
  • Taxpayer subsidies to farms total roughly 13 billion for commodity floor price set by gov’t and crop insurance.

Health

  • Antibiotics on factory farms lead to disease resistance and mutation.
  • These antibiotics we consume through meat also mess with our microbiome, an essential part of our body’s functioning.
  • All states have more than 20% of adults with obesity.
  • Roughly 9% of Americans (29 million) have type 2 diabetes — up from around 1% in 1958.

Wrapping it up

I hope now you have a more well-rounded view of the food industry in America, the causes of it’s current form, and the consequences of business as usual. Right now, you may be wondering:

What can I do to change this?

The best answer I can give you is to vote with your dollars. Every sale of processed food gives a company incentive to continue marketing those foods. Every sale of organic, sustainably produced foods empowers that method of production. One thing my friend Nate does is to throw out all the foods in his fridge that he doesn’t know at least half the ingredients to. Eat whole foods that were produced in harmony with the land. Get involved with your local community gardens, and try growing food yourself! Get closer to the sources of your food. These individual choices are the biggest thing you can do, unless you’re a farmer. In that case, I recommend diversifying the crops you’re growing. Having more diversity per acre means a more resilient income, healthier soil (the foundation for sustainability and nutrient rich food), and an incentive to get your hands in the dirt and develop a more intimate relationship with your food — food is more than a unit of production. Let’s treat it that way.

Hope you enjoyed the article! A 👏 to show appreciation always makes me 😃.

Want to go even more in-depth into the food industry? Listen to Episode 6 onSpotify Itunes Google Play Music Stitcher.

Thanks for reading!

Social Impact + Marketing + Design. If you need marketing or design for your social impact venture, hit my line at adam@emote.design.