How did we get here? And where can we work to get ourselves out of this jam? Our food system is the system that drives our society - how our food system evolved in the 20th century took us here - and how we work to change it will take us home.
Here is the chapter in my book The Fractal History of Mankind that shows us how our food system in the 20th century took us to this place.
It picks up after the American Revolution - when a new dream of a just society was enacted that really did offer liberty and freedom. We see how this liberty and freedom was lost by a new food system! When we understand THIS, then we are equipped to see what we have to do to find a better system.
So here is the Pattern of the world that is now dying around us - here is how the process began and here is how it ends.
What a great beginning! America was the first nation to be created as an act of deliberate will. The Founders did their best to design a framework that naturally opposed tyranny and oppression. For a while, the dream of a yeoman society existed.
For more than 150 years America was indeed the land of the truly free. A land of millions of independent small landowners. Who had the scale to move a food system beyond subsistence. A land were most men worked for no man. Where 80% grew their own food or were connected to those that did. Where there was no standing army but where a nation in arms could be relied on. Where the central government was small and had many checks and balances. Where the system was designed specifically to prevent the concentration of power.
This was very much like the Old Republic of Rome. The Republic was in fact Jefferson’s ideal and model.
Who could have imagined then what Financial Capital and Fossil Fuel would do to change all of this?
What happened was the same process as had happened to Rome itself: the inexorable process of concentration that property and financial capital has embedded in it.
Here is what happened in Rome. The economy in Rome was based on agriculture. The small farms are bought out by big men. The yeoman leave for the city. The work is done now by capital, by slaves. The Citizen Army is replaced by a professional standing army. In Rome the old farms near Rome became country estates. Vast mega farms, Latifundia, are opened up in North Africa staffed by slaves. In Rome, a Cheap Food policy and free entertainment at the Arena keeps the million person mob from boiling over. Food is shipped over vast distances from North Africa.
The process of concentration moved inexorably onwards. Fewer and fewer families held more and more. The gap between the rich and the rest opens up. Ultimately most power is held by one man, the Emperor. Most importantly, he controls the army, the tax base and the food supply system.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
Well it’s part of the pattern for property and financial capital. But in our own time, the process is leveraged and so faster and more relentless. For now, instead of slaves giving us leverage, it is fossil fuel. Instead of a banking system based on ledgers and quill pens, it is a vast interconnected credit system that can make its own money.
The key to our system of leverage is oil and credit. Every aspect of our lives depend on oil being cheap and easy to get. The process of power concentration relies on our system of credit.
Our food is oil. The great experiment to use oil to make food, was first tried and then perfected in America. With the rest of the world bankrupted at the end of World War II, American Credit systems also became world leaders.
Many other things also converged in America to support the rapid shift from Yeoman to Agribusiness. These all together supported an unplanned shift from Nation State to the Corporate State.
Feeding large armies in both World Wars had laid the foundations of a mass global food system. Mass canning began the process of food made away from home. Without spam and bully beef, we would not have been able to keep millions in the field.
The convenience of a refrigerator arrived with mass electrification. More important that keeping food cool was the advent of mass frozen food. This was a truly novel way of storing food and opened the pathway for a massed processed food system.
Government policy played a role too. The creation of the national highway system in the 1950’s was the core of the distribution system. The Butz agricultural policy of the 1970’s that supported large scale and specialization was instrumental in the death of the family farm. Even the Federal Food Regulatory system was used to shut out the small local operator.
1955, the year that Ray Kroc started the modern McDonalds was maybe the Tipping Point. The Fast Food Industry created the foundations of the now predominant global food supply chains where food was standardized and sourced from all over the world.
Fast Food not only changed how our food was sourced but how it was eaten. Fast Food took more of us out of the kitchen and away from the family dining table. It took more of us away from the process of preparing and sharing of our daily food for those closest to us.
In the 1950’s TV arrived. Itself a an addictive process, TV has had an immense impact on how we eat and how we live.
It was and still is the medium by which we are also sold the idea of the consumer society. So it strongly influences our food choice as any parent whose child watches food ads knows. But as importantly as its role in making Fast Food and Prepared Food the new normal, TV further acted an an influence to replace the table as the centre of family life. It stopped family conversation. It competed with food preparation for time as well. Exhausted after a long day of work and commuting, TV was a sanctuary. At first we all sat around the one TV but in time, all family member shad their own TV. TV pulled us apart from eating together.
In the 1970’s arrived the last straw in the process of removing food as the social convener, the Microwave! Now each member of the family could have their own TV and their own meal at their own time. And for the first time in human history, no one had to have any cooking skills at all! Food processed outside the home triumphed over cooking.
As people became ever more reliant on buying meals from fewer and fewer sources, so the food system itself was being further concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.
In the late 1990’s a handful of companies began to buy up all the seed companies in the world and won the right to patent the processes of nature. No longer did we dominate her, we now could own her! For Agribusiness has lead us to a place where only a tiny handful of breeds and plants supply all out food. 3 main potatoes, one milk cow, 2 chicken breeds. With seed, there are now only a few varieties of annuals that have to be purchased each year. Where 3 firms own all of this.
Where all the vast diversity of nature has been expelled and maybe even lost for a while.
For supporting all of this was a vast increase since the 1980’s in the power and concentration of financial power in only a handful of organizations. Now less than 10 firms dominate the world of food. They own and control every part of it. These firms transcend national boundaries. They have more power than any nation state. They are controlled by no one.
Like Romans, we now depend on a food system that is in the control of a handful of people. It is a system that looks powerful but is in fact very fragile. A food system that depends on the ongoing access to cheap oil. A system that depends on the health of the global credit system. A food system that depends on a handful of animal breeds and plant varieties. A food system that has to feed nearly 7 billion people.
This is no longer agriculture. It is agribusiness. A system that is entirely constructed on the ideal of utility. All emotions, all the sense of the sacred has been eliminated. The land is a disposable tool. Water is a resource. Animals are their body parts. Food is fuel, a drug or an icon.
The Agribusiness System had won over the Yeoman. It had taken less than a century. This system is not only literally unhealthy, but is I think socially very dangerous.
If we look back at how fire made us human. Look back at how the communal preparing and sharing of food was at the heart of both our society and how we learned how to be a person and how we learned the lessons of the world. Do we not see the risk of losing this connecting process? Might we be breaking the bonds that make us human?
Society reflects the pattern of the food system. At first we were peers of the natural world. Then we were its tamers. Now we are inside the food system itself. We have always been the reflection of our food system. If I am right what does that make us now?
We have joined our domesticated plants and animals! I think that we are like Holsteins in a milking barn being fed feed made from corn while we are being milked by machines. Our calves are separated from us. We are only as good as our milk supply. We are disposable as they are. But we think that we are as free! Maybe Holsteins do to?
I find it such an irony that in the hope for Liberty, we find ourselves now living in a system where most of us are utterly dependent on a few people to provide us with all that we need. We find ourselves unknowingly back at the place where Rousseau found the world before the French Revolution.
“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. Many a one believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they.
Never have humans been so unaware. Never have we been so disconnected. Never have we been able to “see” so little. Never have we been collectively so helpless.
How have we got so lost?
Is this because we are bad? Is this because we have been duped by bad people? I don’t think so. Are we doomed? I don’t think so either.
I don’t think we are lost at all. In trouble yes but not lost. I think that we are where we have to be right now. Only by being here, can we move on to our next stage.