30 Years of Messing Up Food

Over the weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch King Corn, a documentary following an acre of corn.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do.  Like Michael Pollan’s books, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it helps connect the dots regarding U.S. food policy, industrialized food, fast food, and more.

King Corn also inspired me to dust off my copy of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the book that in many ways sparked my interest in sustainable food systems.  As a history of the fast food industy, I am hoping a reread will help me better understand fast food’s role in creating today’s unsustainable food system, especially before the early 1970s when U.S. agriculture policy took a 180 degree turn.

At this point, here are what I believe are the major contributors that have created the food “mess” we find ourselves today (What’s missing?):

  1. Urban Sprawl – The U.S. interstate system, cheap oil, and the rapid growth of the auto industry contributed to a significant migration of people out of America’s cities to the suburbs.  I am sure there were other contributors.  Regardless, this exodus provided the perfect accelerator for a young fast food industry to move beyond its humble roots to the mainstream.  Soon, fast food joints were popping up at every interstate exit.  With such significant growth opportunities in sight, fast food industry leaders recognized the need for even cheaper food to fund its expansion.
  2. U.S. Agriculture Policy – In the early 1970s, under Ag Secretary Earl L. Butz, and as pointed out in King Corn, the U.S. shifted from a policy of paying farms not to produce, to subidizing over production.  According to the New York Times, “Mr. Butz maintained that a free-market policy, encouraging farmers to produce more and to sell their surplus overseas, could bring them higher prices.”
  3. 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act –  This Act of Congress required that any food product that wasn’t the real thing must include the word “imitation” on its label.  Around the same time that Secretary Butz was moving agriculture through its 180 degree swing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quitely repealed the Act, thus giving food manufacturers something they had been lobbying for for decades.  Without such labeling, something like Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread, along with its very long list of ingredients could be classified as “real” bread the same way as freshly baked bread with 4-5 whole food ingredients. [Thanks to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food for pointing out this critical policy change (quote).]
  4. High Fructose Corn Syrup Industry – In my recent post titled Is Industrial Food Stealing Farmers Lunch Money?, I highlighted a 12-cent shift in the allocation of consumer expenditures on food since the early 1980.  That 12 cents of every dollar now goes to the “food marketing system” instead of farmers who saw their share go from 31 cents of every dollar to 19 cents (a 40% decline).  What I learned from King Corn is that this shift began around the same time that significant corn surpluses motivated large investments in developing cheaper high fructose corn syrup, which was helped by declines in corn prices.

The result of all of this is an abundance of cheap food in America, much of which would be better defined as fast or fake cheap food.  Of course Earl Butz, during an on-screen interview in King Corn, was proud of the fact that we can now feed ourselves with 16-17 percent of our take-home pay, leaving us more money to spend on other things.  On the surface, this makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, increasing amounts of  our money now goes toward rapidly increasing health care costs, which in large part are due to our deterioting health caused by what we eat.  If it hasn’t happened already, I’m betting before too long that consumer spending on food plus health care will leave us pretty much where we started – tight family budgets and a lower quality of life.

Seems like the perfect time to shift from our “Quantity Economy” to one of quality.  Granted it likely means eating less and paying more, but the alternative is not sustainable.

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4 responses to “30 Years of Messing Up Food

  1. It’s interesting how many of us local, sustainable food activists have been influenced by some of the same works – Fast Food Nation, Omnivores Dilemma, etc. It all makes so much sense when you put it all together, huh? Obesity & healthcare cost increases, food costs “decrease”. I wonder if there will be class action lawsuits someday for the HFCS producers, kind of like there are today for tobacco and cigarette producers?

    • I recently read somewhere (making mental note to try to find article) that food companies are lobbying to make it impossible for people to sue them for eating bad food. So, I am quite certain that industrial food sees the writing on the wall and is doing what it can to not be held accountable for its share of the problems created. What a surprise!

  2. Interesting to me is to note that in point 2 above NEITHER federal policy was “free market.” In the first, we subsidize non-production, rather than letting the markets do that by driving forces down so low farmers would be stupid to keep planting those crops. And in the second example, under Mr.Butz, we subsidize over-production, such that without government subsidies farmers would lose money on every acre of land they plant. How the NYTimes called the system “free market” is beyond me.

    (Sorry, that’s the amateur economist coming out in me.)

  3. Another excellent, thoughtful post. I’d add the 1977 Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, described by Pollan in “In Defense of Food” as a turning point, spurring the separation of food from nutrients that you’ve written compellingly about in the recent past.

    Confusing consumers into complacency is not a recent phenomenon. Information is surely power here.

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