The Tangled (Food) Web We Weave


Dan Hicks


February 20, 2013

The basic reason I find the food system so fascinating is the complex and often surprising connections between issues that, at first glance, don’t seem to have much to do with each other.
Consider the amount of processed food we eat, the ecological concerns we have about food production (pesticides, nitrogen runoffs, CAFOs), and the distribution of farmland ownership, specifically the fact that, both in the U.S. and globally, the total number of farms has sharply decreased at the same time as the total area farmed has slightly increased. The first two, at least, seem to be widely discussed in our society in recent years. But we don’t seem to discuss them together, as this Google Trends graph indicates:

(Since 2006, the correlation between the two trends, as measured by R^2, is only 0.137, which is low.) And based on my interactions with students over the past year, many people seem to be vaguely aware of the consolidation of farmland. It’s regarded as bad, but also in a vague way; and it doesn’t seem to strike many people as being as important as the first two issues.

In fact, these three issues are quite closely connected. The mass consumption of processed food requires high economies of scale in food processing and agriculture. You don’t get cheap hamburgers unless they’re made in a factory using cheap meat; and you don’t get cheap meat without a fast-moving “disassembly line” in the slaughterhouse, cheap feed, and a minimal labor force. Similarly, you don’t high fructose corn syrup, xantham gum, and the other chemical constituents of cheap processed food (plus the cheap feed for the cheap meat) without cheap corn.

Economies of scale in food processing and production, in turn, require product uniformity and land consolidation. Product uniformity means that the unprocessed agricultural outputs – potatoes, corn, cattle, for example – are the same. The potatoes and corn are all the same size and have the same starch content (as the other potatoes and corn, respectively). The cattle all take the same amount of time and feed to go from birth to “mature” (i.e., ready-to-slaughter) weight, and after slaughter their meat has the same fat content. Product uniformity requires process uniformity: growing all of the potatoes, all of the corn, all of the cattle, in the same way everywhere, using the same varieties or breeds and the same chemical inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, feeding supplements, antibiotics, and so on).

And it’s exactly this process uniformity that gives rise to the ecological problems. Pesticide-resistant insects and herbicide-resistant weeds have evolved so quickly because we’re using just a few different kinds of pesticides and herbicides in just a few different ways. Growing just a few varieties of corn and soybeans means we can’t build soil through more complex crop rotation and intercropping methods, so we have to use chemical fertilizers, which tend to run off and produce the “dead zones” in, for example, the Gulf of Mexico. Raising millions of closely-related cattle in the close, filthy, and extremely efficient conditions of the feedlot – and feeding them antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks and make them grow faster – creates the ideal breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Economies of scale also involve the use of agricultural machinery, such as large planters and harvesters. These machines are capital intensive – they require a large initial investment – as opposed to older, labor intensive technologies. The increase in capital intensity and the decrease in labor intensity both lead to consolidation. Say a single farming family can manage 200 acres with a horse-drawn plow. The 448,000 acres (700 square miles) of a typical county in Nebraska would be farmed by not quite 2,500 families, for a sustainable rural county population of 12-15 thousand people. But now a single farming family, using capital intensive machinery, can manage 1,000 acres or more. We only need 500 farming families, or about 2-3 thousand people, in the same typical Nebraska county. That’s not even enough for a consolidated high school. So economies of scale lead to farmland consolidation, and the devastating depopulation of farming communities.

Finally, these connections depend on the particular cultural, economic, and technological context of our food system. Cultural and economical because farmers, in our society, have to be profitable more-or-less annually in order to keep their farms. Technological because future agricultural technologies – certain kinds of genetically modified crops – may or may not enable us to keep process uniformity without, for example, the chemical fertilizers. And so these surprising, complex connections are dynamic, likely to change over time as the cultural, economic, and technological context changes. What more could a scholar ask of his research subject?