“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000″.
It’s no surprise that a remarkable consequence of our modern age is automation; we like having everything organised, paid for, and packed into a bento box without having to worry too much about it. But should we allow this symbiotic ignorance to thrive so freely over something as intimate as our food? What are the consequences of a careless appetite? How far back in the system should I care? Do I even care?
The average modern UK supermarket contains around 38,000 items (some up to 90,000) (47,000 in the US) where there are no seasons but fruit all-year-round, picked half way across the world before being ripened with ethylene gas. There aren’t any more bones in the meat which has been trimmed and packed just the way we like it. There is a plethora of goods stacked in a flood of flavours that would convince your grandad he was in some weird cold war experiment.
So isn’t it strange to see that we are constantly being fed this image of a traditional agrarian farm as the source of all our food where, printed on the labels are farm fresh this and farmer that? The reality is unfortunately not what we’d like ourselves to believe. It is really a factory — in every sense of the word. But what’s so bad about a factory? Let’s start at the beginning.
In the 1910s Henry Ford’s generous vision to place the car under the “household items” label brought us the mechanised assembly line; a manufacturing process that redefined efficiency and mass production. It was a beautiful invention which brought speed and affordability to goods that were otherwise accessible only to a few – little did he know his idea would completely transform the way our food is produced and consequently our perception of what food is. But lets not embrace Luddism just yet; as with any new technology, its potential can be utilised for good or manipulated to exploit.
Not long after, in the early 1930’s two brothers who owned a small burger bar by the name of McDonald’s had a revolutionary idea to cut costs by bringing the factory system into the restaurant kitchen. Using the philosophy of the assembly line they simplified the menu, fired most of their workers and trained the remaining ones to each do just one thing, allowing them to pay low wages while making it very easy to replace them. This resulted in food that was quick, cheap, and tasted good – and was naturally a huge success. However, this psychology of driving for uniformity, conformity and cheapness extrapolated on a large-scale through both space and time has severe (un)intended consequences.
The first McDonald’s
The food system we (don’t) know today might as well be something out of a Bond film; a handful of corporations control the vast majority of our food (how it’s produced, sold and marketed), but more importantly don’t actually have much to do with real traditional farmers or farms.
As a supposititious example, If Mc Donald’s is the biggest purchaser of potatoes, beef, pork, lettuce and apples by volume, and they want their Big Mac’s to taste the same everywhere (34,480 restaurants in 119 countries), then they change — quite simply — how food is made.
Modern chicken farming
Today, this vertical and horizontal integration from seed to the supermarket has gone to unimaginable lengths in the name of profit-making and control, to the point that our food is now not only demolishing our environment and society, it has actually become more dangerous to consume. Our food now adversely affects — in ways that are deliberately being hidden from us — our physical and mental health.
Inevitably, In the 2000’s we saw the biggest global obesity epidemic, a never-before seen phenomenon that was not just due to an abundance of cheap crappy food, but additionally a combination of individual and social naïvety and financial vulnerability. For the first time in history, we saw more people dying from obesity than from starvation — the majority of which were low-income earners (not a coincidental correlation).
The problem isn’t as simple as burning more calories than you eat; unfortunately this layman’s logic instead manifests itself as an issue of rather personal responsibility. The big “eat less, exercise more” strategy was and is in fact a marketing campaign deployed to redirect attention away from the crux of the problem, which we conveniently ate up, spending billions on post-issue “weight loss methods” when It was simply a matter of the food itself.
After all, we are by nature made to seek out certain tastes, namely sugar, salt and fat. Now this is a great tool if you’re a nomad, but not so good when you’re in a Tesco. Why? Because we’ve actually gone so far in developing ever cheaper compounds, specifically made to fool our superficial taste buds, that when consumed have effects that are severely different from those of their real counter parts.
In many ways corn is the perfect example. It is used in a multitude of goods (almost any tertiary product from toothpaste to batteries including most of those ingredients you can’t pronounce). It has been specifically modified to outgrow its “weaker” versions, virtually wiping out other strains and is conveniently patented. In many cases it is processed by cheaply hired, largely illegal workers and its production is subsidised by the government. It is used in cow feed when cows should eat grass (makes them fatter quicker), which 1. dramatically increases methane production (livestock is now main contributor to greenhouse gases via CH4) and 2. caused the deadly E. Coli-tainted meat pandemics via acidification of the rumen, killing and hospitalising thousands (E.Coli O157:H7 was also found in apples and spinach due to run-off – it is still found today). It is used as a sweetener (HFCS) in most products which is a major cause of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, dementia, liver failure and tooth decay even when consumed in moderation.
Generation and transfer of E.Coli O157 via faeces
We then hear that these are myths, asserted through the opinion of “medical and nutrition experts” and that we are safe. Yet every year we give trillions to big pharma to “save” us. Even stranger still, like some weird cult our regulatory agencies meant to oversee our “food health” are in fact run by the very same ex-executives of these companies. Remember big tobacco?
Such is the illusion of today’s food; where cheapness is nothing more than the alluring front of a system veiled by this pastoral fantasy, that when all externalities are considered, is truly brutally and mercilessley expensive.
I suppose in a world where doubt and confusion is the currency of deception, they sow the seeds of complacency.
But pulling back the reigns, Jasanoff puts it quite well, “Is it sufficient, for instance, to assess technology’s consequences, or must we also seek to evaluate its aims? Will some of our most revolutionary technologies increase inequality, promote violence, threaten cultures, or harm the environment?” Her idea of “Technologies of Humility” begs the questions we should ask of almost every human enterprise that intends to alter society: what is the purpose; who will be hurt; who benefits; and how can we know? Must we first wait for a thousand disasters to happen? Or maybe we should adopt Collingridge’s framework and place a premium on shitty decisions. We as individuals are the driving force behind any technology; collectively we are what makes it good or bad. The choice is there and always will be, we have the final say.
Truman once said, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them”.