A Brief History of Food: Where We Are
Along with the large changes in the food system after World War II, farming was also subject to a massive shift. Technology and manufacturing shifted focus from war efforts to agriculture. Producing tanks switched to producing tractors, implements, and combines. Materials used for explosives found a new use as crop fertilizer. Research into chemicals led to development of pesticides for use in weed and insect control. These technologies propelled forward production, especially of field crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. Previous farming had been tied to working with the cycles of nature (whether farmers liked it or not) and relied heavily on the farmer’s knowledge and skill for success. Fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery allowed agriculture to seemingly break free from these cycles and simplified the mindset of farming to push for production and apply technology when problems arose.
This mindset shaped what can be called “Modern Agriculture”. With the memories of lack and scarcity of food in the first half century and the sudden impact of technologies to increase yields, it is easy to understand the push to ensure plentiful and cheap food to feed a growing population. And once this ball got rolling, it continued to gain momentum, from Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” to President Nixon’s Ag Secretary Earl Butz imploring farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow to help “feed the world”. The application of technology to farming to increase production continued to be the prime motivator, even at the expense of the farmer, as these technological advancements required fewer and fewer farmers to tend the land. The economics of overproduction created long periods of low prices that forced many farmers out of business, most glaringly in the farm crisis of the 1980’s.
When the singular focus is high production and low costs, systems that use simplified management and larger scales tend to take over. Livestock production moved from diverse farms with ties to the land to confined systems owned by fewer and fewer entities. These companies specialized in one species of livestock and worked to aggregate larger and larger shares of the market to better control their prices and profitability. Farm policies supported the trend of cheap and plentiful commodities, employing various methods of supports and subsidies to keep farmers solvent while still producing at high levels.
All this has led us to where we are today with 5% of US farms responsible for 60% of agricultural production. At the same time, Americans spend less than 10% of their income on food, half of what was spent in 1950, with only 14 cents of each dollar making it back to the farmer, a three fold decrease from five decades prior. So the original push from after World War II to have plentiful and cheap food has been accomplished. But it has also become glaringly obvious that importance must also be placed on health, both for humans and nature.
If one observes the natural world for very long, it becomes easy to see nature’s desire for balance. In the dance called life, nature flows from disturbance to restorative measure. Predator-prey relationships are a simple example of this. In a population balance of foxes and rabbits, if there are an excess number of foxes, they will diminish the number of rabbits, leaving less rabbits available for foxes, which then forces the number of foxes to diminish. Fewer foxes then allows the rabbit population to expand, again allowing the fox population to expand. This balancing act occurs in a dynamic and complex manner up and down the food webs that make up the ecosystems of our natural world. If nature was only made up of foxes and rabbits, it is not hard to imagine a large disturbance where the foxes ate all of the rabbits, thereby also dooming the fox population. So nature has worked to build resilient systems by developing diversity and filling all of the niches in the food web, so now if the foxes push the rabbit population too low they can find other sources of food such as rodents, frogs, birds, and even earthworms and berries, giving time for the rabbit population to regrow. Through this diversity and resiliency, nature dampens the impact of disturbances and more easily restores balance.
Humans sometimes see themselves as separate from nature, but we and our agriculture are integral pieces that have a large impact on the home we call Earth. If we view “Modern Agriculture” from the perspective of nature, the systems we rely on for food, from large monoculture crops to concentrated livestock systems, have pushed ecosystems to be increasingly simplified and less diverse. These simplified ecosystems have less capacity to maintain balance which has opened us up to larger and larger disturbances. The repercussions of which can be felt in many parts of life from weather (larger storm events, floods, droughts, and fires) to human health (chronic and infectious diseases) to the health of the planet’s biosphere (dead zones, increased extinction rates, and mass insect population decreases).
None of this is said, in any way, to vilify farmers or farm businesses that have largely done their best to meet the demands of the prevailing trends and market conditions. And, in a lot of ways, the agriculture sector has continually surpassed the original push for cheap and abundant food. So much so, that avenues for using the surplus corn and soybeans have been developed from high fructose corn syrup to corn ethanol to cooking oils and soy biodiesel. But, in the push for high production to allow for cheap and plentiful food, consideration for the overall health of the ecosystem has been primarily left to the side.
Farming is not an easy business and involves lots of hard work for uncertain returns. When put in the untenable position of being criticized for the side effects of farming methods that are seen as integral for meeting the implied agreement to “feed the world”, farmers and the ag industry have often become defensive and recalcitrant. Seeing the criticisms as an attack on their way of life and value to society, this has created mainly arguments and digging in of heels on all sides rather than a cooperative movement to address problems and develop solutions. The way toward actual progress is not to engage in blame and shame, but to work together compassionately to create a new paradigm that addresses the needs of all involved.
Thankfully, more and more farmers are developing ways to farm in concert with nature, producing high yielding crops while also improving the diversity and functioning of the ecosystem. Cover crops, managed grazing of livestock, and a focus on soil health all play a part in a budding movement of Regenerative Agriculture. But, farmers are only a small percentage of society and those using regenerative practices a smaller portion still. For large and lasting change, consumers will need to be involved in connecting with their food and changing the narrative from producing large quantities of cheap food to a demand for high quality food that also supports a healthy and diverse ecosystem.
We appreciate your interest in being part of this change. By no means, do we at Gibralter Farms claim to have all (or any) of the answers for the problems facing the world, but we continue to work at understanding how to farm in a manner that benefits the environment and society. We are starting this food business, in part, to help connect you with your food and to work at creating solutions for the challenges facing all of us. If you would like to connect with us, sign-up here for our email newsletter.