1.08.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: Food and the City, Chapter 2

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  See the summary and discussion for Chapter 1 of Food and the City here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Food and the City, Chapter 2: Industrial Food

Summary:

Food has changed profoundly in the past few generations.  At the turn of the 20th century, specialized markets and backyard gardens were the norm.  Home farming grew in popularity through World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II.  Excess produce from home gardens was canned for winter eating: growing and canning food were considered both patriotic and practical.  Not until after WWII did processed food become commonplace, as war industry resources shifted focus to food production and the Greatest Generation understandably embraced an ethic of convenience.

In the early 1900s, synthetic fertilizers were developed in response to fears of food shortages, followed by pesticides and herbicides.  Eliminating food insecurity was a priority for the US after WWII, and parts of the "war machine's infrastructure" were converted for use in industrial food production - particularly with regard to the manufacture of these agricultural chemicals.  In the span of 50 years, use of these chemicals moved from brand new innovation to accepted conventional practice.  Rather than feeding a starving world, producing more food actually exacerbated the problem: following the laws of nature, the population grew in step with the growing availability of food.

In the 1950s, the US began to export its excess food supply to developing countries to fight against the potential invasion of communism amongst populations struggling for basic needs.  The expansion of industrial food and its practices pushed out many small farmers - millions in Mexico alone.  Farming families unable to farm any longer sought opportunities in Mexico's cities and in the US.

Panic in the 1960s surrounding unprecedented population growth (being fueled, of course, by the ever-greater availability of food) led to further industrialization of food production in the developing world.  The population unsurprisingly continued to grow as more and more food became available, and because farming was no longer a viable profession people continued to move away from arable land in the country and into cities.

Even our synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers can't keep up with today's scale of monocropping: yields have begun to drop.  So agribusiness has turned to developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in an attempt to recreate the magic once sparked by agricultural chemicals.  Having been grown commercially for less than twenty years, these genetically modified plants can now be found in about 70% of processed foods.  These plants can spread their modified, patented genes to heritage crops through channels such as wind and bees, causing legal problems for farmers who are sued for growing a patented product to which they do not have rights.  Further, use of Roundup-resistant GMO seeds which require heavy doses of the herbicide has led to the development of "superweeds" that cannot be killed.

Differing visions have emerged about the best way to produce and distribute enough food for a global population set to grow by another 2 billion in the next 30 years.  Surprising no one, agribusiness is pushing for more food to be grown through their own patented (and expensive) technologies.  Industrial food is currently controlled by a small number of companies: Bayer Crop Science, Syngenta, and BASF control half of agricultural chemicals.  Monsanto controls 20% of "proprietary seed production."  Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Bunge control a stunning 90% of grain production and distribution.  These near-monopolies lead to the problems expected under such conditions.  Big Ag's deathgrip on rural farms may be a good reason to revive small scale farming in residential and urban areas.

Discussion:

In this chapter, I again feel like Cockrall-King is dancing around but never quite hitting the nail on several important issues.  In her discussion of food monopolies, for instance, she neglects the intense concentration of the meat industry. As discussed by the Tufts University report "Hogging the Market," four companies control over 80% of beef production.  Similar concentration is seen in pork (66%) and chicken (58%).  These conditions lead to little competition, relieving any pressure for meat producers and packers to hold themselves to higher standards.  The idea that the USDA might enforce better standards is laughable, due to a severe lack of resources stemming from years of cutbacks and industry influence.  The meat industry is at this point essentially self-regulated.

That industrial food is the primary food type in New Orleans cannot be denied.  Even with a recent surge of farmer's markets, fresh local food sources are outnumbered at least three to one by the more common supermarkets.  As far as the amounts of food offered by each sort of establishment, an individual farmer's market is a small drop in the bucket compared to the vast aisles of foods in any single Rouse's or Winn Dixie.  The differences, of course, are that farmer's markets are local and fresh and also more expensive, while the supermarkets have more food - but that food comes with infinitely more food miles attached as well as intense industrial processing.

In its report "Building Healthy Communities," the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee (which seems to have gone defunct in 2013) makes ten recommendations to either the city of New Orleans or the state of Louisiana as a whole regarding tactics to improve access to healthy foods for its citizens.  A paper entitled "Re-Storing the Crescent City" that shares several authors with "Building Healthy Communities" looks closely at food access for three New Orleans neighborhoods.  I will certainly be talking about the concept of food deserts in the future, but for now I'll say this: mere presence of supermarkets does not alleviate the lack of access to healthy foods seen in these areas.  This is due, in no small part, to the fact that supermarkets sell almost nothing but industrial food.  As a rule of thumb, the more processed a food is, the less healthy it becomes...

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