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article: The New American Food System, Part 1

By John Ikerd, PhD, Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri
Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation--Health & Healing Wisdom, Vol.27 #3

The 20th century was the American Century--as is commonly conceded by historians. During the 20th century, the United States replaced Great Britain as the dominant global economic power, and America’s corporate version of capitalism replaced socialism and competitive capitalism as the world’s dominant economic model.

The United States came from behind to beat the Soviet Union to the moon and take leadership in space. The United States came from behind to pull ahead of Japan in electronics and communications technologies. And, America replaced the whole of Europe as the single dominant global military power.

The American Century was a time during which economics gained precedents over all else--including politics, society, and culture. America struggled economically, along with the rest of the world, during much of the first half of the century. But, America built the foundation for its modern industrial economy during World War II, used its post-war economy to help Europe and Japan rebuild, but afterward, never looked back.

America’s desire for maximum economic growth provided the motive for its unrestrained “corporatist” economy, which later became the model for much of the rest of the world. Research and development supported by economic growth allowed America to take world leadership in space and electronics. And, economic growth made possible the most powerful and dominant military force ever assembled in the history of humanity.

A New Century, A Need for New Direction

But, as we enter a new century, there are growing questions concerning the sustainability of the American economic engine of growth. Growing evidence of air and water pollution during the 1960s raised questions concerning the inherent negative environmental impacts of the industrial paradigm of economic development. The energy crisis of the 1970s raised concerns about the extractive nature of the “free market” economy, and its inherent reliance on limited supplies of non-renewable resources.

A return to the “economics of greed” during the 1980s raised concerns about the growing economic gap between the “haves and have-nots.” And, when the “economic bubble” of the 1990s burst at the turn of the century, many more people began to question whether America’s economic growth is sustainable.

Until now, the environment has been the focus of primary concern for sustainability. Relentless economic growth was depleting non-renewable resources and polluting the natural environment. Today, there are growing questions of social and cultural sustainability. Our relentless pursuit of economic prosperity is separating people within families, communities, and society as a whole and is destroying the social fabric of our country.

In our quest for global economic supremacy, the United States has become a splintered nation of disconnected people. The American economy may be the envy of the rest of the world, but few would choose the American social culture, without strong economic incentives to do so.

We live in an increasingly unhealthy society. The health of any society is reflected in the quality of relationships among its people--within families, communities, and society in general. And, during the latter half of the 20th century, American society has become increasingly disconnected, our relationships have become increasingly unhealthy and dysfunctional, and there is growing evidence that we live in an unsustainable society.

Our Modern Disconnect

It’s no coincidence that people have become disconnected from each other, as well as from the earth, during the last few decades--during the latter stages of industrialization. Disconnectedness is an unintended, but inescapable, consequence of the industrial approach to economic development.

The fundamental principles of industrialization are specialization of function, standardization of process, and consolidation of control. When workers specialize in doing fewer things, each person can become more efficient in the task they perform, and by working with others, can produce more with less total work than when working separately.

By standardizing tasks and standardizing products at each stage of production both workers and products become interchangeable, greatly facilitating the coordination of separate specialized functions. Finally, specialization and standardization simplify the production process, facilitating mechanization and routinization, and making it possible to centralize management functions and consolidate large numbers of workers and functions into large business operations. Economists call the resulting increase in efficiency “economies of scale.”

The principles of industrialization are the same in automobile manufacturers, large-scale vegetable processors, retail superstores, or a confinement animal feeding operation. The gains in efficiency from industrialization are achieved by carrying out specialized functions by standardized means under centralized management. Our growing social disconnectedness is not a coincidence of, but a direct consequence of, American industrialization.

Americans Growing Distance from their Food

Nowhere in America is our economic and social disconnectedness more evident than in our systems of food and farming. Most consumers, particularly younger consumers, have no sense of where their food actually comes from or who produces it.

Even those who know that farmers grow crops and raise livestock, and [that] others process and package these crops and deliver food to grocery stores and restaurants, still have little sense of what’s actually involved in this process. We shouldn’t be surprised that consumers have no real understanding of food, because they have no sense of connectedness with the land or with the farmers who tend the soil to bring forth their food.

Before industrialization, when America was an agrarian nation, people either produced their own food, or they bartered for or bought it from someone who had produced it. The relationship between consumer and producer was direct and personal.

As the economy became more specialized, merchants such as butchers, bakers, and brewers bought from producers and sold to consumers, and the farmer/consumer connections became one-step removed. Then came grocery store owners, who bought from the butchers, bakers and brewers, and then, consumers were at least two-steps removed from the farm.

As the food system moved beyond the early stages of industrialization, control of the system began to consolidate in the hands of a few large food corporations. New industrial technologies and organizational models required increasing capital investments.

First, independent entrepreneurs were displaced by family corporations, but eventually few families could accumulate enough capital to compete. As market power and political power replaced economic efficiency as the primary motivation for consolidation of control, only the giant publicly held corporations were able to compete.

In farming, independent family farms were replaced by family corporations, which are now being replaced by corporately controlled contract production--factory farming. In food retailing, the “mom and pop” corner grocery stores were displaced by “regional and national chains” of large supermarkets, which now are also being displaced, by “global chains” of even larger retail “super-centers.” Independently operated restaurants and delis were displaced by franchised restaurants and fast food joints.

Independent food processors and wholesalers were displaced by giant food processing and distribution firms, which since have been absorbed into five or six even-larger “global food chain clusters.”

As the four or five dominant global food retailers link up with the existing “global food chain clusters,” they eventually will control all phases of the global food system from “dirt to the dinner plate,” including agricultural production.[2]

What does it matter if people don’t understand where their food comes from, if they think it is manufactured rather than grown? People don’t understand where their automobiles come from, or their clothes, their houses, their movies, or [where] much of anything else comes from, and no one seems to be complaining about their lack of knowledge of such things. However, all disconnections among people matter, even if no one complains.

The seeds of dissention are sown in the gaps of understanding and appreciation that exist among people. Conflict, frustration, depression, malaise, and many other miseries in life are but symptoms of our lack of understanding and appreciation for each other. People may not have associated the symptoms with the cause, but the cause still matters. And, it matters even more that we consumers understand our connections with farmers.

Many farmers feel a great sense of frustration that people don’t understand how life in general is connected to life in the soil and the life of people who till the soil. They feel they are forced to destroy the natural productivity of the soil, to degrade the natural environment, and to destroy the social fabric of their communities, because they believe the only thing food consumers are concerned about is price.

Many farmers feel that they are forced to value the economic bottom-line above virtually all else, above their neighbors and communities, and sometimes even above their families, because they believe the only thing consumers care about is “cheap food.”

Farmers want to be good neighbors and good stewards of the land, but the competitive pressures of a consumer-driven, market economy won’t let them. Instead, the land, the quality of rural life, and ultimately the ability of the earth to support human life will be destroyed, because of the disconnectedness of Americans from the land and from the people who farm it.

Our Self-Abusive Love Affair with Fast Food

Unfortunately, the only link between farmers and consumers is a disconnected, dysfunctional, and unsustainable food system. As a prime example, Eric Schlosser, in his recent bestseller, Fast Food Nation, attempts to assess the social cost of our “love affair” with fast foods.

Food eaten “away from home” now claims a share approaching half of all food purchases in America. And, “fast food” places, such as McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, account for nearly half of all food consumed away from home. Schlosser states that “fast food” has triggered the homogenization of our society.

Fast food has hastened the malling of our landscape, widening of the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled the juggernaut of American cultural imperialism abroad. He documents how fast foods have lured us into choosing diets deficient in nearly everything except calories, supporting practices deceptive in every aspect, from advertising to flavoring, and systems that degrade nearly everyone and everything involved in the process.

The fast food industry has lured low-income consumers, along with the affluent, into paying ridiculously high prices for low-quality meats, potatoes, vegetable oil, and sugar.

However, the high dollar-and-cent costs are but the tip of the iceberg. The true costs of quick food must include the costs of poor health, lost dignity in work, degraded landscapes, and ethical and moral decay in business matters, including international trade and investment.

With the rapid consolidation now taking place among food supermarket chains, the “fast food” story undoubtedly has relevance for the whole of food retailing. The independent food processors, distributors, and retailers today are under the same economic pressures as independent family farmers.

They are fighting for their very economic survival. They can’t afford to be too concerned about the well-being of their employees, their suppliers, or their customers; they have to look out for themselves. If their labor costs are too high because of generous salaries and benefits, they can’t compete.

If they pay too much to farmers or other suppliers of raw materials, their profit margins will disappear. If they don’t take advantage of the natural human frailties of their customers, their competitors will. If a store or processing plant isn’t profitable in one community, they have to move to another, regardless of the impact on the community. The independent food marketer, like the family farmer, is in a struggle for economic survival.

The New Farmers Improving the "Disconnected Landscape"

The negative consequences of corporate industrialization most certainly are not limited to the food system. The same type of social disconnection is occurring all across society--increasingly, people relate to each other through the marketplace rather than face to face.

Confidence, commitment, and trust have been replaced by guarantees, contracts, and regulations. And when disputes arise concerning market transactions, they are settled in the courts. The reservoirs of personal goodwill from which conciliation and consensus must be drawn have been depleted.

Our national disconnectedness is not a mere “coincidence with” industrialization; instead, it is a direct “consequence of” industrialization. And equally significant, we will not become reconnected as a people until we move beyond industrialization to a fundamentally new and different era of human progress.

Thankfully, a new American culture is being created to replace the current culture of economic materialism. These new farmers face many frustrations and hardships along with the joys of success. Creating a new culture isn’t easy--on farms or anywhere else.

These farmers are trying to learn how to do what no one yet knows how to do, and they are doing it with little help from anyone other than each other. They are on a new frontier, and life on any new frontier quite typically is difficult. But more and more of these new farmers are finding ways to succeed.

Continued in Part 2...

John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus (Agricultural Economics), University of Missouri, Columbia, MO. This article is reprinted with the kind permission of the author. E-mail: JEIkerd @; Web site:


De Tocqueville, Alex. Reprinted in 2000. Democracy in America, Bantam Books, New York.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2000. The Tipping Point. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York, and London.

Kummer, Corby. 2002. The Pleasures of Slow Food. Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone. Simon and Schuster, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, and Singapore.

Ray, Paul and Sherry Anderson. 2000. The Cultural Creatives. Three Rivers Press, New York.

Schlosser, Eric. 2001. Fast Food Nation. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York.

[1] The full text (see website) was prepared for presentation at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association 23rd Annual Conference, Johnstown, Ohio. March 8-9, 2003.

[2] For summaries of global food consolidation studies, see articles by Mary Hendrickson, PhD, and William Heffernan, PhD, in Small Farm Today Magazine, April 1999 and July 2001, also available on the Internet at and

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