Ed. note: This post is the Introduction to Global Eating Disorder.
We stayed overnight in Dodson, Montana in a charming Bed and Breakfast owned and managed by Sandra Calk. At breakfast we got a peep view into her fridge. There were fruit and vegetables, cheeses, juices, marmalade, honey pickles, condiments and everlasting tortillas. There were eggs and rhubarb from a neighbor but nothing else was from close by, the regular milk came from Texas, and the vanilla scented one from Idaho. Even most of the meat products did not come from Montana, despite the state having millions of cattle grazing its green rolling hills; Montana has more cows than people. Montana cattle are finished in huge feed lot operations in Colorado, Nebraska or Texas where they are fed on maize from the fertile Corn Belt of the United States.
This snapshot of Sandra’s fridge is a mirror of the global food and agriculture system. The example is in no way extreme. In most parts of the industrial and urbanized world, people hardly eat anything that comes from close by. Consumption has no direct link to local agriculture which is organized in the same way as modern assembly lines, with parts being delivered from all over the globe to be assembled as a Gorby’s pizza, a McDonald’s hamburger or a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Indonesian consumers munched a stunning 14 billion packages of instant wheat noodles in 2012.[i] What is strange about that? Indonesia produces no wheat at all – what has become a national dish is based on a raw material that is completely imported.[ii]
When anthropologists describe some preliterate society, the conditions of food production and its role in society usually forms a central part of the narrative. Taboos, gender roles, power, ownership are all linked to food. We often fail to realize that food is also ubiquitous in our modern society, not only providing nutrition, but also a strong determinant of most aspects of the economy, society and culture. Regardless of which models or epochs we look at, our relationship with food is one of the main shapers of human society. Many people say, or think, that industrialism has made us less dependent on nature and on farming. But, that is an illusion caused by human beings living further away from nature. Although we get our electricity via cables and petrol from tubes at filling stations we are no less dependent on nature for energy than a hunter sitting around the campfire or the farmer putting another log on her hearth. Nor are we any less dependent on farming than our ancestors; almost all our food comes from farms.
In farming, a few species of plants and animals are chosen and preferred over others. These species are evolutionary partners of the human species. We nurture and protect these faithful symbionts from other threats, at the price of ultimately eating them. They are almost an integral part of our species, and certainly our society, as it is today, couldn’t exist without them. Neither would they exist without us, at least not on the scale they do now. Cows, sheep and goats would not cover one quarter of the planet’s surface if we hadn’t put them to work for us. Maize owes us as much as we owe maize. We have chosen a few species, and then selected and developed the more valuable traits in those species to create special varieties and breeds. Animals are bred to produce the most valuable product – whether it is meat, milk, fur or wool. We have selected plants with bigger, or more, seeds or more of an edible root, or a less bitter taste. This, in turn, has made plants and animals more dependent on human beings and the farmscape, as they would not otherwise survive outside of its boundaries.
The basis for farming, the collection of solar energy via a few selected plants, mainly grains, has been the basis for human civilizations for more than five thousand years, and this is likely to remain the case. Despite the break neck speed of change of human society, there has been almost no change in the fundamental biological basis for our food production. The total biological production per hectare remains much the same, but we take a greater and greater share of that production, by transforming grains to have fewer roots and straw and more kernel and by exterminating weeds, insects and wildlife in the fields.
Globally our farming system is based on a few grains, root crops and oil crops supplemented with animals, most of them known and used for centuries. Almost no new plants or animals have been domesticated in the last centuries. The balance between the staples has changed and instead of being bound to one or two staples, (bread and milk in the Swedish case, rice for many Asians) we can now eat rice, pasta, potatoes, cornflakes, meat, milk, cheese etc. Increasingly we eat fast and processed foods. Yet, these processed foods, to a very large extent, contain the same staples. The difference between food and fast-food is not so much a difference in raw materials, but in the process of making and preparing them.
Despite a doubling of population between 1960 and 2000, the nutritional status of the world’s population has improved considerably in this time. The farmers of the world have reasons to be proud of their accomplishment. But it has come at a price. For most of its history, farming has been based on sustenance, reproduction, improving and building up capital in the soil, in the livestock or in physical assets. It was also the bearer of culture and society at large. But today, in many regions, food production is exceeding environmental limits or is close to doing so. The use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers has passed the limits for a biosphere in balance. Our whole food system contributes at least one third of man-made total greenhouse gas emissions and agriculture is the single largest driver of biodiversity loss. The extraction of water for irrigation exceeds the regeneration of water sources in many parts of the world. Pesticides cause a major loss of biodiversity and hundreds of thousands of direct deaths among farmers and farm workers. Nobody really knows how they affect other aspects of our health. Taken together these factors (and others not mentioned here), could compromise the capacity of the earth to produce food in the future. The farming system is also socially and economically unsustainable.
There is growing concern over future food production and increasing competition for resources in the food, energy and water nexus are reflected in a new interest for investment in land and water. “I cannot farm myself out of this water problem,” says Mark Shannon, a farmer who in 2010 had to let his land in the San Joaquin valley be converted into a solar power field.[iii] This is a vivid illustration of the shortage of resources that will be a permanent feature in the future, and how land, water and energy interplay. Shortage of one can partly be compensated with another, but what happens if all of them are scarce? We see today that the market does not distribute scarce resources to those who are poor: if resources become scarcer the poor will be further disenfranchised. In more extreme cases the rich will drive their cars with fuels made from food crops that the poor cannot afford to buy and lack the resources to produce themselves.
Our industrial society is based on linear thinking and processes. We bring together certain inputs, process them and create a saleable product, the output. This is in contrast to how nature works, where matter and substances circulate or flow back and forth. This is why our industrial society creates problems such as pollution, climate change and dead seas. The straight rows of endless monocultures in Mato Grosso are reflected in the aisles of the supermarket and the lanes of the highways full of lorries bringing goods into them and cars transporting food to people’s homes. But the food system is a life support system and should be based on the principles of living systems, not on the perceived efficiency of the industrial model. Linear thinking and linear processes are fundamentally at odds with the cycles of nature and, ultimately, nature still rules.
Efficiency is a one of those misleading words that obscure reality. Nature is not efficient in our limited way of using the word. It is both abundant and contains a lot of redundancy. A tobacco plant can have several hundred thousand seeds, which would be enough to plant a hundred hectares of tobacco. One ejaculation of human sperm could in theory suffice for more than a year of global births. Natural systems have huge buffering capacities which make them resilient. In old times, societies stored grain and other key resources over years to ensure their survival. People often took it rather easy at work, the hours worked were often long, but the pace was slow and saints’ days and festivals were abundant. A cow lived for fifteen or twenty years. Through competition and markets, these kinds of practices are too costly and have become seen as inefficient. The store of global food is just enough for a couple of months; we work hard, in systems that monitor our every movement and the poor cows only usually reach four years before they are sent to slaughter and replaced by younger and more efficient cows. We squander the capital of nature for short term gains. In what sense is this efficient?
In many countries, there is a lack of trust in the food industry’s commitment to providing healthy and sound food and a desire to support local farms. Repeated food scandals and absurd transportation of food adds to this. There are valid concerns for what happens to our food if it is allowed to be fully subject to the logic of the market, where profit and unlimited competition rule. Interestingly, this lack of confidence in the global trading system’s ability to work well for food is widespread and can even be found among countries that are otherwise committed to global free trade. During the food price hike of 2008, several food-importing countries made bilateral agreements with food-producing countries to safeguard their supplies of food. Some went a step further and initiated large-scale projects to produce food in other countries. Some food exporting countries banned exports to ensure that they would have sufficient food for their own population. And, in the wake of the financial crisis, community food production and self-sufficiency is on the increase.
It is no longer very controversial to question the direction our food system has taken. Twenty years ago there were only a few isolated dissenting voices but today competent expert bodies, such as the European Union’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research, and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, clarify that ‘business as usual is not an option’. We simply have to find new ways, whether we want to or not. But we will only be able to find new ways if we understand the factors that determine how we farm, what we grow and what we eat. Most of the mainstream commentaries focus on the technical aspects of food production and farming, such as use of genetically modified organisms and chemical fertilizers, and their benefits and drawbacks. But these technical aspects of farming are only part of the problem, or part of the solution. The food system is a socio-economic system and needs to be viewed as such.
There are three megatrends that have shaped our food system over the lastcenturies: 1) the commercialization of the entire food system, 2) the use of energy and applied technology (be it in the form of machinery or nitrogen fertilizers) to replace animate labor and processes, and 3) demographic changes, such as population growth, demographic transition and urbanization, and the related lifestyle changes. These three megatrends are mutually reinforcing. Any of them alone would not produce the changes that can be observed today. For example, the application of energy and mechanization in farming, in particular the use of fossil fuels, has increased productivity per agriculture worker by between fifty and two hundred times, which meant that the share of population engaged in farming dropped tremendously. The use of nitrogen fertilizers (produced with huge energy investments) has been a major driver for the increase of crop yields per area unit. Without fossil fuels, globalization and massive urbanization could not have happened. And without urbanization there would be little development of markets for agriculture products. Similarly, without commercialization of farming there would be little incentive to mechanize and use chemical fertilizers, as both pre-suppose market driven farming.
The existence of markets in most human societies for some thousand years or longer is not at all the same as the existence of a ‘market economy’ and even less a globalized capitalist market economy. As farmers become integrated into the market economy, they no longer reproduce and regenerate their production system. They buy their seeds and breeds in the market; they feel that they don’t have to take care of the reproduction of the soil, because they can compensate for this by buying chemical fertilizers in sacks. They don’t have to take care of the balance between nature and what humans take away. Land, water and forests have been gradually transformed from commons to tradable commodities. The time perspective of farmers in my native Scandinavia has, until very recently, been intergenerational, some refer it to as ‘glacial time.’ The sustainable regeneration of productive forces, including labor and the knowledge needed, was engraved in the memes of those farming societies. This is in absolute contrast to the entrepreneurial approach farmers are encouraged to apply today. ‘Farming as a business’ is a code word for farming now from Narvik to Cape Town, from Alaska to the Tierra del Fuego and from Vladivostok to Tasmania. The market, initially just a tool for distributing surpluses, has become the conductor of the whole food system, from farm to fork. The commercialization of farming also leads us to view land, water, nature as private property and the life of the land, our symbionts, as commodities. The divide between society, culture, the economy and nature that we currently experience is a divide alien to farming, and can never be sustainable. If the transition from hunting to farming was the First Fall of Man, farming as a business is the Second Fall.
In most human societies the distribution of the most important foods was done outside the market and was strictly regulated. Gifts, taxes, rents, tribute and sharing were important channels for food distribution. We can still see in times of disaster, war or disturbance that societies rapidly shun the market as the main mechanism for distribution, and public or community control over food are the preferred ways of ensuring proper (that means somewhat equal) sharing. Cooking and eating were for a long time mostly social activities done within the household or in the community, with the work being done without pay and for no costs. Gradually, cooking and eating have become commercialized and acquired a total different meaning and role in society. It is this process that is the real tragedy for food, and makes a large contribution to obesity because when food is a commodity its main purpose is to be consumed.
Food production is still not a limiting factor for human expansion. Starvation and malnutrition are symptoms of an unfair and unequal society rather than signs of overpopulation, and should be tackled as such. Access to food should be an inalienable right. This is actually already agreed by world leaders in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An equitable world will have the potential to feed everybody. It will certainly ensure that the food is distributed more fairly among the world’s population. Nevertheless, there are biological limits for food production. The space used for farming cannot be expanded much; however, the yields per area unit can be increased and production systems can be changed to produce more food.
The challenge of feeding a growing population is formidable, but managing the planet’s ecosystem is an even bigger challenge. Considering that farmed landscapes dominate more than half of the terrestrial area of the Earth, and even a bigger share of its biological production, it is clear that the way we farm has an enormous impact on the planet’s ecosystems; that human agricultural ecosystems must be seen as planetary ecosystems. Yet, the food and farming system is increasingly managed by signals from ‘the market’, which do not include the signals from these ecosystems: of the species threatened by extinction and the loss of biodiversity, of pollution and of greenhouse gas emissions. The market signals also don’t include the feelings of the animals brutalized in our service. The system is simply not geared towards stewardship of the planet and living beings but to the maximization of marketable output and profit.
Some efforts are being made to correct this, by payments for environmental services and some regulations on harmful practices, such as animal welfare regulations and the prohibition of particularly lethal pesticides. Overall, these have a minimal impact and are insufficient to encourage farmers and consumers to adopt behaviors that foster planetary stewardship. The Earth is our common home and responsibility and should be managed as such. Markets, in their various forms, are systems developed to organize the distribution of products between humans, and they only partially fulfill that function. There is no reason whatsoever for believing that a market is a good tool for regulating our relationship with the rose, the eagle or the water in the ocean. Instead of trying to squeeze more of the commons into the market, we should re-balance food towards public goods. In this way eco-system services and food production can be balanced within the same framework.
The rethinking of food as a right, of farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons will lead us to develop new institutions that complement the roles of the market and the state. This does not rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribution, but it rejects market hegemony over our food supplies, and the doctrine that market forces are the best way of allocating food-producing resources such as land, water, knowledge and seeds. This sounds very revolutionary. Perhaps it is. But it is not a completely either-or question. Even where market forces prevail, there are many aspects of food and farming which are not left to the vagaries of the market. Food and farming remain, together with energy, labor and housing, one of the most regulated parts of the economy, even before we consider all the cultural norms surrounding them. Even if many of the regulations are unnecessary and many of the subsidies are silly, there are there for a reason; a recognition that the free market doesn’t work. Or rather that it does indeed work as it should, but we don’t like the result of its workings.
We might believe that we chose to eat a certain food, but that is an erroneous starting point for a conversation about which foods we eat and which we should eat. Our palates have been shaped over centuries to like some things and dislike others. The mere difference in local foods and food preferences is proof not of how different from each other we are, but how well we adapt to what is available. For the large part of human existence, we have eaten the stuff that was locally available. If we were Inuit we liked caribou and whale meat and fat, if we were Swedes we liked herring and cheese; Bantu people like cassava and goat stew. Our habits have been dictated by what produce and which food technologies were available. Fermentation, drying, freezing, curing, have all played different roles in different countries. If you lived in the humid tropics, your culture would never developed a prosciutto ham, as the conditions for making the ham do not exist in such a climate. The availability of fats and fuels determine your favorite style of frying or roasting or if you mostly eat food boiled in water.
Today, our food choices are by and large determined by the economy instead of ecology. For sure, when standing in front of a supermarket shelf, or sitting at a table reading a restaurant menu, there are many choices. But before we face all those choices a number of people have made the selection for us to choose from. And they in turn have chosen from other people’s choices. Governments and agri-business are ‘choice architects’ and their decisions shape what consumers can and cannot buy. The modern food system is simultaneously moving towards uniformity and diversity. Globalization gives many people access to many more kinds of foods than before, but at the same time the differences between regional cuisines are diminishing. We are easily duped by the bright colors of marketing messages and wrapping. A supermarket may carry some 50,000 food items, but a very large part of them are variations made out of the ‘Big Five’ – wheat, maize, palm oil, sugar and soybeans – and they are produced by a handful of large companies, which source the raw materials from a few selected key locations.
Cheap food allows people to eat meat, fresh vegetables and fruits all year round, something most people could only dream of a few generations back – and something many people in the world can only still dream of. People live longer, are taller, and are generally healthier than in the agrarian societies of the 18th and 19th centuries. But the current food system has also produced obesity, allergies and other diseases, while at the same time destroying the environment. Food is cheap, too cheap, because we have externalized many of the costs of producing and consuming it. We let someone else – nature, other people, future generations, tax payers – foot the bill for climate change, for the loss of biodiversity, for eutrophication, for nitrates and pesticides in our groundwaters or even for losing the water or the soil altogether. Farmers using nitrogen fertilizers create costs for society at large that are on par with the economic benefits for them. But as long as the cost for this is not included in the cost for food it makes economic sense to use massive amounts of ammonium nitrate than to farm in an organic way. European chickens or Chinese pigs are, to a very large extent, fed soy protein from Latin America, much of it from the Cerrado, the Amazon or the Pampa, landscapes which are razed and raped by agro-business. The extinction of species and the greenhouse gas emissions caused by this are also not included in the price of chicken breast or the pulled pork. We can no longer afford cheap food.
We have to bite the bullet; the food system is not a smorgasbord where we can pick out the bits we like and keep those we don’t like. There is no way to produce good artisanal foods and biologically diverse landscapes for the masses in a containerized, standardized and monopolistic food system. It is hard to see that one can combine animal welfare with the view of animals as commodities, instead we should see them as our symbionts and companions, for which we have responsibility. There are also ample opportunities to produce more foods with regenerative methods, such as organic farming. The ‘problem’, if you so wish, is that it will cost us more in terms of the share of population engaged in food production. This in turn affects how many people can be engaged in producing iPhones and cars and serving us coffee. By and large, I think such a shift will only be good for society, culture and nature.
“We can never do merely one thing” is a basic tenet of ecology ascribed to the ecologist Garret Hardin. It applies not only to ecology but to any system. It is certainly true when we talk about food and farming. Few things are so interconnected with each other and the rest of society and nature. And that is one of the key things I hope readers will get from this book. I hope it will contribute to a deeper understanding of the interactions between farming, food, landscapes, culture and economy. The food system, the farms and what we eat are part of an economic, political, cultural and social system, and without understanding how that system shapes farming and food, efforts to change any of them in a profound way, will be in vain. This is also reflected in the last part of the book where I discuss the way ahead, the alternatives. I don’t offer any silver bullet but advocate a mix of a ‘mice in the basement’ strategy, political action and new ethics.
Often when I hold a lecture the organizers ask me to “give them hope, things they can do here and now to make a difference”. This idea is based on the premise that people are ‘empowered’ by a message that gives them three (or five) points they can take home with them that can make a difference. And as things should be easy and ‘actionable’ it comes down to individual choices. In most cases those choices are about consumption. I always refuse to give those three or five points. Personally, I always buy organic foods and, professionally, I was the founder of one of the most successful organic labeling programs in the world (Krav in Sweden). I do think we have the moral obligation, as consumers, to buy humane, organic or fairly traded goods. But as commendable as it is, this falls blatantly short of changing the rules of the game. Telling consumers that they will change the world or eradicate poverty by shopping is to deceive them.
We need to build new relationships in the food system, new relationships that can gradually take over most of the food system. Those relationships should be based on food and farming as joint common activities. There should not be ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’, but co-production. The farming technologies themselves should also be reoriented to the regeneration of resources, meaning and relationships. Consumption as a separate category should wither and we would cook and eat in harmony with production. There will most likely be markets in the future, but not ‘the market’ that we know today, the globalized market with unlimited competition. Political actions, of many kinds, are needed. Some should be oriented to limit the harm produced by the current system, such as bans on pesticides and harmful practices or reallocating resources. Others should target the development of alternatives. This can range from re-allocating research funds from industrial farming models to regenerative farming, to revising tax codes to stimulate the numbers of people engaged in farming and facilitating emerging new economic relations.
Finally, it is about us as human beings. Are we ready for the great leap into an unknown future, based on new insights and a new balance between matter and soul, between restless improvements and innovation and a simpler life in nature? Do we prefer the sterile and cheap, ready to eat, meal wrapped in plastic from the supermarket over the earthy smells and tastes of nature, combined with more sweat and toil? In the long term I don’t think we have a lot of choice. An increasing scarcity of key resources will make the choice for us. But the ride will be easier if we halt the depletion of resources and of nature and build a regenerative food system now, before we are faced with the possibility of worrying whether we will get any food at all before going to bed.
I will tell the story in four parts. First, the Starters, the history: how agriculture and food developed over millennia. The second part, Primi, has five case studies representing critical parts of our food and farming system. These are grains, grazing animals, sugar, fat and chicken. Taken together, these products represent much of our food system. Third, in Secondi, I dive deeper into many of the complex problems and challenges of the current food system. In the penultimate part, Desserts, I point towards the future. In Digestive, I provide background information on some of the calculations I have made.
You do not have to be a keen reader to understand the points I will make. You can do an experiment at home yourself. Prepare a village chicken and buy a fried industrial chicken. Buy a salad with green house grown, drip-fed tomatoes and lettuce and another with tomatoes and green leaves grown outdoors in real soil, picked when ripe. For the modern meal buy white bread in a plastic bag from the supermarket, for the other one use home baked bread from old cereal varieties. When you eat, close your eyes; think about the history of those foods, where they came from, how they have emerged and how they reached your plate, what they tell. But most of all: how they smell, taste and feel. This will give a sensory experience of what I will try to say. But eating is also a good opportunity for a good conversation, so I hope you will be motivated to invite others to join your experimental meal.
 In this book ’maize’ is used for what in North America mostly is referred to as ’corn’.
 In short, I use the term ‘the market’ to describe ‘the market economy’, ‘the market system’ or ‘the globalized capitalist market built on endless competition’.
 Interestingly enough, food recipes have not (yet) been subject to intellectual property rights – and this certainly doesn’t seem to decrease innovations in cooking.[i] World Instant Noodles Association 2014 ‘Expanding Markets’ http://instantnoodles.org.
[ii] Fabiosa, J. F. 2011. ‘Globalization and food consumption’ in J. L. Lusk, J. Roosen and J. Shogren (Eds) The Oxford Handbook of The Economics of Food Consumption and Policy. Oxford Handbooks in Economics.
[iii] Woody, T. 2010 ‘Recycling Land for Green Energy Ideas’. New York Times, www.nytimes.com.