The Grand Food Bargain: Excerpt

February 3, 2020

The Grand Food Bargain coverEd. note: From Grand Food Bargain by Kevin D. Walker. Copyright © 2019 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC. You can find out more about the book here.

Chapter 12: To Lead or Be Led?

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.— Leo Tolstoy

Before Neil Armstrong could take his “one giant leap for mankind,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) needed to confirm that a manned spacecraft could break free of the Earth’s gravitational pull, orbit the Moon, and successfully return home. This was Apollo 8’s mission, and from launch to splashdown, NASA had meticulously planned every minute of flight.

On Christmas Eve 1968, as the spacecraft started circling the Moon, the three men on board became the first humans to see the Moon’s dark side with their own eyes. Per the detailed flight schedule, the crew would orbit the lunar surface nine more times before starting the long journey back. But just as Apollo 8 emerged from the Moon’s far side the fourth time, still outside radio contact with mission control, Commander Frank Borman unexpectedly noticed something not written down on the flight schedule—the Earth rising above the Moon’s horizon.[i]

Instantly, the men scrambled for cameras and color film to take pictures through a still-clear window before the moment and image were lost forever. The most famous photo they took is called “Earthrise.” In the foreground is the craggy, black-and-white lunar surface. In the background, surrounded by total darkness, is a round, bluish globe covered with swirls of white—quite miniature compared to the Moon. As astronaut Bill Anders later retold the moment: “We could see a very fragile-looking Earth, a very delicate-looking Earth. I was immediately almost overcome by the thought that here we came all the way to the Moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet, the Earth.”[ii]

The images of Earth captured by the Apollo 8 astronauts were not the first taken from space. Unmanned lunar probes and communication satellites had come before. But this occasion was different. Instead of impersonal circuitry and mechanical technology, three warm-blooded humans had boldly left the safety of Earth, traveled beyond its gravitational reach, and snapped the pictures. The vivid appearance of our planet, providing the only color in an otherwise black expanse of space, had been there all along.

From 240,000 miles away, “Earthrise” portrayed the precariousness of our own existence. As historian Robert Poole later wrote, “Looking back, it is possible to see that ‘Earthrise’ marked the tipping point, the moment when the sense of space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it meant for Earth.”[iii]

This awakening spread worldwide; people began to see the Earth as a living dynamic organism. Words like stewardship and sustainability became meaningful. Looking after the planet’s resources and environment took on importance. Life magazine declared, “Suddenly we are all conservationists.”[iv] For a brief time, people caught a glimpse of how their own lives, those of other living beings, and a solitary planet were inextricably bound together.

For me, the tipping point came not from space but deep in the Kalahari Desert, though I would not realize its full impact until later. On that warm, sunny day when Paul and I accompanied a single Bushman in search of food, I saw that he had free rein to act with impunity. Had he acquiesced to our urging and carried back all of the eggs, he would have reinforced our Westernized beliefs; my memories of that day would have melted away and the event would have been forgotten. Instead, his behavior caught us off guard, teaching us what it meant to lead and not be led.

His actions transcended our understanding, limited as it was by our reliance on the modern food system. America’s grand food bargain, begun in the nineteenth century, had maintained its lock on how we perceive our world well into the twenty-first. This insight was the missing piece I had been looking for—a glimpse of the fact that changes to the environment, brought about by humans’ drive for food, still shape who we are and how we live. For the Bushman, ensuring harmony with the Kalahari forged who he was. For his people to survive some two thousand years in this desolate land, where we might have easily perished if left alone, they had to recognize the contribution of other living beings and care for the environment and its limited resources.

Americans, by contrast, live with the illusion of infinity. The story of how this came to be has two parts. The first was humankind’s long passage to farming. The second, much more recent, was the transition to becoming a nation of consumers. As farmers, our lives were still subservient to food. As consumers, food became subservient to us.

It has been said that how we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on well-being than any other human activity.[v] Indeed, until the grand food bargain came along, limits to food were an unchallenged fact of life. Coping with the scarcity of food structured daily living around the natural rhythms of seasons, plants, and animals. In geologic time, the transition from food scarcity to abundance was like flicking on a light switch.

The result is arguably the pinnacle of human accomplishment. What stands out is how food became readily available, more so than at any point in human history. What is less apparent, but more important, is how this growing glut of food has skewed our understanding of our surroundings and our perceptions of control.

Such an outlook started early. Colonial settlers, even while struggling to produce enough food, saw limitless bounties for the taking. To all appearances, America had won the resource lottery, inheriting unprecedented levels of ideal farmland and fresh water, not to mention a favorable climate. The sense of endless abundance only grew as the discovery of rich reserves of liquid fossil fuels intensified food production. There seemed to be no end to how much could be produced. Why would we bother to conserve resources when we could simply extract and consume more?

Today, the modern food system accommodates our schedules, not to mention our personal tastes. Convenience has been critical in reengineering our understanding. Food is no longer the means for society’s survival, but instead a source of personal pleasure and expression of individual freedom and uniqueness. As food became ever more readily available, the easier it was to believe that we deserved more while being free of responsibilities—and the simpler it became to ignore the forces that made abundance possible.

Food producers have profited immeasurably from the new mindset of satisfying individual desires. So while people have been busy exploring their own wants, the modern food system keeps coming up with novel ways to infuse more calories while still delivering greater convenience. As the United States settled into being a nation of non-farmers, and food became a matter of personal preference, we assumed that this reshaping of society was neutral.

Yet food’s effect on society was never neutral. Ramping up conveniences intensified food’s broad reach over peoples’ lives. The food system was shaping everything from consumer beliefs that yogurt improved health and digestion to advancing US interests abroad through more food aid. My recognition of food’s influence was reinforced by Bernie Sanders—not the politician from Vermont, but the director of my department at Farmland Industries. A major reason for my joining Farmland had been their advanced analytical computing platform. The man behind it was Dr. Sanders, who, ironically, never used a computer.

Even more than his business acumen, I valued his insights about food and agriculture, often drawn from history. During one conversation, he talked about how food can be used as a means of control. A long-standing practice of the former Soviet Union was keeping prices of staple foods like bread artificially low, which indirectly tempered citizens’ response to malfeasance on the part of its Communist leaders. Another example was when President Richard Nixon instructed the secretary of agriculture to make sure that food prices remained low, thus ensuring that food did not become a hot-button issue when reelection time rolled around. Today’s continuation of farm subsidies, despite perpetual food surplus, stems from politicians’ adept leveraging of the power of food.

In the name of food, wars have been launched, lands conquered, people enslaved, and freedoms lost. In 2011, rising food prices in Tunisia ignited demonstrations that spread to other countries in the region—what we know as the “Arab Spring.” One country was Egypt, where artificially low prices had made bread an important part of their diet. When grain prices spiked in 2007–2008, and bread prices rose by 37 percent, the Egyptian government, the world’s largest importer of wheat, did nothing.[vi] Its nonresponse amplified levels of hunger and helped catalyze revolt. Mass protests and the overthrow of the government followed.

When food is scarce, a cycle of unrest, protests, and instability follow. The use of lethal force to suppress a country’s citizens—or even all-out civil war—is not uncommon. Such a cycle resulting from a scarcity of food is well recognized, but an overabundance of food has its own cycle, though it plays out on a longer time frame. America is in the midst of this cycle. We can see it happening already in the exploitation of finite resources, the disappearance of prime farmland and fossil water, the loss of governance and social norms, the erosion of public support to sustain sound science, and the unquestioned faith we put in markets.

The power of food is also evident at the individual level. I first saw it on display in my own backyard, over years of feeding cattle. Except for their first few weeks following their birth, I was present their entire lives. While some were docile, others were precocious, ready to break away at any opportunity. Each brought to the herd their own vibe, which together created a unique group identity. Yet despite differences in individual behavior, each morning and evening they all awaited food.

So twice each day, I trekked out to the barn. As they watched me walk up the lane, many stuck their heads through the feeding stalls in anticipation. A few signaled their impatience by bellowing. As I broke open fresh bales of hay and shoveled out much-desired fermented silage and milled grain, they settled in. As long as they had plenty to eat, they were under my control. Snow, cold, rain, or heat had no bearing.

As the months rolled by, they put on weight and filled out. When my father told me the date when the livestock truck would come, they were oblivious to what lay ahead. In their world, everything was as it should be. As the day drew near, I obliged them with as much food as they wanted. I also spent more time observing each while doing chores, locking away mental images of their presence.

The morning it happened began like any other. As I walked to the barn, they stuck their heads into the feeding stalls and prepared to eat. But this time I did not break open bales of hay or scoop out silage. Adjacent to the stalls was a loading chute, which had been there their entire lives. Backed up to it was the livestock carrier with its gates opened. As I looked at the cattle, they peered back at me, still waiting to be fed.

But instead of food, I pushed their heads out of the stalls while my father and brother surrounded them and herded them towards the loading chute. Confused and scared, a few searched for an opening to escape. But when the first one scampered up the loading ramp and into the truck, the others followed. While the driver closed the gates and secured his load, they huddled together in unfamiliar surroundings. As the truck slowly drove away, some stared back at me. This was the day they never could have seen coming. The abundance of food had ended the night before. Each time a load of cattle was dispatched to the slaughterhouse, similar sentiments of melancholy followed—as I knew that for them, this was the end of the line.

With the impersonal modern food system we support, cattle are there to fulfill a specific purpose—to transform energy that plants had previously captured from the Sun. On the farm, we harvested and fed this energy to them; they in turn, converted and stored it as meat—muscle and fat. When consumers enter the supermarket and stop in the meat department, that muscle and fat is waiting for them in various cuts of meat and packages of ground beef.

At times, I have wondered: does the modern food system exist to serve consumers, or do consumers exist to serve the modern food system? Without people, the system is incomplete. The energy that begins with the Sun and is passed through plants and then into animals still needs to be converted into dollars. Plants have done their part. Animals have done their part. What remains is up to individual human consumers.

Through price and persuasion, the modern food system recruits each of us to carry out this final step that transforms food calories into money. The more calories we take in, the more money flows back to the food system. From the dollars-and-cents vantage point of the modern food system, what happens to consumers afterwards is no more important than the fate of cattle destined for slaughter.

So long as people accept being just another step in a food system that transforms energy into somebody else’s money, the power of the system over us grows, and our resilience to resist erodes. In extreme cases, food becomes a crutch, an opiate we use to endure desperate and unfulfilling lives. In his book The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell chronicled the coal-mining region of northern England during the depression times of the 1930s. Miners and their families lived on sugared tea, white bread and margarine, tins of fatty beef and potatoes. Dentists remarked that people over thirty who still had teeth were becoming an anomaly. Observers commented that the local diet made no sense when wholesome food would have served the community far better. Yet none of this mattered. These people had set up their relationship to food to provide them with “cheap luxuries.”[vii]

Closer to home, a while back I visited with a family I have known for years. The parents asked about my recent projects, so I shared some thoughts about how, on our part, we have conformed our lives to the modern food system, forfeiting our understanding of the connections between food, life, and the environment.

The topic piqued the interest of their older children, who joined in and asked questions. No, building more dams did not increase the amount of water on a finite planet. Yes, boosting the yields of crops such as corn has relied on consuming more land, depleting reserves of underground water, and short-circuiting the Earth’s natural nitrogen cycle. Yes, intensive food production requires additional water, which comes from drilling more wells and depleting existing aquifers, setting the stage for future shortages and land collapsing (subsidence).

More meat production has relied on the wide use of antimicrobials in concentrated animal-feeding operations. In return, as pathogen resistance in the environment increases, fewer treatment options for infection are available for humans. A similar pattern can be seen in expansive fields of monoculture crops. Constant application of the same chemicals increases resistance in pests such as weeds, spawning a vicious, unending cycle of applying more and more chemicals.

To increase profitability while compensating for differences in geography and climate, as well as labor expenses, more liquid fossil fuels are burned to ship and process foods and ingredients across the country and around the world. In return, unburned carbon is spewed into the atmosphere, where it further increases the susceptibility of plants to stress and disease. The same is occurring with water supplies, where excess animal waste and fertilizer runoff are destroying food habitat and polluting sources of drinking water.

As I explained how our acceding to the modern food system is kicking environmental problems down the road for future generations to deal with, I touched on how their lives and their children’s lives will be different from ours. After hearing all this, the father let out a hearty laugh, and with a broad smile wished his kids the best, relieved by the thought that he would not be alive to face such consequences!

He was right. A lot of us will not be around—in person, that is. But our legacy will be, through the genes we’ve passed along to our offspring, the culture we’ve created, and the environment we’ve left behind. Looking at life generationally reinforces that we live in unprecedented times. Never before have anchors like food, culture, social norms, the environment, and factual understanding changed so quickly.

Carl Sagan said it best when, in 1995, he wrote,

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time―when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.[viii]

I fear that time has come. While I was writing this book when I asked individuals about their connection to food, some offered valuable insights, but many others questioned why I had chosen a topic that does not need fixing. For them, buying food when the urge strikes has become as natural as turning on a tap and filling a glass with water when they’re thirsty.

Consumerism helps explain this attitude; it is the product of an artificial environment that we invented. The result has diminished our will to ask ourselves what is happening, or knowledgeably question and challenge those in authority. As the trend continues, we lose the ability to distinguish between what feels good and what is true. In the consumerist food world, abundance rules. Scarcity is an artifact of the past. And what were once conveniences have become nonnegotiable necessities.

This way of living tricks us into thinking that food will always be abundant. Everyone can have as much food as they like—so long as they bring money. The drawdown of finite resources is inconsequential. Government subsidies are free. Technology can overcome any obstacle. Markets are omniscient.

We got to this point by always wanting more and never questioning where more was leading us. A mindless drive for efficiency became the endgame where bigger was always better because food was being produced more efficiently. When efficiency became the goal, little else mattered. Extracting more resources took priority. Chemicals and antimicrobials were necessary to temporarily subdue nature. People were replaced by technology; those who remained were reduced to menial labor. Science, subsidies, and markets were methodically aligned to reward self-interest.

So how do we foster a different reality? It begins with greater awareness, followed by appreciation, and then increased understanding. The “Earthrise” photo gave humanity renewed perspective, reminding all of us that we and everything surrounding us are packed together on a lone planet hurling through space at nearly 67,000 miles per hour, while spinning at some 1,000 miles per hour.[ix] A circling Moon stabilizes the Earth’s axis, tempering extreme weather and making life habitable. The food that results is only possible because of Earth and its planetary orbit relative to the Sun. Five percent nearer or 15 percent farther away, and life and food as we know it could no longer exist.[x] How marvelous and out of this world is that!

Our planet’s trajectory also serves up different climates and seasons, the perfect backdrop to witness its harmonious interplay with the biology of nature. From freezing, snowy winters emerge the sweet smells and pastel colors of fruit-tree blossoms. A few short weeks later, what were seemingly cold, lifeless trunks and branches pointing skyward are now balls of vibrant life. As orchards come into full bloom, they beckon honeybees and other creations of nature to join in.

From this wonderland come fruits and vegetables that end up on grocery-store shelves and home kitchens. If we take the time to look closer, the simple banana is no longer a utilitarian source of calories but a biological marvel whose changing color is the perfect indicator of ripeness. Such marvels are not confined to bananas. Thick outer rinds protect the juicy cores of watermelons. Pliable skins of oranges and grapefruit keep microscopic invaders out while allowing the fruit inside to grow and mature. All are reminders of how nature protects our food supply. Yet nature is doing more.

If you can, instead of buying already shelled tree nuts, make the effort to crack open some walnuts or pecans. Take a moment to notice how the seed’s hard shell accommodates the next generation of life inside. Or examine how kernels of wheat come with a built-in food source that bridges time until the Sun’s rays and photosynthesis can take over and sustain the next generation.

Before plunging a fork into the next plateful of food, pause to admire the array of colors on display. Ask yourself how each ended up on your dinner table. Think about the journey that each one has traveled—how they competed for life, evolved to ward off predators, and adapted to changes in climate and temperature.

Take a moment to give thanks for an environment that nourishes and sustains your life. Consider the contributions of innumerable forces of energy that go unnoticed. The water that transports and filters nutrients through layers of sediment. The soil with microbes too numerous to count yet too essential to live without. And the millions of other species, each with its own unique fingerprint, that fulfill important niches in the grand tapestry of nature, without which we would not be here. Before that first bite, pause to contemplate how nightfall, sunshine, changing temperatures, and climate work in concert to support food production while providing you with a rhythm of life and a sense of normalcy.

As you eat, honor your food and the habitat it was harvested from by being more appreciative and less wasteful. Try to move beyond piling on additional salt, sugar, and fat, and feel the contributions of each food with its own texture, flavor, presentation, and color. Be mindful of the gift of each to not only provide pleasure but contribute to your health—not just from this meal but from future meals in the next month, the next decade—indeed, your entire lifetime.

Also, consider the number of human hands you will never see that came in contact with the food before you. Ponder what their lives are like as they walk up and down fields, bending over to cut heads of lettuce, climb up and down ladders to pick fruit, or carry out the same repetitive movements over and over in slaughterhouses and processing plants as their wrists throb with pain.

While enjoying your food, consider the uniqueness of this particular moment in time as it marks the history of humankind. Contemplate how your arrival on Earth fell within the .01 percent micro-slice of the Earth’s history since humans first roamed the planet. Reflect on the 99.99 percent of humanity who came before you and how their entire time on Earth centered on securing enough food, while you spend your time worrying about putting on extra weight and how to lose it through exercise. For them, not having enough food was a fact of life. Taking food for granted was never an option. You, on the other hand, have the option to choose and act differently.

As you are contemplating your options, consider that you are the beneficiary of choices made by unknown relatives you will never meet. Think about what life would be like as a hunter and gatherer. Imagine yourself traveling the savannah plains of Africa following a season of plentiful rains. Off in the distance, you notice tall grass rustling. Your mind instantly registers the swaying stalks with other clues like pockets of wind swirls, unusual sounds of nature, recent tracks of predators, the location of the Sun along the horizon. As your hair stands up on the back of your neck, you stop.

Your survival and that of future generations hinges on your next move. Do the signs you just observed point to much-sought-after food, or are you about to become another creature’s source of food? Did the rustling grass come from a momentary gust of wind, a lion on the prowl, or a game animal primed with fresh meat? The grass stalks are now still. Your memory of what you observed is elusive, making it hard to be sure. This is a time of day when lions are known to hunt. But it is also the time when game animals forage.

Your intuition tells you that encountering a lion is unlikely. Yet being wrong could mean the end of your life. Your choices are to advance forward, or retreat and detour around. Backtracking is safer, but requires more time and effort, and you are forgoing an opportunity to take down much-needed food. Which option do you choose?

You are the product of choices like these, when risk was pitted against reward and life hung in the balance. But you are different. You no longer have to make such choices. The “savannahs” we face have become supermarkets and restaurants. Unlike our antecedents, we have the benefit of history. We can make choices that they could not.

To guide our decisions, we possess more scientific knowledge and understanding of how intricately food, life, and nature are linked than any generation of people that ever lived on this planet. We know more about nutrition, health, and acute and chronic illness related to food than ever before. We can recognize the fragility of resources. We know the reality of how we can alter nature and the environment—but we cannot dictate what will happen afterwards.

Compared to all those who came before us, we have everything stacked in our favor. Moreover, as humans, we possess something else that has eluded all other living beings from the beginning of time—the ability to contemplate what the future might be, based on what we do in the present. Unlike other creatures that have evolved and automatically respond to predator threats or changes in weather or events in the immediate future, our ability goes further, can be a conscious one, built from supreme cognitive abilities, understanding, and meaningful reflection.

Each time my thoughts return to life on the farm—planting and harvesting crops and feeding cattle—I have come to believe that this one ability—to exercise foresight—is what sets us apart from all other species. While other species can react, we can consciously act. So what has happened to us that refining this ability no longer seems necessary? As the grand food bargain made it easier to pleasure ourselves with food we desired on our terms, our skills to peer into the future, see what was happening, and change how we lived diminished accordingly. The assumption of perpetual food abundance stepped in to replace it. The pursuit of food that had honed our foresight had dulled. Our lives no longer depended on it. Ready food availability became someone else’s problem, not ours. The gift of food scarcity—to not take food for granted—was squandered.

While we do not always learn from the past, we are always bound by the future. Though the food-related decisions we make seldom carry the immediate life-or-death consequences of an earlier era, they still live on in the lives of those who follow us. This outlook is molded into our trajectory as the human race. The best side of humanity points the way forward when we first seek to understand, and then turn understanding into knowledge. From knowledge comes wisdom that guides individual actions. From individual actions emerge norms around acceptable behavior that enable societies to flourish.

This modus operandi puts into practice what it means to lead and not be led. At the core of the modern food system are individual behaviors, which collectively shape our America. Early in researching this book, I came across The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by Dr. David Kessler. After observing the growing obesity epidemic and how people—including himself—struggle with food and weight loss their entire lives, Kessler set out to uncover answers. As he put it, “I have lost weight, gained it back, and lost it again—over and over and over.”[xi] In short, succinct chapters, he detailed how the modern food system is designed to stimulate reward pathways in the brain, conditioning people to crave more.

As I read each chapter, I anxiously awaited his recommendations. After all, Kessler was the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s, serving under both Republican and Democratic administrations. During his tenure, FDA undertook several high-profile initiatives, including nutrition labeling of food, approval of AIDS drugs, and regulation of the tobacco industry. Kessler was never shy about pushing the boundaries of public health and marshaling all of FDA’s powers in doing so.

In his last chapters, I expected specific strategies for quashing powerful self-serving interest groups and redirecting government to serve society’s collective interests. Instead, he emphasized how the power of government is subservient to what people are no longer willing to accept as reasonable behavior. Governments do not lead, they follow. The power to change does not reside with self-serving legislators and profit-driven businesses. As he describes it, “the greatest power rests in our ability to change the definition of reasonable behavior.”[xii]

Indeed, what we individually determine to be reasonable behavior is the primary catalyst for collective change. A current example is the consumption of sugary soft drinks. As people have realized that the constant anxiety of battling weight gain from consuming too many calories at every turn was too much, individual expectations of reasonable behavior changed—as did soft drink consumption. Year by year, sales of soda in the United States have been declining for over a decade.[xiii]

As people link acute and chronic health and degradation of the environment to the forces driving the modern food system, an opportunity presents itself to reset what are reasonable behaviors. The same holds true for government policies that subsidize high levels of sugar, fat, and salt; the morass of food labels and health claims that trade away personal health for higher profits; or how politicians and businesses leverage the hunger of the most vulnerable to skirt around structural and economic inequities.

To lead begins with recognizing that food abundance, nutrition, and nature do not operate in different universes, and that treating them as such does not serve us well. To lead does not pretend that prime farmland, fresh water, and liquid fossil fuel are not closely tied to environmental consequences; that opportunity and independence for farmers are not coupled to competitive market conditions; or that science and technology can perpetually outmaneuver microbial resistance in pests and pathogens.

To lead is to challenge what the modern food system puts forward as serving our best interests, and to refuse to succumb to what others define as reasonable behavior on our behalf. By understanding the forces that drive the modern food system, we can see through the pretense that increasing meat-processing-line speeds, and handing over more food-safety responsibility to the same companies, will somehow cause foodborne disease outbreaks and acute illness to subside.

To lead is to not accept as unavoidable the multitude of pesticide residues found on foods like apples, apple sauces, blueberries, grapes, green beans, leafy greens, pears, peaches, potatoes, plums, spinach, strawberries, raisins, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and winter squashes. To lead is to recognize how foods like apple juice, avocados, bananas, beans, broccoli, cabbages, cantaloupes, carrots, cauliflower, celery, corn, eggplants, grapefruits, lentils, lettuce, onions, oranges, orange juice, peas, prunes, summer squashes, sweet potatoes, tofu, tomato sauces, and zucchini are being produced with far fewer residues—and sometimes none at all.[xiv]

For more than two million years, the human race was driven to conquer and replace food scarcity with ready food availability. Perhaps more so than any other country, America first showed how it was possible. By 1880, scarcity of food was behind us: a new society of consumers had supplanted a nation of farmers. Sadly, since then, Americans have also shown our inability to live with abundance. From having turned scarcity into abundance, we converted abundance into glut, glut into waste and now waste into gutting the resources that made abundance possible. The path we are on is coming full circle, one individual decision at a time.

We have had our way with food long enough to build up resistance to any messages suggesting that individual actions still lead to collective outcomes. It has become summarily easy to fault the modern food system for all that is happening. It is not so much what the modern food system is doing to our health, natural resources, nature, and the environment, but what we are doing with the modern food system. More than anything else, this is the message I have wanted to convey with the examples of my own foibles and experiences, as well as those of others.

From experience comes reflection and occasional nuggets of insight. The most important for me is how food has been our greatest teacher. Through food we learned how well-being and finite resources were intertwined. How more nutrition advanced intellectual capacity and our ability to tame physical scarcity. How our survival relies on millions of other species we never see, not just the few we put into our mouths. Through food we could also learn how harmony with the environment is far more important than our attempts to control it.

Because of food we learned how to cooperate with each other and live in communities. We learned social norms and basic expectations of decency. We learned how to work toward shared interests. And as a result, we discovered that collective well-being provides optimal ways to satisfy individual needs.

Food was our teacher in understanding the world around us. From what we learned we developed powers of observation as well as abilities to acquire more knowledge by separating personal beliefs and biases from bona fide evidence. From food we learned how to unlock the mysteries of nature, thereby making more food possible.

From our relationship with food came America’s vision of prosperity. Food opened a new way of life and an economy built on opportunity that left behind a long global history of subsistence. From food came the ethics of work, perseverance, and personal responsibility. The meteoric rise in the human population since the nineteenth century, and the standards of living we’ve come to take for granted, all trace back to food.

Looking ahead, our well-being—as individuals, as a nation, and as a world—depends far less on the newest and greatest novel technology and far more on whether we can recapture this relationship to food. The most important question we can ask ourselves is: Are we still willing to learn from food—and to lead accordingly?

Chapter 12 Notes

[i]. Robert Poole, Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

[ii]. Ibid., 2.

[iii]. Ibid., 8.

[iv]. Ibid., 155.

[v]. Mark Bittman et al., “How a National Food Policy Could Save Millions of American Lives,” Washington Post, November 7, 2014,; Malden Nesheim et al., Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2015), Overview Description,

[vi]. Rami Zurayk, “Use Your Loaf: Why Food Prices Were Crucial in the Arab Spring,” The Guardian, July 16, 2011,

[vii]. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (New York: Mariner Books, 1972), chaps. 5 & 6.

[viii]. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 28.

[ix]. “What Is the Speed of the Earth’s Rotation?” Ask the Space Scientist, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, accessed March 19, 2018,; Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), chap. 2, fn. 2.

[x]. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (New York: Broadway Books 2003), 247; Michael Hart, “The Evolution of the Atmosphere of the Earth,” Icarus 33 (1978): 23–39,; Michael Hart, “Habitable Zones about Main Sequence Stars,” Icarus 37, no. 1 (January 1979): 351–57, For more information, see: Christopher Palma, “The Habitable Zone,” Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Penn State University,; Sid Perkins, “Earth Is Only Just within the Sun’s Habitable Zone,” Nature, December 11, 2013,

[xi]. David Kessler, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (New York: Rodale, 2009), 250.

[xii]. Ibid., 248–49.

[xiii]. “U.S. Soda Sales Drops for 12th Straight Year: Trade Publication,” Reuters, April 19, 2017,

[xiv]. Sonya Lunder, “EWG’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” Environmental Working Group, April 10, 2018,

Kevin D. Walker

Kevin Walker is a professor at Michigan State University. Originally recruited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Walker directed a center focused on emerging issues affecting animal agriculture. He later became a Fellow with the Kellogg National Leadership Program and launched the Executive Leadership in Food Safety initiative where he proposed and developed a flagship training course with the World Trade Organization. He has also served on two Institute of Medicine National Research Council committees within the National Academies.

Tags: building resilient food systems, industrial food system