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Gonzo Gastronomy: How the Food Industry Has Made Bacon a Weapon of Mass Destruction

The confluence of factory farming, the boom in fast food and manipulation of consumer taste created processed foods that can hook us like drugs.

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In essence, the food industry has hit on a magic formula: Companies conjure up endless variations on the McGriddle that itself is the mass-produced version of the maple-syrup-soaked bacon strip from our childhoods. 

This points to why our food system is so entrenched and why noble experiments, from food co-ops and community-supported agriculture to organic food and the locavore movement, are fleas on the industrial food elephant.  

The crisis of factory farming has thus become its own solution. We know our food system is killing the planet, killing us with heart disease, diabetes and cancer and threatens to incubate a deadly global pandemic, but how can we resist when it tastes oh so good? 

How CAFOS Were Created

Our current food system has its roots in the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. With thousands of farming families fleeing the land, the Roosevelt administration dispensed credit and established price supports to stabilize the agricultural sector.

The policy worked, but it inadvertently created large grain surpluses. The problem of surpluses was temporarily alleviated by the demand created by the total mobilization of the nation during World War II. But after the war, the question of what to do with the excess product became more pressing. 

The answer was to dump the surpluses, first on a devastated Europe, then during the Korean War and finally, as "humanitarian aid" to Third World countries. U.S. policy evolved to protect a national export-oriented agricultural sector. 

In the name of national food security, the U.S. government subsidized farmers to produce more food than Americans could eat and to dump that surplus as a weapon in the Cold War. This policy favored economy of scale and technological innovation to increase yields, because managing overproduction was more effective if the farm sector was reduced and subsidies aimed at large-scale monoculture producers rather than farmers who produced a variety of goods or had small plots of land. 

While the U.S. farm population had been shrinking since the late 18th century, when it was 90 percent of the general population, in 1940, on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II, some 18 percent of Americans were still farmers. This would plummet to 4.6 percent of the population by 1970, because small farmers could not compete with government-subsidized agribusiness.

This agricultural system was exported to developing countries and Europe. In exchange for the right to protect large-scale food production, such as cereals, beef, milk and sugar, the European Economic Community agreed to allow in duty-free soy beans for livestock feed in the 1960s.

French farmer and anti-corporate-globalization campaigner Jose Bove notes that the arrival of U.S. soy beans into French ports signaled the start of agricultural industrialization.

Bove explains: "Cheap soya beans are very useful in intensive breeding, because they make it possible to rear herds in small areas of land close to the delivery ports."

The end result, writes sociologist Philip McMichael , was "a policy to reduce the farm population by 90 percent (eliminating, especially, polyculture and subsistence producers), and establish production quotas, hastening monocultures and farm concentration as a survival tactic."

The Livestock Revolution

It is government policy that allowed CAFOs to come into being. Karl Polanyi argued decades ago in "The Great Transformation" that "laissez-faire was planned." In other words, government regulation of land, labor and finance creates the conditions for free-market capitalism to operate. 

The post-WW II period witnessed a series of agricultural revolutions that have been exported around the world, starting in the 1950s with the U.S.-led "Green Revolution" in cereal grains. In the 1970s, the "Livestock Revolution" went global. And the 1980s saw the "Blue Revolution," factory-farming of fish and seafood. Over the past few decades, global meat production has increased by more than 500 percent.