Perhaps nothing impacted our food supply as much as the Industrial Revolution, a period from the 18th century to the 19th century that jolted agriculture. Up to that point, most people farmed and raised food for their family and farm consumption only, not for people outside of their locale. The Industrial Revolution changed all that.
First off, during the Industrial Revolution, animal power and human labor on the farms were almost completely replaced with mechanical means of farming. People were flocking to cities to work in booming industrial centers as factory workers, and they had to be fed. Advances in agriculture like farm implements made of metal and the enclosure movement were seen. The enclosure movement in 18th century England was significant because it allowed wealthy farmers to buy up small farmers’ land. This concentrated the ownership of the land into the hands of a few, making it possible to do more farming with fewer people and allowing them to benefit financially from doing farming on a huge scale. Interestingly, it smacks of our modern-day agribusiness.
Additionally, improved techniques and practices, focused livestock breeding, insect control, improved irrigation and development of new crops made it possible for fewer farms to feed more and more people, including those in the cities. By providing enough food to sustain the workforce, the economy and industries could flourish—but it came at a cost.
We’ve never been able to get back to being closely tied to our food.
Then there’s the problem of getting that food from where it’s grown to where it is used. The Industrial Revolution brought increased food production, but the increase in urbanization necessitated that food be transported long distances from producers to consumers. In fact, between the years of 1800 and 1900, the population of New York City multiplied 80 times, which means that the need for food multiplied that much, too. The rapid increase of city populations meant that the food industry had to keep up with demand. Not surprisingly, the Industrial Revolution also marked a time when foods were first adulterated with questionable fillers to keep pace with growing needs.
Additionally, fossil fuels became increasingly important in the food supply during the Industrial Revolution. They were used in fertilizers and pesticides, to power the machinery that cultivates the fields, harvests the crops and processes them, and to transport food to the consumer. By the 1850s, the railway system sped up food deliveries to those in the cities, while the advent of canned foods and pasteurization allowed mass-produced foods to last while being transported across the country.
Unquestionably, the Industrial Revolution catapulted us far away from our food origins, but the 20th century provided a further disconnect between people and their food. In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. By 1930, that figure dropped to about 21 percent, only to be followed in 1945 by a mere 16 percent. In 1970, only 4 percent of those employed worked in agriculture, and in 2000, not even 2 percent worked in agriculture. The numbers have gone down since then.
Fewer farms—mostly large-scale agribusiness farms—provide food for our nation and other nations, while family farms are forced out of business. According to Farm Aid, every week 330 farmers leave their land, and of the two million or so remaining farms in the U.S., only about 565,000 are family operations. The rest are mainly large agribusinesses. In fact, between 1974 and 2002, the number of corporate-owned U.S. farms increased by more than 46 percent.
Likewise, large and corporate farms account for 96 percent of all poultry production, while 80 to 90 percent of grain-fed cattle production occurs in less than 5 percent of the nation’s feedlots. That’s a giant leap between people and their food. We’ve become totally dependent on others for food, and we’ve not been self-sufficient in our food supply since the late 1700s. We largely depend on grocery stores, but they have enough food on hand to last only 72 hours—three days or nine meals.
Likewise, our food is still largely dependent on oil. That includes everything from fertilizers, farming equipment, processing, manufacturing, packaging, transport and more. In fact, about 95 percent of all the food we eat in the world today is oil-dependent. For example, farming a single conventional cow and delivering it to market requires about six barrels of oil, which is enough to drive a car from New York to Los Angeles. That’s not all. The feed pellets generally fed to conventional cows are made up of ingredients that originated in six different countries—a long way for cow feed to travel.
Speaking of which, did you know that our food travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles before it gets to our kitchen tables? Additionally, there are numerous “go betweens” like producers, packagers, shippers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers before it reaches your home sweet home.
You see? We really are distanced from our food, but it’s time to reconnect. Shop your local farmer’s market, get rid of the middle man and do whatever it takes to stop the dietary disconnect.