Modernity and the Responsibility of Eaters

Ricardo J. Salvador

Almost a billion people on the planet—one in eight of us—are hungry. It is meaningless that global food production is sufficient for all of us to eat well (in fact, it is nearly twice the necessary amount) because the fact that food exists doesn’t mean that it is available to all. To understand why, consider this example:

The Republic of the Congo is one of a dozen countries with an extreme incidence of hunger. More than 35 percent of the population is undernourished. The World Food Programme and dozens of charities operate extensive food relief programs in the country. Since hunger results from lack of food, you might suspect that lack of productive capacity, roads and infrastructure explains the nation’s hunger. Now imagine that deep in the swampy heart of that country a massive oil deposit is discovered, and that an oil field is established. Finally, imagine that the CEO of the global corporation extracting this oil visits for a few hours to inspect the firm’s investment, and that this visit occurs around a mealtime. You will have no trouble imagining that this magnate and her entourage will enjoy whatever food they desire, and as much of it as they please, roads or not, and that (to ensure this) much more food than actually necessary will be shipped in for the meal and disposed in its aftermath.

This is the globe’s food reality in a microcosm. We live in times where food is an indicator of economic power. Wherever you see hunger in “modernity,” you will see people with limited economic power. Which explains why in the United States, the world’s largest national economy, more than 50 million people are hungry. They are the nation’s poor. This is one in six of us, and represents a greater rate of hunger than for the world as a whole. It is a hungry population equal to the entire populations of Kenya and Haiti embedded within the US. Clearly they aren’t hungry because there is insufficient food in the US. They are hungry because we have created a modernity where food is not a right, where food is manufactured and delivered through a mighty investment that must be recovered and turn a profit, and where food therefore flows to those with economic power.

This will run counter to the cant you are accustomed to hearing about food in the US, the one about this nation enjoying “the cheapest, safest and most abundant food supply in the world,” and will therefore require explanation. But first, let’s establish the following things about your food choices. They reflect how busy, educated, thoughtful and healthy you are. But ultimately, the range of food choices actually available to you reflects how wealthy and powerful you are. Such a reality is a human creation. Consider that at present, your food choices are not determined primarily by ecology, demographics, or even by whether your region or country is an agricultural powerhouse. For example, South Sudan is a country with enormous agricultural assets. Ninety percent of its area is suitable for agriculture, with 50 percent of it being prime agricultural land, yet nearly 5 million people, primarily rural (almost half the population), are hungry. By contrast, in the desert country of Qatar, where there is scarcely an agricultural acre and the population is mostly urban, hunger is unknown. Where there should be plenty of food and no hunger, there is insufficient food and rampant hunger. And where there should be little food and therefore hunger, there is luxurious consumption. Qatar, in fact, is the fattest nation on Earth, where half the population is obese. The difference is that Qatar is the world’s wealthiest country as measured by gross domestic product per capita ($98,948), whereas South Sudan is among the poorest ($2,134). Wealth and purchasing power trump hunger and biophysics in the wondrous modern food system.

Although individual Americans are on average only about half as wealthy as individual Qataris, 83 percent of us are able to eat as Qataris. That means that for us the principal food choices revolve around what we are in the mood to savor. We can opt for whatever food we desire, whether it is native to our region or not, whether it is in season or not, and whether we have time or the skill to prepare it for ourselves or not. Enabling this is a complex web of global logistics, encompassing mining, production, processing, transportation, packaging, preservation and the service sector. The end result is that food and resources from all corners of the world flow to us, the wealthy and powerful, to be served ready-to-eat in restaurants (where we take half our meals), or to retail grocery outlets where we purchase ready-to-assemble components that we can put on the table at home (for the other half of our meals), usually within five to 20 minutes of having conjured on a whim the particular food we desire.

This system is a deliberate creation, dating at minimum to 1862, and the establishment under President Lincoln of the Department of Agriculture and of the Land Grant system. This network of colleges (now universities) undertook systematic research to understand the biophysics of crops, livestock, soil and climate, and developed the basic and applied knowledge that has boosted agricultural productivity. The formula has been mechanization, specialization and intensification of agricultural processes, overcoming ecological limitations via energy subsidy, paired with commodification of the resulting bounty of basic materials for the processing and manufacture of novel food products. This process coincided with the rise of the petroleum era and the wave of industrialization of the US economy, encompassing the industrialization of agriculture and the food system, including such features as substitution of capital for labor, automation and standardization.

Agricultural industrialization is often represented as an unmitigated triumph of economic development, in that those of us who are its beneficiaries have the luxury of going about our daily concerns without giving much thought to our food: where it is produced, how it is produced and whether there will be enough. So thorough has been the apparent success of this approach that it has spread globally within the past half century. This is lightning speed, particularly remarkable when contrasted against the 10,000-year backdrop of humanity as agriculturists, and is broadly understood to have ushered an era of modernity that freed humanity from drudgery in the fields, unleashing creativity and technological advancement in other areas of human endeavor. Because industrial agriculture seems to have successfully answered the question “How shall we ensure a stable food supply?” most of us, according to this view, needn’t concern ourselves with food or agriculture. It is the natural and expected result that we should therefore be unaware and uninterested in the details of how agriculture is conducted. Why would any who perceive themselves as citizens of a sparkly, successful, highly technological lifestyle care to dwell on how dirt, petroleum, fertilizers and sunshine are fashioned into food?

There is, actually, ample reason for concern: This mode of agriculture can’t go on forever. Or even another century. If we were paying attention, that isn’t something we would even desire. Modern agricultural systems feed some people very well while making others hungry. These systems are not designed to address hunger, but rather to meet “effective demand” for food. These are not the same in modernity. The difference between hunger and economic demand is power. It is not simply a tragic oversight that hunger persists amidst the bounty of the most productive agricultural era the planet has known. This is because these systems function as efficient mechanisms for appropriation and transfer of wealth, in the form of land, water, minerals, energy and labor, leaving in their wake poverty and (perversely) hunger among those unable to compete in the high-stakes global speculative shell game. Further, these agricultural systems degrade the very natural capital that is necessary for them to perform. Finally, as the entire world is discovering, the output of the food machine, predicated on accelerating a perpetual cycle of ever-greater demand and ever-greater productivity while disregarding our actual nutritional needs, pleases our palate and fills our belly but also slowly poisons us.

If a foreign terrorist organization devised a strategy to rob the US of a share of its natural resources, pollute its main sources of fresh water, starve a portion of its population, seed cancer bombs, and limit the capability of the country to feed itself in the future, this would surely be considered a threat to national security of the first order. A vigorous debate about appropriate countermeasures would ensue. Yet even though these are the very threats that the nation (and the globe) now face, very little mainstream conscious reaction has yet to develop. The reason is simple: Those of us who benefit from the system (ranging from eaters to investors with an economic stake) appreciate its undeniable benefits, convenience and comforts. And, as we casually choose from the menu, or rush our cart down aisle four, we carry on with our lives absorbed with our professions and personal pursuits, and do not respond to threats that we cannot see, or which are so complex that we cannot comprehend them.

Any possibility of reshaping the food system and this current state of affairs can only begin with eaters obligating the change. This means we can no longer afford to not pay attention.

In my prior position as Food & Community program officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we sought and supported communities that were designing and experimenting with food system innovations to improve the well-being of their whole communities. Out of the multiple proposals and strategies we examined from social entrepreneurs pursuing this objective, a pattern emerged. Four basic characteristics subtend the food necessary to meet this comprehensive goal. Food should be nourishing and wholesome, in such a way that when eaten over a lifetime it generates health and well-being, rather than chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. It is a damning reflection on industrial food systems that this characteristic of food should even need to be stipulated. Additionally, food that conditions community well-being should be produced without exploiting nature or people. Finally, food should be economically and physically available to all, and not be (as Angela Glover Blackwell has put it best) “precious.” We referred to such food as Good Food, with full claim on the multiple entendres, and to its four essential characteristics in shorthand as: healthful, green, fair and affordable. These four characteristics are not only compatible; there is a food system that can address them simultaneously, and thus generate Good Food.

A Good Food system consists, above all, of people fully aware of and engaged with their food, health and well-being, whether they are eaters or actually involved in some aspect of food production. When this is true, eaters monitor and direct the functioning of their food system. Contrast this to the passive role of a “consumer” in the industrial framing, who is there to buy and to be sold to. After all, how much time can a busy doctor, teacher or factory worker devote to thinking about food, beyond the time and money they have and what they like? This imperative of the industrial system is transparently described in Brian Wansink’s entry in the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink: “Food Marketing brings together the producer and the consumer.” On this definition an entire sector is necessary to persuade and steer consumers in particular purchasing directions and notice who defines choices for whom.

Marketing is, in fact, the largest expenditure of the modern food industry. And how does the industry “compete” to get its consumer to prefer one generic pizza joint over another? Or one generic loaf of bread over the next? The tools of the food marketer are promotional advertising, price and product characteristics. When “the consumer” respond to the coupon campaigns on their Facebook page or in their email, or to the paid testimonials of the charismatic celebrities on their favorite YouTube channels or cable TV, they have been targeted with expensive, finely-tuned algorithms that have analyzed Big Data on their individual shopping and browsing behaviors, so such consumers are therefore responding to marketing budgets. Thinking that they are buying something better, they may be favoring large companies over small or startup enterprises. When the consumers respond to price, they may be supporting companies that do not offer their employees full-time employment to keep operating costs low by avoiding carrying health and retirement programs. And when consumers respond to “product characteristics,” they may be responding to meticulously formulated and tested “food textures” that are deliberate payloads of salt, sugar and fat, in effect buying sensory pleasure today, nutrition (if any) only incidentally, and long-term diet-related chronic disease.

In any case, paying for one thing while “getting” or conditioning other things that one would normally not condone is an archetypal example of not paying attention. The remedy is to stop being a consumer and to become an eater. That simple switch can leverage the tremendous economic power described earlier, redirecting it from a focus on an apparently simple and immediate transaction into a life- and world-transforming force.

An eater can be that same busy doctor, teacher and factory worker, convinced that they aren’t just “consumers” of food, but determinants of their own well-being for the long term, as well as that of others. And well-being is composed of many dimensions, physical and social, including whether there will be a planet worth living on for any of us. This is not an especially novel notion. Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, refers to eaters as “co-creators” of the food system with farmers. Even business lore lionizes the power of “consumer choice” to determine whether companies will be successful. But as long as consumers are content to giddily and passively choose from just among what is offered them, the image of “customer is king” is but a cynical marketing ploy itself. Instead, eaters must specify to the food system the choices they want to make, and the formula of Good Food: healthful, green, fair and affordable is ready to hand, simple to communicate and powerful in its reach. Even so, it would be foolish to believe that the minority of people who today see themselves ready to step up as eaters could successfully challenge the power of billion-dollar enterprises. For one thing, it is problematic at present to glean from food labels whether a food article is truly Good Food. There is too much economic fortune at stake in the infrastructure of the industrial food system, and we have seen in the recent struggle over California’s Proposition 37 that this industry will go to exorbitant lengths to haughtily defend its right to withhold information from its customers about the way their food is produced. The role of consumers is just to buy from the choices offered to them. At present, there is a market for food, but not for healthfulness, sustainable environment and fairness through food. Therefore food marketing is about selling as much food as possible, whether actually needed, healthful, environmentally sustainable, fair or not, for those who can afford it and are not paying attention to how that food materializes in restaurants or grocery stores.

Fortunately, eaters can choose to sidestep this apparently intractable power dynamic. We are learning that whether rich or poor, we are reversing the gains of over a century of sanitation and immunization programs, which extended lifespans and quality of life through the elimination of infectious disease, and we are replacing this with diet-related chronic disease that is foreshortening and reducing the quality of life. The world and its resources are finite; therefore any industry dependent on consumptive use of natural resources will literally exhaust its raw materials. Social scientists, most recently Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, have documented that inequitable societies contract, since lack of investment in the future and in society as a whole is self-limiting. Arguably, the US is currently experiencing the early phases of this phenomenon. The picture that emerges is that the business model of big ag and big food will fail, for all its present power and sway, in direct proportion to its inability to foresee, respond and meet the absolutes of the future. As the world shifts, the industrial food system will ossify in its tracks in a doomed effort to fit reality to the business models of the past. Eaters can accelerate this process by shifting support to the entrepreneurs whose business plans are designed to meet the inarguable demand of the future: food that is healthful, green, fair and affordable.

Here is a vision for a Good Food system: a globally interlocked network of local and regional food systems defined along “foodsheds” bounded by ecological zones and resource flows, that are operated on ecological principles, that are biologically diverse and trade fairly among one another. As we at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others, have documented, such systems would offer more economic opportunities for more people and communities, cycle wealth locally and produce a wide and abundant variety of healthful foods. Value chains would be shorter by design, preserving more value for producers and primary processors, and offering fresher, less refined food. In addition, such systems would be more resilient than the tightly coupled systems of the present, where a disruption or insult at one point of the system propagates rapidly and extensively throughout the system (e.g., E. coli infections) because regional systems are inherently limited in extent. This vision makes it realistic to expect that eaters can effectively monitor and direct the functioning of their food system, since their immediate relationship to the food system would be of a comprehensible and tractable dimension, fleshed out by actual personal and social relationships binding people to one another’s well-being in concrete ways.

There is no reality-based counter to this emerging vision of the necessary contours of the viable food systems of the future, though of course there are predictable red herrings with which to contend. The most laughable of these is the sanctimonious appeal for ever-greater productivity to sate the hunger of the poor. There is already more food produced than necessary for the purpose, yet we see that livestock, biofuel refineries and American trash bins have priority for this food over the hungry. The most effective way to address hunger is to support the self-determination and economic development of the poor. Another common critique of alternatives to the brute force of industrial agriculture is that these would “send us back to the horse era.” First, the undeniable research triumphs that helped establish the industrial system were gained in no small measure because there was investment to generate that knowledge and optimize its application. There is ample indication that investment in learning about agroecological approaches will generate equivalent and vastly untapped knowledge about more sustainable systems. The public institutions that have been appropriated to support the industrial mindset must be recaptured and repurposed to serve the greater public good. Secondly, the more credible probability is that mindless devotion to extractive agriculture will send us all back, past the horse era, all the way to the stone age, when oil, water, soil and minerals are exhausted or degraded without hope for regeneration. Finally, a population of agrobiologically sophisticated farmers, supported by engaged eaters, has much greater chance of creating and sustaining a Good Food future than today’s highly deskilled corporate farmers, who themselves have few viable choices and have been converted into consumers of proprietary technologies that lock them into highly vulnerable and leveraged positions.

Most importantly, the artifact of food accruing to economic power, and hunger being a marker of poverty, must be eliminated. The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a foundational human rights treaty, proclaims in its Article 11 the “fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.” Accordingly, signatory nations agree to apply knowledge and practices to reform “agrarian systems,” and through consideration of trade needs among food exporting and importing nations, to ultimately “ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.” This might mean, broadly, that it is more important to support self-provisioning farmers than to support policies and practices that would convert those same people into landless laborers plying in plantations serving the global industrial system, in such a way creating the poor and hungry that such a system would ostensibly serve, had those laborers but a fair wage to buy what they might better produce for themselves. The US is not a signatory to this Covenant because the Senate has refused to ratify it, due to concerns for protecting American sovereignty and its free market system.

Eaters have a responsibility and the power to create a Good Food system through uncompromising demand. Because the viability of the planet’s natural, economic and social systems is at stake, there is no greater responsibility for eaters in the 21st century.

Ricardo J. Salvador is director and senior scientist of the Food & The Environment Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists.