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Corn, Politics and Obesity: Toward a Post –Industrial Food System (with assistance from Paul Hutchinson)


In an earlier post, I suggested that the problem with our schools is a culture lag between a system formed in the transition between a pre-industrial and industrial economy and the needs of the post-industrial, knowledge era. Picking up on this month’s CAS theme of food as a system, a similar argument can be made. Our current food system represents the industrialization of food. The adverse side effects of this system include an increasingly unhealthy population, an epidemic of diabetes, and growing disparities of access to healthy food between rich and poor. We need a food system that is consistent with the needs of the post-industrial, knowledge era, including greater access to current knowledge about healthy eating, greater individual incentives to support changes in eating behavior, and greater economic incentives to support the transition the food industry needs to make toward supporting healthy eating while also providing for economic security and stability for those involved in this industry as well as the larger society.
The industrialization of food is as old as the industrial era itself, but has accelerated since the early 1970’s. By “industrialization,” we mean the ability for a society to mass produce food, resulting in standardization, ease of production, and ease of consumption across large distances and areas. The rise of fast food is an example of this, starting with drive-ins in the 1950s, expanding with the rise of McDonald’s in the 1960’s, and continuing with the many fast food hamburger and pizza restaurants available today. Modeled on the industrial-era assembly line, fast food restaurants pride themselves on offering fast service and standard meals at any location. Economically, fast food chains are more predictable than traditional restaurants in terms of supply and demand, revenue projections, and profit margin. The trend toward fast food is mirrored in the growth of standardized foods in grocery stores, including national brands of cereal, cookies, bread, and other products which can be produced in large quantities, stored for long periods of time, and sold at reliable profit margins.
What caused this acceleration of the industrialization of food? Several factors contributed, including cultural trends toward “fast” food rather than sit-down meals, new technologies for the storage and production of mass-produced food, and the growth of long-distance trucking supported by the development of the national highway system after World War II. That said, a crucial though relatively little-known factor was government policy. In the early 1970’s Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon, proposed significant changes in the government’s farm subsidy policy. In brief, these changes rewarded farmers for the mass production of corn, a staple crop for fast food and standardized food available in grocery stores. Butz’ intent was to provide farmers with a cash crop which was immune to seasonal fluctuations in crop yield, and also to drive down the overall price of food. Both aims were met; the price of food has declined significantly since then, relative to purchasing power and inflation. But in the bargain, we became a nation that relies on fast food and the mass production of food for our daily diet.
As Michael Pollan notes, the U.S. government has been in the business of making policy that affects farmers and food production since the early days of the Republic. For most of that time, policy was directed toward maintaining price stability and striking a balance between overproduction and lack of production. During the Depression, for instance, the U.S.D.A. made loans to farmers when prices fell below a target price and maintained a granary in reserve from which it made sales when prices spiked. The result was keeping prices within a range which protected both farmers and consumers. Why did Nixon and Butz replace this kind of policy with direct price supports? Pollan thinks it was because of politics: “(When) news of Nixon’s 1972 grain deal with the Soviet Union broke, a disclosure that coincided with a spell of bad weather in the farm belt, commodity prices soared. Before long, so did supermarket prices for meat, milk, bread and other staple foods tied to the cost of grain. Angry consumers took to the streets to protest food prices and staged a nationwide meat boycott to protest the high cost of hamburger. Recognizing the political peril, Nixon ordered his secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, to do whatever was necessary to drive down the price of food.”
The unintended consequences of cheap corn are becoming increasingly evident. Aside from the epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases which are linked to it, such as diabetes, cheap grain has differential effects on rich and poor. A colleague of ours who works on the social determinants of health told us that in the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest and unhealthiest regions in the U.S., the only restaurants available are the ones serving fast food. Poverty intersects with cheap corn, and both lead to health risks. On the other end of the economic spectrum, there is a movement toward farmers’ markets, organic foods, and buying locally. Driven by a combination of economic, environmental, and dietary concerns, this movement is small, locally-oriented, and available only to those with sufficient means to pay more for healthier food. One result is the reinforcement of an already-widening gap between rich and poor.
What is the remedy? Pollan suggests a return to pre-1970’s agricultural policy. His argument is persuasive as far as it goes but overlooks many factors that reinforce the industrialization of food. One is a faith in “market” solutions which ignores the extent to which the market is shaped by government policy. Once a market is created based on direct price subsidies for overproducing corn, a powerful dynamic results which leads to what Pollan calls Big Food- in other words, the major manufacturers of mass produced, corn-based products. Another factor is the difficulty of planning and managing a transition for those who rely on the industry to a different model of production. A third is the force of behavior and habits among individuals and communities who have grown accustomed to the prevalence of fast food and corn-based products. Last but not least, we need a structural and economic change to support a move toward a post-industrial food system and economy.
Such a system would be based on knowledge of the costs, as well as the benefits, of a corn-based food system for individuals, families, and communities. It would entail a more even distribution of information, options, and ways to afford them. It would treat food less as a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded, and more as a resource that has multiple impacts on societal well-being. A post-industrial system, in short, would incorporate public good and private gain into an ongoing dialogue about food and its many effects on individuals, families, community, and society. In a subsequent post, we will examine the problems associated with the transition to such a system and will look at ways of making such transitions successfully.

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