Food Industry: America's New Hunger

A cornucopia of new books tells us about food industry and where our food comes from.

| April/May 2007

One summer evening when I lived in Brooklyn, I snipped a leaf of basil from the potted herb garden I kept in front of my apartment, absently popping it in my mouth. Kids were playing on the sidewalk, their shouts echoing through the humid air. One kid took note. “Oooh!” he shouted. “He ate a plant!” Suddenly, seven or eight 10-year-olds were pointing and gaping at me. I had done something exotic, strange, suspect even: I had eaten plant matter.

For me, this illustrates how far we’ve traveled from our agricultural roots. In 1930, 20 percent of Americans owed their livelihoods to farming. Today, fewer than 2 percent do. We consume nearly 40 percent of our food outside the home. We have entered a post-agricultural age. Knowledge about food production, which used to come from direct experience, now comes from food-industry marketing execs and government directives.

Where Does Our Food Come From?

For most Americans, the answer is simple: supermarkets and restaurants. In a nation where almost nobody farms and few regularly cook, that’s a fair response. But such reasoning hides vast social, ecological and economic chains that ultimately tether us to the earth. People can blithely devour Chicken McNuggets dipped in ketchup without ever thinking about factory-farmed chickens, working conditions in slaughterhouses or on farms, or the chemicals used to fertilize fields and kill weeds and pests. Happily, there are several new books educating us about farm-to-plate issues.

The trend started with Eric Schlosser’s groundbreaking Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, which brought an investigative reporter’s zeal to tracing the holy trinity of American eating — burger, fries and a Coke — back to the fields, factories, corporate meetings and laboratories from which they hail. Fast Food Nation, a best seller now on the big screen, reminded many Americans that what’s on their plate has a history worth thinking about.

No fewer than four books released in 2006 tread down the path broken by Schlosser. Michael Pollan’s best seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is arguably the best. The author provides an exhaustive “natural history of four meals.” Broadening Schlosser’s mandate, Pollan trains a hungry eye on industrially produced fare, and on the alternatives. He also subjects the various food chains to his gourmand’s palate, reminding us that the industrialized food supply has ruined people’s ability to take real pleasure in food.

Pollan’s analysis implies something hopeful, though: that by reclaiming the pleasures of the table, we can reverse much of the environmental and social wreckage we create in feeding ourselves.

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