Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Modern Day Consumer

Never before in history, has the consumer been so far removed from the production process of their own food. Since the earliest days of existence, people have been directly connected to the process and preparation of the food they eat. Whether hunting or fishing, gathering or cultivating, humans have always been a direct link in the commodity chain related to their food. Today the average American couldn’t be bothered with a small herb garden let alone a modest veggie patch. Let’s face it, in the fast paced technologically based society we live in, many of us can’t even find time to run up to the grocery store, or cook dinner. Although this seems to be a matter of personal preference, it has had unimaginable impacts on the food industry, and has led to some unpleasant practices.

As early as 1000 years ago, agrarian Native American communities were cultivating maize, now known as corn. In a time long before industrial supermarkets, and grocery stores, people were growing and cooking their own food. Although maize was primarily grown as a food source, its potential for a wide variety of uses was realized. Native Americans were utilizing the plant for everything from animal feed and rope material to "corn wool" and tobacco pipes. One thousand years later we are still growing corn, and it is still being used for a variety applications.

Although corn’s origin is believed to be of the Americas, the majority of the corn grown here today bares little to no resemblance to that of the original. In fact, the corn grown today hardly resembles that of which was growing here only 100 years ago, and in most cases is not even edible. This means that in order to consume the produce, it must be processed in some way, placing the consumer further down the chain.

As of the year 2000, the two largest agriculturally grown crops in the United States were corn and soybeans, each responsible for about 72.7 million acres of farmland. Michael Pollan states in Omnivore’s Dilemma, “corn adapted brilliantly to the new industrial regime,”and it couldn't be more true. The United States accounts for about half of the worlds corn production (about ten billion bushels), yet about only 12% of the crop grown is diverted for indirect (high fructose corn syrup ) or direct (chips) food production. The remaining 88% tends to be used for animal feed, silage, and corn oils.

In the modern day grocery store it is very hard to find a product that hasn’t been affected by corn at some point of its life. Nearly all cows, chickens, and pigs are fed some sort of corn grain in their lives. A quick glance at the ingredients in a wide range of products form cereal to soda would result in the discovery of some sort of corn derivative. Furthermore this would mean that if a consumer wanted to produce any of these products themselves, it would be nearly impossible.

The idea that we have no idea what the things we are eating are made out of is scary. If the cashier at McDonalds offered to blindfold you and put something in your mouth, you would probably decline. However theoretically this is what we are letting happen by placing our selves at the end of the commodity chain. Many people don’t know what their burger is made of, where it came from, or even how it’s cooked (mostly using a microwave). A drastic overhaul of our food system needs to take place.

Americans need to realize the importance of being involved with their food from start to finish, or at the very least from raw to cooked. If more people knew the processes involved from getting their food from birth to plate they are far more likely to take action. Educating the public is the first of many steps that need to take place to change our food system. With any luck the writings of such authors as Michael Pollan (Omnivoures Dilemma), Deborah Barndt (Tangled Routes), and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), will spark interest in the average consumer, and eventually lead to some sort of reform. Through innovations in science and technology, it is obvious that something needs to change, and we are surly going to experience a large scale change in the way we consume, and think about food.

Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan


  1. I truly agree with what you wrote here, especially as we worked on our commodity chains and sometimes we were unable to obtain information about our product. If people knew how their food was produced, they would in some cases be appalled and would most likely take action. There needs to be a way for people to take an interest in this without relying on everyone to be educated about the, in some cases, disgusting ways their food is produced.
    For example, there should be some kind of rule instituted that requires new housing developments to have a community garden. I do not think it would be too much to ask of people. Not only could they support themselves and possibly sell their vegetables, but they would also be decreasing the amount of emissions their car might be releasing into the environment every time they go to the store for a tomato!

  2. That is a great idea! I mean they leave land for pools and tennis courts, why not a garden! It would be interesting to see if any housing developments currently have community garden projects, and if so, do people actually take advantage of them?