An Introduction to the US Food System, Week 2: Food Systems, Food Security and Public Health

“The food system is run by people who know nothing about health, and the health system is run by people who know nothing about food.” — Wendell Berry

Below are my notes from week 2 of the excellent free online course I’m taking through Johns Hopkins. Read week 1 notes here. Again, these notes are just what I type up while listening to the lectures, and aren’t fancified for posting here.

This set of lectures covers: Food security introduction, food system definition, history of food production and its effect on society.

Food Security

Exists when all people at all times have access to sufficient safe, nutritious food for health/activity needs, with implementation via sustainable methods.

The right to adequate food is a human right.

History of concept: in 70s, hunger was seen as a food problem, so focus was on ensuring adequate food supply and stabilizing food supply. 83 addition: securing access to food for anyone who needs it; 86 addition: adequate food to fuel active and healthy life; 96 addition: Rome Declaration signed by 176 countries declares reaffirmation to everyone’s right to food.

UN Millennium Development Goals: first goal is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Cut each in half by 2015. Progress on each as of 2004, but poverty slow to improve in W Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, former SSRs, and hunger slow to improve in S Asia, sub-Saharan Africa.

Methods of Food Production for Food Security

Soil (topsoil quantity), water quality, natural resource sustainability

  • Erosion of topsoil–depth from 21″ 200 yrs ago to 6″, on farmland
  • 60% freshwater used goes to crop irrigation
  • fisheries fully exploited or in decline/collapsing; overfished by 25%
  • industrial production methods affect small farmers and retail, and rural communities

World food production is adequate to feed everyone, if distributed equitably. More than enough food calories per person is currently available. 1 billion (1/5 of total) undernourished/underweight. But 1 billion suffer from diseases of overnutrition (diabetes, heart disease, obesity)!

More people could be fed if people relied on grain-based diet rather than animal protein-based (American-style) diet, that is more equitably distributed.

Food security exists when people have physical and economic access to sufficient safe, nutritious, sustainably produced, and socially just (to producers) food to meet their dietary/cultural needs and activity levels

New threats: biofuels, climate change, increasing meat production

Ingredients of the US Food System

“How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” –Wendell Berry

Overview

  • Scope and magnitude of US food system: 1 billion acres agricultural land + >2 billion food animals
  • Influences + Inputs -> Activities [production, processing, distribution, retail, consumption] -> Outcomes

Early History

  • Humans 150,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers.
  • Agriculture 11,000 BCE (fertile crescent and other areas)
    • motivated by glacial conditions?
    • motivated by larger/denser populations?
    • more work for more stable/abundant food supply (10-100 more calories per acre)
    • 4mil global pop before agriculture grew to 50mil in 1000 BCE, and 200mil in 1 CE
  • Settlements around agriculture grew to towns and cities. Uruk=world’s first city, 3000 BCE, 50k people
    • Now that they don’t have to hunt/gather, people can focus more on art, literature, technology, politics, social classes
  • Periodic famine in Europe as population grows exponentially
    • Famine drivers
      • pop growth, resource degradation, climate, drought, conflict
      • early farmers often depleted soil fertility
        • plow -> erosion
        • Dust Bowl in 1930s from erosion
    • Population growth sustained by
      • Imported crops from the Americas–improved nutrition
      • Refrigeration improves lifespan of food
      • Transportation network improvements
      • Nitrogen fertilizer in the 1900s increased output big time

Industrialization

Industrialized agriculture is less labor-intensive, makes food/farming cheaper, encourages consumerism by leaving more money in people’s pockets to buy stuff

Union Stockyards in Chicago for slaughter, process, packing, distribution. Largest in country in 1900. Inspired Henry Ford’s auto assembly line.

Characteristics of a factory:

  • Specialization
    • More efficient to focus on one thing. Skills, tools, facilities
    • Monocultures of corn or soybean (over half cropland is devoted to those two)
  • Mechanization
    • Simpler, more routine work can be replaced by machines
  • Standardization
    • Different facilities can better work together if specs are standardized
      • Grow chickens to same size so machines can handle
      • Sell meat of a certain size to restaurants
  • Technology + inputs
    • Special feed, breeding techniques to grow animals faster, bigger, cheaper
    • Chemicals, drugs, fossil fuels use increased
  • Economies of scale
    • Operations grew to gain efficiency in mass production
  • Consolidation
    • Trend toward larger and fewer facilities. Machines mean fewer workers needed. Smaller farms can’t afford same technology, economies of scale.
  • Concentration of control
    • Extent to which a small # of corps control most of the sales. Merging, buyouts.
      • Top 4 beef processing firms control over 80% of market
      • Pork: top 4 control over 2/3 of market
      • Corn: top 2 control over 1/2 of market
    • Those firms have power to influence how food is produced and who produces it

1950-2000 production on US farms doubled. US Agriculture is the most efficient in the world.

Some examples of external costs

  • Animal welfare
  • Environmental degradation from chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers)
      • Dead zones
      • Algal blooms

    Fertilizer can reduce soil fertility in long run

  • Pesticide exposure to animals and humans
  • Loss of biodiversity
    • Irish potato famine: only one type of potato, wiped out by a pathogen
  • Climate change from greenhouse gas emissions

Alternatives to Industrial Agriculture

What is sustainable ag? Meet current needs while not hindering future needs.

  • Economically viable
  • Ecologically sound
    • Native plants, recycling organic waste to enhance soil fertility
    • Resilient to droughts, pests (diversify, build healthy soil)
  • Socially just
  • Willing to use technology where appropriate

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2 thoughts on “An Introduction to the US Food System, Week 2: Food Systems, Food Security and Public Health

  1. Also, you have to know that in food ingredients lists, sugar goes by many different names. If you are involved about the check of omega fats within your diet and snacks, then go with macadamia and walnuts, which have a more favorable ratio. Proteins like pork loin, flank steak and turkey breast along with spinach, eggplant and asparagus really are a small sample in the Paleo weight-loss diet.

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