For most of human history, 100 per cent of the food we ate was local and organic.
Now, people in developed nations tend to eat food that has been fertilized with oil, sprayed with chemicals, packaged in plastic, and hauled hundreds of miles by truck.
This transition has had profound implications on the health and well being of ourselves, the planet as well as the billions of animals exploited along the way.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the madness of industrial warfare drove many of these changes to the food system?
The Industrial Age started around 1760 in Western Europe.
New technologies, such as the power loom and the steam engine, transformed manufacturing and agriculture increasing output by many orders of magnitude.
Steam ships and locomotives facilitated trade and global markets allowed for new dimensions of wealth creation that were concentrated in large, new establishments such as The East India Company – the world’s first corporations.
The technological advancement of European nations enabled them to subjugate much of the rest of the world as explored in Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel.
Many of the conquered countries had their native agricultural systems turned into plantations to serve global markets, with often catastrophic results such as the famines in Ireland, China and Brazil.
Imperial powers also engaged in imperial wars that were now fought over large distances.
Food and resources
Feeding and resourcing soldiers has always been crucial to any military success.
Limited food availability was among the factors traditionally limiting military campaigns in the Northern Hemisphere to summer and autumn months. During the Napoleonic Wars, the French government offered a large cash prize to any inventor who could devise a method of preserving large amounts of food.
The winner used jars – a precursor to cans, setting in motion a trajectory of packaging and preservation that continues to this day.
Industrial warfare may have started during the American Civil War, which saw the first use of iron-clad ships, machine guns, and the concept of total war – a nation’s complete mobilization and subordination of all resources to the war effort.
But it was the First and Second World Wars that unleashed the full horrors of industrial warfare, as multiple nation states directed a majority of their resources and young men into mass annihilation.
These distant, prolonged battles involving millions of soldiers required an extensive support network of people behind the lines to keep them fed.
Demand for canned food skyrocketed. The British military commanders of World War I, powered their men on ‘Bully Beef’ (cheap corned beef), pork, beans, and canned sausages – cheap, high-calorie food that could be easily transported without spoiling.
The Military Industrial Complex describes how a nation’s military and arms industry feed off each other to keep growing. Massive global wars turned national infrastructure to weapons manufacture.
After the wars, rather than dismantling the factories, there was a grim economic logic in keeping weapons manufacture flowing – and finding new wars in which they could be used.
Similarly, the increasingly large and powerful food corporations involved in the war effort did not want to dismantle their industrially-produced and mechanically-distributed business model.
Today, 10 companies control the world’s food supply.
Their operations are a world away from a healthy, sustainable approach – connecting consumers with fresh, local produce. They make their billions in revenue selling processed and packaged, calorie-rich food that is largely based upon the use of animal products.
Many people today scratch their heads and wonder why Western diets so often seem to be nothing less than an all out war on the biosphere and the other creatures we share our planet with.
The unexpected truth is that our diets and our food system are relics of humanities all out war with itself.
Alongside the mechanisation and delocalisation of food supply is the disconnection of the consumer from the animals they may be eating.
Just as most people would oppose wars if they actually had to fight in them, so many people would avoid meat if they actually had to kill the animal.
Dismantling the convoluted entrails of the industrial food system could do more than just offer us fresher and more sustainable food. A closer connection with the people making our food could also lead to a shift away from animal products.
If we seek a peaceful and sustainable future we may have to carefully examine the technologies underpinning our lives – where they have come from and where they are taking us. The machinery of war, by definition, leads to violent outcomes.
Could taking our diets off a war footing be a key to unlocking a healthier, happier and more sustainable world?