Getting Real About Our Modern Food System

Voltaire once said that “common sense is not so common,” a statement that resonates as particularly true lately. In recent years, our modern food system has come under attack by people who may mean well, but they may lack the knowledge, experience, foresight, and/or historical perspective to understand its complexity and importance. Numerous popular press articles, books, movies, blogs, etc., use some truths, some imagination and seductively simplistic, sometimes even misleading, approaches to blame “industrial” agriculture and the “industrial” food system for many of the problems that afflict our society today—energy shortages, environmental degradation, climate change, obesity, diabetes, allergies, etc. My belief is that our modern food system is not perfect, but has served us well, and before we dispose of it, we better design the new one very carefully with creativity, innovation, knowledge, and the responsibility of making life better for present and future generations. As a scientist, I trust science and the progress and solutions it brings, but I also know that science alone will not solve all of our problems.

So, let me offer some common sense, and get real about our modern food system. Today’s food system uses the results of scientific research and sophisticated technologies such as genetic engineering, fast computers, advanced robots, global positioning systems, mechanical harvesting, food irradiation, aseptic processing, bio-based packaging, and countless other complex tools, together with methods such as pest management, nutrient management, soil management, sustainable agriculture, organic farming, niche farming, direct marketing, etc. All these science-based tools have transformed the U.S. food system into one of the most technologically advanced, sustainable, and productive in the world, and our citizens have become accustomed to the safest and least expensive food supply anywhere. And all that was achieved by using fewer resources, while minimizing environmental impact. The following few examples provide some context.

Example 1 – Productivity and Efficiency (from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service data)
During the last half of the 20th century, agricultural productivity in the U.S. expanded at a phenomenal rate. For instance, the average yield of corn nearly quadrupled (from 39 to 153 bushels per acre), the productivity for meat production increased by a notable 88%, and the output of eggs and poultry increased by a remarkable 411%. Combined, all these improvements resulted in an astonishing 145% increase in overall productivity. Furthermore, our food processing, packaging, and distribution industries have made huge strides toward maximizing efficiency and minimizing food losses. Today in the U.S., virtually 100% of the food produced at the farm now finds its way to consumers’ tables. This is very different than much of the rest of the world, where as much as 50% or more of the food produced at the farm never gets to the people because it is lost to insects, microorganisms, humidity, or other factors.

Example 2 – Environmental Stewardship of Modern vs. Traditional Production Practices (from Capper, Cady, and Bauman, Journal of Animal Science, published online Mar 13, 2009)
A common perception is that pasture-based, low-input dairy systems, characteristic of the 1940s, are more conducive to environmental stewardship than modern milk production systems. Recently, Cornell University scientists compared the environmental impact of modern U.S. dairy production with historical production practices as exemplified by the U.S. dairy system in 1944. They concluded that the modern dairy practices require considerably fewer resources—21% of animals, 23% of feedstuffs, 35% of the water, and only 10% of the land—to produce the same amount of milk. Similarly, modern dairy systems generate less waste outputs—24% of manure, 43% CH4, and 56% N2O—as compared to systems producing equivalent milk from historical dairying. Finally, the same authors showed that the carbon footprint of milk produced in 2007 was only 37% of the equivalent milk production in 1944.

Example 3 – Environmental Impact of Global Transportation of Food (from Weber and Matthews, Environmental Science & Technology, 2008)
Despite significant recent public concern and media attention to the environmental impact of food, few studies in the U.S. have systematically compared the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with food production against long-distance distribution (a.k.a. “food-miles”). In a 2008 study, Weber and Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University found that although food is transported long distances (1,640 km for final delivery and 6,760 km for the total life-cycle supply chain), the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase that contributes 83% of the total footprint. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%.

Today, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that more than one billion people live on less than one dollar a day, while nearly one billion people are hungry around the globe. In the very near future (40–50 years), our growing global population will require an estimated 100% more food than we produce today. It is clear that the challenge for world leaders and policy makers is huge, because we will not have twice as much land, water, energy, and other resources available. We can explore and debate many solutions, but we can only achieve this increase with wider use of new and existing technologies. The consequences of failing to use science-based tools and innovations will be disastrous.

Food producers and processors in industrialized and developing nations alike require science and technology to ensure a sustainable supply of safe, nutritious, and affordable food and satisfy a rapidly growing demand. Agriculture, regardless if it is traditional or modern, sustainable or organic, will need more science and technology, not less. And people’s food, be it fast or slow, local or global, whole, natural, fresh or processed, industrial or not, will require more food science and technology, not less.

But many of our public activists are turning away from scientific knowledge, while advocating untested, and at times, even naïve approaches. Many of our public officials in the federal or state governments are not supporting research investments in food and agriculture. There are a few notable exceptions, including Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who recommended the creation of “ a global land-grant college network to advance scientific research, invest in human capital through educational opportunities, and provide extension services to small farmers.”

The 21st century holds great promise for advancing our food system and the human condition, provided there is an appropriate blend of science, technology, public action, imagination, and knowledge.

John FlorosJohn D. Floros, PhD
Professor & Head
Department of Food Science
Penn State University
University Park

*Update: As of Aug. 1, 2012, Floros is Dean of College of Agriculture and director of K-State Research and Extension at Kansas State University

9 Responses

  1. Here, here!
    Well said and well documented!
    We need more voices like yours out there.
    Thanks for speaking up.

  2. Nice artilce. The elite will still want their expensive, local and organic product and wonder why everyone can’t spend the extra cash and increased carbon footprint to pretend to be more green!

  3. Excellent. Please send copies to the op-eds of all the major news outlets, blogging sites, etc. Most of us in IFT already understand this. It’s depressing when urban myths get traction and there’s no sane counterpoint.

  4. John, where did you get the data that our citizens have become accustomed to the “safest … food supply anywhere.” Is the US food supply really safer than that of, say, Europe, Canada, or Australia? Please show me the data.

  5. I’m not sure that I agree. The food and agriculture industry has certainly done a tremendous job in increasing output in the past 50 years, that is not in dispute. Food costs less as a percentage of the income of the average American consumer. But it’s agruable that the result is that we have a glut of cheap calories, and little progress on true nutritional improvement. The blame for that is as much the consumer as the producer, but the food industry certainly should accept responsibility for making and marketing an abundance of products high in sodium, fat and sugar, and yet marketing them as responsible choices. Just for starters, how many products are marketed as “made with fruit” or use “fruit” in the name, when the sole fruit component is high sugar fruit juice. How many food products have sufficient sodium in just one serving to exceed the acceptable daily value? How about the sleight of hand going on with replacing trans fats with saturated fats? Keep in mind that until 15 years ago, most food products did not declare any nutritional information. The tastes were already established by consumers, and it’s been very difficult to make large behavioral changes, even when they have more nutritional information available to them. And that is only the retail products. Our very large foodservice industry still barely reveals the content of sodium, sugar and fat in their products.

    In regards to food safety, yes we do have a generally safe food supply, but we still have much to do, and to accept. Those who worked in the food manufacturing industry in the past eight years know that the the FDA has been a joke, and either consistently looked the other way, or did not even bother to check or inspect food manufacturing facilities. Outside of USDA inspected facilities, it has largely been a self-inspecting honor system. As a result, the food safety issues have undermined much of the food industry, unfortunately even hurting highly reputable companies. The list is unfortunately extensive, and contemporary: Peanut Corporation of America, SK Foods, Peter Pan (Con Agra), Nestle….

    You offer some good thoughts about the environmental impact of intensive animal farming versus low intensity, but also are selective in the literature citations. Regardless, today’s high intensity animal farming has become excessively cruel to animals, and has relied too much on hormones and antibiotics for success. This is really the focus on some of the press and movies about farming in recent months, and is independent of environmental concerns.

    My biggest concern is that your column seems to reflect an attitude of denial. The food industry has serious credibility concerns with a large segment of consumers, and that is why there is a thriving industry of alternatives. Unfortunately, many of them also play upon uninformed or underinformed consumers, and make misleading claims about the nutritional value of food. An example: positioning pure cane sugar, or “evaporated cane juice” as more wholesome substitutes for high fructose corn syrup.

    Where we do agree is that the energy and resources of food science and agriculture should be devoted to making food healthier, rather than just more marketable or cheaper to produce.

  6. sounds like big money propaganda to me

  7. Hello. Very interesting Blog. Not really what i have searched over Google, but thanks for the information.

  8. I could not agree more with “Mark, on September 4, 2009 at 6:02 pm”. One must ALWAYS consider how the science is funded and how that motivates one to make their argument. Interestingly, on the authors’ faculty website it lists the following:
    “Selected Funding Sources:
    * NASA
    * USDA, NRI
    * USDA, Food Safety
    * Value Added Center
    * Food Industry”
    Perhaps there was a conflict of interest in his statements. In a quote once said by President John F. Kennedy, “Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”….perhaps we all need to embrace the discomfort and think for ourselves.

  9. Very well said Mark. The prof’s article is more interesting in what it leaves out, than in what it is saying. Just one example – no mention of the nutrient content of the food. Nothing about the effect of the huge grain monocultures.

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