As part of my university’s Fall festival, I’ve been asked to give comments on several student speeches about McDonald’s in their home countries. I gave fair warning to the organizers that I have little (nothing?) good to say about McDonald’s and most fast food in general, but they still want me to participate. I’ve promised to be tactful and brief in my comments on the subject, but a blog post seems to be an appropriate way to share my objections in a more well-rounded and appropriate way.
As a media ecologist, I tend to think of the impact of technologies on our culture and this topic in no exception. Anup Shah, keeper of the excellent website Global Issues, brings us a short and interesting timeline of beef as a staple food from Richard Robbins’ Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), writing:
- As Spanish colonization of the Americas took hold, cattle were introduced in places like Argentina, Central America etc.
- By the seventeenth century cattle was so abundant, that one could be killed for the hide and the remaining meat left to rot.
- Around the Industrial Revolution, England was the “beef-eating capital of the world.” Not only to increase food for a growing population, but also to keep wages down, and due to the influence of wealthy meat industry leaders and landowners, beef consumption was made affordable to more and more people.
- The British Empire distributed much rum and meat to its military forces, thus helping to subsidize the sugar and meat industries.
- To support an increasing demand, Britain would look to its empire, its colonies and other areas for additional beef and support of grain production.
- American meat industries, eager to make profits from the British demand looked to increase their cattle production.
- However, they had to overcome problems including available rangeland and meeting the specific taste requirements of the British which, involved having fatter cows.
- But Indians and buffalo were in the lands that cattle producers needed for rangeland.
- Hence, this led to the famous near extermination of the bison, which would also “deal” with the Indian problem.
- From just 1870 to 1880, millions of buffalo were reduced to “virtual extinction.” (The famous Buffalo Bill and others profited from hunting expeditions.)
- This destroyed the Indians of the Plains, to whom buffalo were central in their culture as both a major food source and spiritual power. They were moved off to reservations and other lands but no means of real chance of continued meaningful existence.
- To meet demands of fatty beef by the British, corn was increasingly fed to cattle. Furthermore, the price of grain was so cheap, it was advantageous to feed corn to cows. Thus, this formed a symbiotic relationship to the extent that even today, “the price of corn is closely linked to the demand for the price of cattle” (p.227).
- After World War II, the surge in automobile use (helped by a $350 billion project to construct 41,000 miles of highways in the United States) led to the growth of the suburbs and fast-food restaurants that were making beef, and in particular, the hamburger a prime choice. (See also, for example, Eric Schossler’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), a New York Times bestseller. It provides a lot of details about the rise of the fast food industry and its various impacts.)
Wrapped up in that political economy summary is the notion of beef as a form of payment, a currency, the Industrial Revolution which gave us the mechanization of food production, the rifle and its impact on slaughtering bison (not to mention people) on the American Great Plains, refrigeration and the role it plays in food storage, automobiles and their impact on the development of highways and fast food restaurants. The way we live, and the culture we have created, are the products of many factors and many twists and turns of history. If we could have looked into the future when we were inventing new technologies and forcing change on our environments to know the effects of our behaviors, I hope we might have made different, more informed choices. But, we’re here and the impact of those historical decisions are with us. What are they? What do we do from here.
Journalist Mark Bittman writes about food and food culture for the New York Times, among other places. He gave a talk at the TED conference in 2007 that sums up some of the greatest challenges we face as a result of our global (and globalizing) food habits, especially with respect to climate change. (I’ve subtitled the talk in Japanese, so my students can enjoy the video and follow it more freely.)
For the full transcript, please see my post in the comments section. There are far too many points in that talk, in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and at Anup Shah’s Global Issues to go over in a blog post, but in these three simple stops on the Internet a picture begins to emerge (or at least it should). We used to eat food as it came to us from Nature, with very little modification in the preparation process. We relied on local products to sustain us, by and large, and the cost of our meals was directly attributed to our own labor and that of our closest neighbors. The Industrial Revolution and mechanization allowed us to mass produce food and the scientific revolution allowed us to preserve, enhance, and radically alter its makeup. We could engineer taste and so anything could be food. Refrigeration and transportation innovations allowed us to ship products anywhere, and electronic communication made it possible to build mythology around these new products to make them part of our culture although they had never existed just a few years earlier.
This is all very new. In its current form it’s less than 100 years old, and in many cases it’s less than 50 years old. There are health consequences, climate consequences, human rights consequences, ecological consequences, political consequences, and cultural consequence to all of these developments and where someone is winning it’s rare that n one is losing. In some ways, all of us are losing as a result of this new relationship with food, but in many other important ways some of us are losing far worse than others. The “developing” world is suffering from the exploitation of their land and resources, and poor communities in the “developed” world are suffering the same fate. What’s the real cost of a hamburger? This final note via Global Issues starts to answer that question without even dealing with the cost of human labor, etc…
Researchers in India did some calculations a few years ago looking at what would happen if we started to include the environmental costs that are part and parcel of the production of that [$4] hamburger. If, for example, that burger is produced on land that once used to be rainforest, well, then you’ve lost the rainforest, you’ve lost the ecosystemic services that that rainforest provides, you lose the carbon, you lose the biodiversity. And all of a sudden,when you start inputing those environmental costs, it turns out that the price of a hamburger should be nearer $200 rather than four. And that, of course, is just one element of the costs that are squeezed out of our food and pretty much everything else.
If none of those arguments did anything for you, at least take a look at this entertaining video from the people at Sustainable Table, called The Meatrix:
Just know where your food comes from, what it’s made of, what its real costs are, and start a new relationship with the things you put in your body. That’s the smart thing to do and it’s the responsible thing to do as well.