How Yesterday’s Needs Shaped Today’s Biggest Global Industry
While most of us think of mass food production as a modern-day display of capitalism, the truth is that the need to feed humans on a large scale has existed for centuries. Food production has evolved to match human needs, and while it has taken some turns for the worse, we still find ourselves relying on large-scale food production for various reasons. To help fully grasp the situation, we outline a brief history of mass food production, the significant turning points that fueled change, and how we ended up in the global state we stand in today.
Before we think of mass food production as a process involving heavy machinery, conveyor belts, and massive factories, we must first understand that even in ancient times, humans needed to supply enough food to feed populations and eat for extended periods.
One of the first known examples of mass food production dates back to ancient Rome. Rome had a policy that entitled its citizens (at least some) to necessities – specifically, grain and rice. To meet the demands of the population, the Roman government took on the task of feeding an astounding number of people with limited resources. They began to mass-produce wheat on local farms, utilizing bakeries to help make enough bread to feed their citizens. By 350 B.C.E., the Roman Empire had employed nearly 300 bakeries to provide more than 120,000 citizens with loaves of bread every day. According to experts in Roman history, an average adult would have consumed around 200 kg of wheat annually, equating to over 150 million kilograms of grain every year. For context, the average US citizen only consumed about 85 kg of wheat in 2019 – less than half of what Roman citizens ate in 350 B.C.E.
19th Century Industrialization and Urbanization
Before the turn of the 19th century, nearly 95% of all US citizens lived in rural areas. By 1900, approximately 40% of the population had relocated to cities searching for work following the Industrial Revolution. The rapid population growth of US cities forced food producers to develop new ways to feed the masses. By turn, industrialized mass food production was born – changing the food manufacturing landscape forever.
Industrialized food production brought on just as many positives as it did negatives. While many are controversial, industrial food production gave us the assembly line, factory processes, new machine tools, chemical manufacturing, and much more. It wasn’t just food production processes that were changing, though. The industrial revolution also brought us significant changes in agricultural production, including industrial plows, seed drills, and harvesting technology that increased crop yields and food production exponentially. With so much potential in production, consumption, and ultimately, revenue, large corporations began to take hold of food processes, reducing costs and increasing availability across the country. With more access to food and the resources there to buy it, populations of US cities boomed, engraining the food processes concretely and setting the stage for the modern-day food production industry we know today.
World War 1
Food became a huge concern for many countries during the first world war. Not only did countries need to feed their citizens at home with limited resources and fewer people in the workforce, but they also needed to feed their troops on foreign soil. Food was such a huge concern that a primary strategy on every side was to cut off the food supply to the enemy – using starvation as a weapon.
From 1917 to 1919, the US Food Administration launched the “Food Will Win the War” campaign. The campaign focused on food conservation and urged US citizens at home to eat less wheat, meat, sugars, and fats so they could be sent to the troops abroad. The idea was to consume as many perishable goods at home as possible, as they would not reach foreign land without spoiling. The government encouraged farmers to produce crops and meat that could be processed to have longer shelf lives, eventually feeding the US and allied soldiers. Tractors became a staple across farms for the first time, and governments ran campaigns to teach farmers beneficial practices such as weed control and lime application on agricultural fields.
World War 2
The second world war had different implications on mass food production than the first world war, and in many ways, the changes seen during WW2 had a longer-lasting impact on global food production – some of which still exist today.
During World War 2, the US government developed new foods specifically for soldiers abroad. Spam, dehydrated potatoes, and powdered juices were crucial elements that kept soldiers fed, and those mass food production methods far outlasted the war. We still stock our shelves with highly-processed canned goods and other foods with long shelf lives. After the war, the food industry needed to find new ways to mass-market products. Aiming for the average US household, food producers started selling “packaged food cuisine” – marketing it as the ultimate convenience. While changes have, of course, occurred, we still see the classic “TV Dinners” in grocery store aisles today.
The Green Revolution
The green revolution helped bring developing countries into the 20th century by introducing new crops and adopting modern agricultural practices. The most notable increase in mass agricultural production was cereal grains, particularly in Mexico, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. In the 1960s, the United Nations estimated that more than 50% of the world lived in countries with a food supply below sustenance levels. This knowledge fueled research and development strategies that resulted in major agricultural breakthroughs. Global efforts introduced chemical fertilizers and new crop strains, increasing crop yields by significant amounts and allowing farmers to produce foods on a much larger scale. By the end of the twentieth century, over 60% of global rice fields used rice varieties that produced up to five times as much yield as traditional strains. Between 1965 and 1980, India nearly tripled its wheat production and increased rice yields by 60%.
Food Production Today
Over the last 50 years, the global population has more than doubled, reaching over 7.5 billion people. Even with the technological and agricultural production advances seen throughout our history, around 9% of the world is still “food insecure.” The primary cause for concern is not food production or availability, though – it’s poverty. While the need for mass food production still exists, it is not needed for the same purposes or on the same level that it used to be.
Global seafood consumption has grown more rapidly than all other meats combined since the turn of the century. Today, more than 60 million people work in Asia’s fisheries and aquaculture industry – nearly twice as many people as in the 1990s. Farmers are also producing more food than ever, even though the global population working in the agricultural production industry has fallen dramatically. Agriculture accounts for only 3% of employment in developed countries and 40% or higher in developing countries.
Modern-day mass food production is currently in good standing. Still, challenges are on the horizon that will test our ability to feed the growing world population, specifically climate change and resource sustainability. If we hope to continue to provide for the masses, we will need to tread carefully with mass food production methods moving forward.