Understanding the Ins and Outs of the Global Food Industry
Most food in the United States is produced on a “mass” scale. Before we jump to any conclusions on the impact that may have on people or the planet, though, we should first do our best to gain a comprehensive understanding of just what it means to mass-produce food products in the first place.
Mass food production is, simply put, the process of turning raw ingredients into edible food products to satisfy enormous local or global consumer demands. We don’t define mass food production by the type of food product, how nutritional it is, or its perishability. Instead, any food produced for consumption on a large-scale, often using production lines, satisfies our definition.
How is Food Mass Produced?
Food is mass-produced through various methods.
Agricultural crops are broken down and made into thousands of different food products, some of which are highly processed and packaged in cans or dry containers to extend their shelf life. Not all food products are meant for human consumption, though. Over two-thirds of US-grown corn, for example, is used for livestock feed and ethanol production. Soybeans are another example, with only about 1% of the global yield used for direct human consumption – nearly 98% of the crop is used for animal feed. While most of these food products go to animal production, they still indirectly contribute to the global food cycle.
Animal products – including meat, poultry, and fish – are produced on a large scale in factories, generally through an assembly-line process. The products are either processed and packaged for future consumption or shipped for immediate use. Around the globe, more than 340 million tons of meat are produced every year for direct human consumption.
While it’s easy to assume that all mass-production foods are unhealthy and highly processed, not all of them contribute to the global health crisis we face today. Some even have significant benefits to human populations, which we cover below.
Why is Food Mass Produced?
Food is mass-produced for lots of different reasons, and unfortunately, that reason is often profit. When food is produced on a large-scale, food brands and manufacturers, reap considerable rewards. By creating one type of food product using assembly lines or similar methods, food is produced for a fraction of the cost, shelf-lives are extended, and more consumers can buy the product. In turn, this leads to food producers turning out cheap foods with low nutrition density to increase profits – furthering health problems for those living in low-income communities and food deserts.
While industrial farming and other methods of mass food production are often seen as a plague to human health and the environment, we must also consider the benefits they may have on specific communities and populations.
In some areas of the world, mass-produced, highly-processed foods are a life-saver – literally. Remote locations may lack the requirements necessary to keep unprocessed, raw foods safe for consumption. In rural India, for example, electricity and refrigeration may not be readily available – meaning, the only way to ship and store enough food for daily consumption is by way of mass production, processing, and ultra-processing. These types of food products keep people fed when there may be no other option.
It’s not always a case of food availability, either – some crops are mass-produced in response to nutritional deficiencies. Populations that base their meals primarily on rice may not get the micro and macronutrients they need from their restricted diets. Mass-produced GMO rice, for example, supplements some communities with the critical vitamins and minerals they need, significantly reducing cases of anemia, goiter, and a slew of other health problems – some of which result in lifelong blindness or even death.