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The Third Relationship
It is curious how seldom the all-importance of food is recognized.
— George Orwell
On a bright, cloudless morning, a slim Bushman walked away from the security of civilization and into the vast expanse of the Kalahari Desert. Trekking up and down gently rolling hills of shifting sand, he panned the horizon for signs of life. The wet season, marked by sporadic rain showers and lasting just a few weeks, was over. Plants and roots were mostly dormant. Insects had sought shelter in tunnels. Birds were sparse. Fruits and leaves had all but disappeared. Carrying only a short digging stick, he moved in silence, occasionally poking the ground to probe for signs of edible roots or wandering insects.
My friend Paul and I were tagging along. Searching for food in this desolate land on the other side of the world seemed surreal. We did not speak the Bushman's language, nor he ours, so communication was limited to gestures and facial expressions. Training our attention on his every movement, we dutifully followed behind, trying to keep pace while our feet battled the deep desert sand beneath us.
Our chance venture had happened so quickly that we barely had time to grab hats and water bottles, let alone contemplate whether we were putting ourselves in harm's way. Now, surrounded by endless red hills accented by thorn trees and desert bushes, we were ill-prepared should something go awry.
Conspicuously absent were signs of civilization. There were no people moving about, farms growing crops, ranches with fence lines, or wire strung between telephone poles. As I looked across the unending terrain, barren of trails or markers that could guide us back, it dawned on me that my compass was back in camp. Should we become separated from the Bushman, the Sun rising toward the center of the sky would be our only reference. Knowing that our fate rested with someone we had just met less than an hour ago, a heavy feeling descended over me; our lives were in his hands. We needed him, and he did not need anything from us.
Marching along, he stopped occasionally to point at something far off in the distance. Try as we might, our untrained eyes could not detect what he saw so easily. As he motioned, we nodded our heads in acknowledgment, as if this gesture had somehow improved our vision. A bit farther along, he changed direction to move downwind of whatever invisible creature was lurking.
As the morning wore on and the temperature climbed, fatigue settled in. Then, without warning, he quickened his pace. He had picked up signs of an ostrich, that flightless nomadic bird weighing up to three hundred pounds. With tracking skills honed over a lifetime, he guided us past clues that ended at a clump of bushes. Tucked beneath the bushes was a clutch of ostrich eggs, likely deposited by more than one female. Each egg, we would later learn, weighed between three and five pounds.
Before he took a closer look, the Bushman scanned in all directions for signs of nearby life. When threatened, an ostrich's first instinct is to hide or run, its powerful legs reaching speeds up to forty-five miles per hour. But if the bird chooses to fight, one powerful kick from those same legs can easily break the bones of its aggressor.
A mother ostrich, unwilling to surrender her offspring, was not the only threat. Hyenas in search of food could also be within close range. When he was satisfied that we were clear of immediate danger, the Bushman kneeled and peered at each of the half-dozen or so eggs. Pleased with what he had found, he reached in and carefully removed a single egg. Cradling it in his hands, he stepped away, leaving the remaining eggs undisturbed.
The Bushman handled the egg gently, savoring the reward of an age-old primal drive to seek food. In this desolate sea of sand, where scarcity reigned and there was no telling where the next meal would come from, uncovering a treasure trove of protein-rich, energy-dense ostrich eggs marked a rare find and a good day.
Paul and I were already preparing for what would happen next: between the three of us and one daypack, we would tote the remaining eggs back to his fellow Bushmen, also known as the San people. His sudden good fortune would bring welcome smiles from the community. His stature would rise a notch higher.
But when we pointed down at the remaining eggs and gestured our willingness to help carry them, he walked away. A single egg would suffice. His response bewildered me. All living beings, no matter their culture or species, are driven by the quest for food. Passing it up seemed unnatural, and certainly not conducive to survival. There, deep within this African desert, I witnessed something almost unfathomable to a Westerner.
Following our time in Namibia, Paul returned to his career in Minnesota and I resumed my work directing agricultural health and food-safety programs from my headquarters in Costa Rica. One day a package arrived. During our desert trek, Paul had snapped a photo of our guide with his arms behind his back, one hand clenching his digging stick, as he stared out at the red, sandy plains of the Kalahari. Paul had framed the picture and sent it to me where it soon found a new home alongside my computer. Whenever the daily grind of deadlines and meetings took its toll, momentarily gazing at the image helped me restore perspective.
Since then, I have learned more about our Kalahari adventure. Less than 10 percent of ostrich eggs survive the seven-week incubation period. Only 15 percent of hatched chicks reach one year of age. Some seventy eggs are needed to yield a one-year-old ostrich. But if just one egg becomes that single adult, the cycle can continue with an untold number of eggs for decades to come. Ostriches, it turns out, are some of the longest-living animals on Earth, capable of surviving some forty years in the wild.
While this helped explain why the Bushman took only one egg, I still couldn't fully square his decision (or the San people's lifestyle) with what I perceived to be human nature. After all, laying claim to all of the eggs was his reward for making the effort to hunt, especially since he had no assurances of finding food. Also, he would have known that predators like hyenas roamed the desert. If they were to come across that clutch of eggs, their actions would be less magnanimous.
Besides, with no one from his community looking on, he was free to indulge his own appetites. Given his thin frame, he would have likely benefited from extra calories and protein, and he surely would have enjoyed them. Even if he had denied himself personally, he could have generated much goodwill by sharing the eggs with others.
Leaving those eggs behind seemed at odds with what I thought of as the universal approach to food scarcity: always take advantage of having more food on hand whenever possible. Yet the more I stared at that photo, the more I realized that my perspective wasn't universal. It was decidedly Western.
My modern world had brought about such an immense availability of food that past generations of Bushmen would have found hard to even imagine. It had changed how people related to food. But had something else happened along the way? Had an abundance of food changed modern society in ways its people never considered?
Living apart from the rest of the world for more than twenty thousand years, the Bushmen were reminders of how humans first related to food. To meet the need for daily nourishment, they lived nomadic lives, continually hunting and gathering. Their odds of survival ebbed and flowed with the availably of edible plants, roots, nuts, insects, and animals, which in turn depended on a dynamic environment. They had to withstand disease and pestilence, flash floods, severe temperatures, and droughts. Besides the constant uncertainty, little else could be taken for granted.
In the full scope of history, it was not that long ago when my ancestors' path diverged from that of the Bushmen. My early forebears eventually became dissatisfied with the precarious hunter-gatherer life and began to experiment with the environment. Manipulating its cycles of life, they gathered and spread seeds, learning how to propagate edible plants. They domesticated animals. As they harvested the fruits of seeds they had sown, and the meat and milk from animals they had raised, they changed their relationship with food.
This second food relationship — farming — was far from placid, but it offered the first glimpses of stability. Through trial and error, people cultivated and crossbred crops that produced higher yields, fended off pests and disease, and became more resilient to swings in temperature. Literally and figuratively, they put down roots. It took two million years, until 1804, for the human population to surpass one billion people. But as farmers became more proficient, the world's population doubled to two billion people in the next 123 years.
Step back for a moment in time to 1776. A new nation had declared its independence from the British Empire. As America embarked on its own path, two resolutions were brought before the Second Continental Congress that recommended aid for farmers. As Thomas Jefferson later declared, "Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness."
In 1790, the inaugural census reported that 90 percent of the labor force worked in farming. Those numbers would change quickly as the first patent law spurred mechanical innovations in planting, harvesting, processing, and preserving food. When the Civil War began seven decades later, few expected it to last long. But improvements in farming and processing meant more men could remain on the battlefield; fewer were needed back home to grow food. The war raged on for four years.
In the midst of those years of carnage, the die was cast for what would become our third relationship with food. With President Lincoln's signature, land was made freely available to anyone willing to homestead and farm it; states and the federal government established a platform for agriculture education, science, and experimentation; a national department of agriculture was created; and, paving the way to later distribute food across the country, a transcontinental railroad was built.
What Lincoln had set in motion cannot be understated. Though America was still in its infancy, no other nation had started out with such abundant fresh water, rich topsoil, open land, and favorable climate. An engaged citizenry believed in the role of government to improve their lives through laws they had pushed to enact. Almost immediately, the nation's investment in government and science paid dividends through higher levels of food production.
With that abundance, a new welcome reality settled in. Households no longer needed to produce their own food. By 1880, less than half the labor force worked on farms. As workers left the fields for new jobs in America's booming industrial economy, families moved away from rural areas. Instead of a nation of farmers as the founders once envisioned, American society was quickly becoming a new class of food consumers — one that, as time went by, knew less and less about where their food came from.
The third relationship to food had taken root. At its core was the "grand food bargain." As with any bargain, there were two parties. One was a rapidly growing society of consumers who wanted more food with less effort. The other was a rapidly growing industry of food providers whose profits depended on volume. The vehicle that kept the grand food bargain on track was the modern food system. Like most systems, this one operated with a singular purpose — continually turn out more food year after year. Food scarcity, a fact of life for 2.8 million years of human existence, would no longer control the nation.
Indeed, as the nineteenth century came to a close, food surplus became a national challenge. The need to find new markets for a glut of American products helped drive the former colony to begin taking its own, controlling five, including Guam and the Philippines, by the end of 1898. As one historian wrote, "Merchants and manufacturers salivated at the prospect of a launching pad for trade with China; magazines and newspapers were full of calculation about the fabulous wealth that awaited them if they could persuade the Chinese to wear cotton clothes, use American kerosene, build with American nails, or begin eating bread and meat instead of rice and vegetables." Whether it was expansion into Asia or, later, protection of US-owned banana plantations in Central America, an abundance of food had become part of American foreign policy — one backed up with military force.
The twentieth century brought even more food. Sixteen years after the Wright Brothers demonstrated their first airplane, aerial crop dusting began. Large warehouses were built to accommodate refrigerated railcars. As prosperity climbed, the portion of household income that consumers spent on food fell.
America's plenty did not go unnoticed in other parts of the world. German imperialists watched in dismay when the United States increased wheat acreage by more than 50 percent in five years to meet Europe's wartime demand. Less than a decade after Germany's defeat in World War I, Adolf Hitler wrote that "Europeans — often without realizing it — take the circumstances of American life as the benchmark for their own lives." Hitler was envious of America's land empire and its food system. Plotting Germany's return to power, he wrote that "to lead a life comparable to that of the American people" required taking the fertile lands of neighboring countries so more food could be produced without disrupting German manufacturing industries.
In fact, World War II marked the only time when food in America had to be rationed. To feed the armed forces, more processed and canned foods were produced and shipped overseas. Fresh fruits and vegetables were still grown domestically, but they were harder to come by in cities as transport vehicles, tires, and gasoline were diverted to support the war effort.
When the war ended, so too did rationing. New policies and programs underwrote loans, funded research, created new markets, and provided insurance that together incentivized greater production. The technology that had been used to build bombs and chemicals was channeled into producing food. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, more-powerful farm equipment, animals packed together (some on top of each other) and raised with antibiotics — all contributed to the modern industrialized food system.
For the most part, consumers were content with their grand food bargain. Technology like flash freezing and preservatives helped fill cupboards and refrigerators with food. "TV dinners" and other prepared meals meant less time in the kitchen. The microwave oven, the upshot of an engineer conducting research on radar and discovering that the candy bar in his pocket had melted, allowed meals to cook in record time.
A generation after the war, food rationing had been banished to footnotes in history books. Being surrounded by food was the new normal. Farming had replaced hunting and gathering. The grand food bargain had replaced farming. An abundance of food was taken for granted.
Today, enough calories are churned out per person in the United States to feed two moderately active adult women. Expending effort to cook, prepare, and clean up afterward is now optional, bordering on obsolete. Without giving it much thought, Americans experience convenience and selection that legions of royalty never dreamed about. Anybody can have and eat unlimited portions of whatever food they desire, so long as they bring money.
Take, for example, fresh eggs, found almost any time in any grocery store. The sheer number of cartons, typically stacked high on rolling pallets behind the glass doors of room-sized coolers, suggests their supply is unlimited. The lower the price, the more consumers will buy — including shoppers who didn't come into the store with eggs on their list. All act independently of each other, never asking themselves how their individual actions might affect overall supply.
The fact that the production of eggs depends on a solitary planet governed by laws of nature, with set limits on resources like water and land, has no bearing on the number of eggs each person decides to take with them. Our third relationship to food allows us to ignore anything beyond personal considerations, and certainly anything unpleasant. It is this relationship to food that Paul and I brought to the Kalahari when we encouraged the Bushman to empty the clutch of all its ostrich eggs.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Grand Food Bargain"
Copyright © 2019 Kevin D. Walker.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Taking Stock Chapter 1. The Third Relationship Chapter 2. My Food, My Way
Part II: Forces Driving More Chapter 3. More is Never Enough Chapter 4. An Infinite Supply of Finite Resources Chapter 5. Expecting More, Committing Less Chapter 6. Science À La Carte Chapter 7. Becoming a Market Society
Part III:Unexpected Consequences Chapter 8. The World’s Safest Food Chapter 9. The Perfect Formula Chapter 10. Controlling Nature
Part IV: Decisions You'll Make Chapter 11. Live and Learn Chapter 12. To Lead or Be Led?
Acknowledgments Notes Index