The Globalization of Food: Farming our Way to Famine for 500 Years

The Globalization of Food: Farming our Way to Famine for 500 Years

Presented at the Food Sustainability Conference “The Real Dirt on Food: Unearthing the Controversies Behind the Food We Eat,” March 17 2007,Toronto. Hosted by the Hart House Social Justice Committee


There are many ways to think about the globalization of food and some of the more common ones are that it is historically recent, economically viable and great for our wallets and personal menu plans – these views can be captured by the symbol of the 2-for-a-buck avocados available most times of the year in most supermarkets in temperate zones like ours. Avocados are recent entrants to the Canadian diet, they’re a great source of cheap nutrients and calories, they come from trees that can’t survive our winter, and they add flavour to all sorts of meals – they are quite simply marvels of contemporary economic, cultural and technological connectivity! Vive la globalization!

I would like to challenge the 50-cent-avocado perspective today by proposing a number of modifications to these assumptions:

1. Food has been globalizing for a long time in many different ways. This has had profound effects on the unfolding of human history and most of them have not been positive.

2. Our contemporary globalized food production system is not sustainable for lots of different and sometimes interconnecting reasons.

3. Rather than celebrate the cheap avocado or Amazon burger on our plates, we should be profoundly disturbed at the lack of our own food security – not to mention the food security of those producing the food for us.

To summarize then, I would like to add the dimensions of historical perspective, sustainability and security to our understanding of globalized food production systems.

I’m going to prime our thinking about these things by doing the briefest of histories of food production in human history. My history will focus on events and processes in the North American/North Atlantic region with occasional forays further abroad to illustrate points. This focus is necessary because I don’t know enough about Chinese or Indian or Zimbabwean food history to tell a credible tale, and hopefully, it’s also relevant since it is largely our ‘food story’ as people living in Canada today.

Early Trade in Food

If we define ‘food’ very broadly to include all the things we ingest, then there has been some trade in food across smaller and larger distances at least since there have been state societies in which people could specialize as merchants. But, these very early trade networks focussed only on luxury items and additives like spices. Staple or regularly consumed food had to come from the local context because it was too expensive and time-consuming to move it very far by animal, human or sail power. For example, wine and olive oil were shipped around theRoman empirebut they were not part of local diets of average citizens; as luxuries, they were consumed by elites only.

As long as we live in stratified societies where some people command excess wealth, there will likely continue to be a trade in luxury foods and stimulants. But it is worth noting that until about the last 500 years, none of these trade routes linked the whole planet together – none were global in other words.

The Colombian Exchange

That changes when Colombus lands in the New Worldin 1492. Henceforward, while not all trade networks and patterns were global, they all had the potential to become global.

As you may know, the first impulse of Europeans in theNew Worldwas to extract wealth in the form of silver and gold. But it soon became obvious that not all newly conquered territories could produce what was then hard cold cash, and so in different climates, different agricultural crops were cultivated for sale around the world. Some of the most notable of these were sugar in the Caribbean, along the northeast coast of South America and in Florida; tobacco in temperate eastern North America, cacao in Central and South America; and later, coffee in the same places as cacao.

What all of these export crops have in common with each other is that they were all novelties in Europe at first which meant that they fetched high prices, they were all storable and shippable in a semi-processed form, and they were all stimulants rather than staple foods. In a way, we can imagine the early trans-Atlantic trade in sugar, rum, chocolate, tobacco and coffee as a kind of drug trade as none of these products is particularly nutritionally valuable and all of them produce altered mood states.

The Columbian exchange involved food at another level too: the transfer of species. What I mean by that is that staple food for consumption was not generally shipped around the world because it was still too bulky, expensive and time consuming to do so – that kind of shipping didn’t become possible until ocean-going coal and oil powered steamships become accessible in the 19th Century. But there was an exchange of seeds and species between the New and Old Worlds which brought wheat, barley, oats and rice to theNew World and potatoes, corn and sweet potatoes to the Old. As well, cattle, pigs, chickens and horses were all introduced to theNew World where they thrived in environments where they often had fewer risks of dying from diseases and predators of their native environments – at least at first.

This exchange of key agricultural crops and livestock had the consequence of vastly increasing the world’s output of food. The reason for this is that these different crops require different conditions to thrive so that, for example, potatoes will grow at higher altitudes and in wetter conditions than the old European grain crops. This meant that European farmers could exploit more of their lands to grow food – especially the high calorie staple foods like corn and potatoes. Conversely, in the New World, the vast plains of North andSouth Americaturned out to be perfect for European grain crops – at least for a while. The result of all this extra food was that lots more people could be fed and so lots more survived to reproduce and so the global population began its vertiginous climb: it doubles between 1650 and 1850 (from 550mil to 1.17bil) and then more than doubles again from 1850 to 1950 (1.17bil to 2.45bil).

As an aside, the intensification of food production in the late 1700s, along with a few labour-saving devices, meant that fewer people needed to be farmers in order to feedEurope’s growing commercial centres. This created a surplus rural population with no work to do who were forced to migrate to cities and towns where, coincidentally, there were new things called ‘manufactories’ where merchants were hiring workers to produce goods in increasingly mechanized workshops. This is the birth of industrial capitalism and it’s clear that it couldn’t have happened the way it did without an increased food supply and growing population – both to make the goods and to consume them.

As well as fuelling huge population increases, the Colombian exchange also had an impact on species diversity. What would you predict the impact to have been? … Right, where new crops chew out local ecosystems as more land is brought under cultivation, there is an overall decrease in species diversity. I quote historian Alfred Crosby:

“It is possible that [humans] and the plants and animals [they] bring with them have caused the extinction of more species of life forms in the last four hundred years than the usual processes of evolution might kill off in a million. … The Columbian exchange has left us with not a richer but a more impoverished genetic pool. We, all of the life on this planet, are the less forColumbus, and the impoverishment will increase.”

Steam Engines, Bananas & Bird Poop

Steam powered engines first get put into boats in the late 1700s and by the mid-1800s, ocean going vessels were plying the high seas. These early ships could make long journeys faster than sailboats and also didn’t have to worry about seasonal wind and current patterns which had limited scheduling options.

One problem was powering the steam cooker. The early steamships tended to ply rivers and lakes where they could re-supply their engines with wood along the shores. This changes in the 1800s with the introduction of the coal powered engine. Coal takes up less room for more energy which permitted longer travels away from forested coastlines. The coal-fired steam engine also powered railroads and the combination of ocean shipping with trans-continental railroads opened up huge new possibilities for escaping the limitations of food shipment that had been a reality until the mid 1800s. With cheap and fast bulk transport possible, lots more things, including food could be shipped across vaster distances and so they were.

As a point of curiosity here, the North American and European love affair with the banana began in the late 19th century because of the existence of steam ships that could move the fruit from Central America and laterAfrica, to northern consumers.

The nineteenth century also marks the beginning of the globalization of another aspect of food production: fertilizer. While European farmers were producing more food through intensification of planting, they were also wearing out soil fertility at a faster rate and having a hard time keeping up with fertilizing with only animal dung. In the early part of the century, first British and then American merchants realized there was a great market for bird poop, otherwise known as guano. Off the Peruvian coast, there lie a number of islands where it never rains and where millions of seabirds nest every year. The accumulation of guano on these islands was stupendous. Guano is a great fertilizer because it’s very high in nitrates and after being baked in the sun, it is relatively easy (though not painless) to harvest and transport. South American guano fuelled European agriculture for about 50 years until supplies started to decline from over harvesting and other, cheaper fertilizers became available.

Steam engine technology allowed the efficient movement of food, including perishables like bananas, and of the fertilizer to make food, across huge distances. Though many countries remained food self-sufficient in the 1800s, local self-sufficiency began to decline as people, particularly in huge urban centres, could access food from far distant regions of their own countries and of the world. This aided the expansion of urban industrial production in Northern countries as it made possible the collection of millions of people in one place, none of whom grew their own food.

The Price of Tea in China

There is an old quip that goes, ‘but what does that have to do with the price of tea inChina?’ I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wondered about this expression – why tea? WhyChina? Well because during the shift to and expansion of industrial production, particularly in its birthplace, Britain, the price of tea was actually one of the more important facts of the day – a bit like the price of crude oil today. The reason was that Chinese black tea combined withCaribbeansugar was one of the main caloric fuels of the new and growing industrial workforce – sweet tea was, if you will, the double espresso, Coca-Cola or Red Bull of its day. And the price of this staple source of calories and stimulation for an over-worked and underpaid labour force was a critical component in calculating wages – the cheaper the ‘food,’ the lower the wages.

Tea is the reason why Britain waged war with China in the first half of the 1800s. These wars, the Opium Wars as they are called, were over the right of British merchants to sell Afghan opium inChinain order to get back some of the millions of tons of sterling bullion the British spent inChinaacquiring tea for the masses every year.

Not only tea, but wheat, potatoes, milk and lard were all part of the working class diet and their prices mattered deeply to employers who didn’t want to pay high wages. They didn’t want to pay high wages because that would either force the price of goods out of the reach of potential consumers or it would cut into their profit margin. That, in turn, means that when you have an economic system, like our own, where people do not produce their own food but rather work for the money to buy it, the price of food becomes critical to many aspects of the economy including overall cost of living, labour relations and, of course, public health. In general, I think it’s fair to say that the trend over the last 200 years has been toward lowering the price of basic foods so as to keep wages down. We’ll see how that has been managed and with what consequences for sustainability in a moment.

The Age of Oil

With the invention of the internal combustion engine and the expansion of oil drilling in the last part of the 19th century, the world was set to enter the age of oil for better or mostly, for worse. WWI was a huge catalyst in the development of transportation equipment that used oil-based fuels and in the development, of course, of new types of weapons. You might wonder what weapons have to do with food but the connection is simple: nitrogen. Nitric acid is essential to both explosives and to inorganic fertilizer production and the same process revolutionized both areas. The Haber-Bosch process takes normal air and using natural gas (a byproduct of oil drilling) to burn off the oxygen, produces ammonia, a nitrogen product. This process was perfected by 1912, just in time to power upEurope’s war machines and to take up the slack of decreasing guano harvests around the world.

When you combine the combustion engine with inorganic sources of nitrogen fertilizers, something very interesting happens to lots of family farms in industrial countries: they no longer need to have animals in order to farm crops. They don’t need the animals to move the machinery or the harvest and they don’t need their manure to fertilize the land. Following the war, a new type of highly specialized farming emerges where farms are devoted to single crops or livestock but rarely both. This also allows the expansion in farm size since it isn’t limited by how much work can be extracted from how many animals and humans. Finally, it also reduces the need for human labour as more and more tasks are mechanized and powered by oil fuels.

There are many consequences of this shift. For starters, in areas where farming gets mechanized at this time, northern Europe andNorth America, the trend toward near total urbanization begins or, in other words, people leave rural areas for cities and towns in ever larger numbers. A second consequence is that land is much more deeply plowed and more severely compacted (which requires deeper plowing) by the use of ever bigger and heavier machines. A third consequence is that the speed of degradation of farms and pastures increases because plots of land are specialized – the same plant is grown or the same animal pastured year after year with no alteration between the two. Finally, because oil and natural gas were relatively abundant and cheap and because more food could be extracted from monocropped farms, food prices were lowered. This had a downside though because so much more food, especially staples like wheat and corn, were being produced than could be consumed and so prices often fell below the cost of production – enter farm subsidies, but that is another story.

Some of the costs of oil and natural gas based agriculture become obvious when you understand one not-so-distant-past event in North American history: the Dust Bowl. As you may know, in the 1930s, farmers in the Plains regions of theUSandCanadafaced a period of prolonged drought that caused them untold misery and hardship. The fact that theNew Yorkstock exchange had collapsed in the 1929 only made this period more difficult and painful. The drought began in 1931 and by 1935 about a billion tons of topsoil had been lost from the Plains as a result of wind erosion. The dust storms that this created sometimes lasted for hours or days and could grow to hundreds of miles across. By 1938, it was estimated that 480 tons of soil/acre had been lost to wind and drought. But the cause of the problem was more complicated than that. While the drought and winds were perhaps not the fault of human beings – though certainly deforestation of the region would have played a part here – wind erosion was as damaging as it was because the land was already suffering from over cultivation with tractors and metal plows and overgrazing particularly by cattle whose hooves are quite damaging to grasslands. As well, the consolidation of larger farms that mechanization permitted, meant that huge swathes of land were farmed contiguously with no breaks for fences or treelines. Some lessons were learned from this but not enough to prevent development experts from exporting tractors to the Sahel region following WWII, leading to similar degradation there and to the expansion of theSaharaDesert.

By tying both farm labour and soil fertility to hydrocarbons, we have now added a new dimension to how food is globalized because we rely on supplies of oil and natural gas from wherever they are produced in order to farm our key crops. Food has appeared to get cheaper under this system, but the real costs in terms of sustainability have been tremendous.

Firebombs & Crabgrass

As all wars are wont to do, WWII also brought about new technologies and improved on existing ones. In terms of agriculture, there is another interesting if unfortunate connection between food and weapons: pesticides. By pesticide, I mean any product designed to kill undesirable living things, be they insects, fungus or plants. Certain classes of pesticides, also mostly derived from oil, were developed before the war but they got a big boost during the war for a couple of reasons. One was that some of them were useful weapons like napalm which makes great fire bombs and also kills crabgrass, or 2,4,5T which is a herbicide and a key ingredient in Agent Orange which was used to defoliate jungle areas. A second reason for the development of synthetic insecticides was that prior to the war,Japanhad been the primary supplier of a natural insecticide, pyrethrum, which is made from chrysanthemums. With no trade between enemies, Western countries had to find other alternatives and they did.

Post-war crop agriculture got even more productive with the addition of synthetic pesticides to the already powerful combination of oil-powered equipment and natural gas-dependent fertilizers. Some trends begun before the war continued apace including the move out of rural areas into cities, the concentration of ownership and concomitant expansion in size of farms and specialized, monocropped intensive farming strategies.

The war also provided the technological key for changing livestock raising though it took a few decades to filter down. That key was antibiotic medicines to control bacterial disease. At first, these were expensive drugs whose use was restricted to humans, but by the 1960s, vets and farmers and agronomists began to realize their potential in animal husbandry. Keeping hundreds or thousands of the same species of animal together in close quarters was not possible, or at least not economically viable, until farmers could prevent the rapid spread of illness in these populations. But once the animals could be given prophylactic antibiotics, the main limitation on herd size was removed and thus began the development of feedlots for beef cattle, battery chicken coops for egg production and huge indoor confinement businesses for pigs and poultry chickens.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the globalization of food. These technological shifts were part of a new way to globalize food that emerged in the 1960s: the Green Revolution. Development experts identified one of the key problems in many ‘poor’ countries as insufficient food. They suggested then, that these people had to be given, not the food itself per se, but the technology or the know-how to grow more food for themselves. Western corporate scientists developed what are called High Yield Varieties of staple crops like wheat and rice that if given the right conditions, will outproduce naturally occurring varieties. These are not genetically modified in the newfangled way, they are merely cross-bred the old fashioned way to produce higher yields. Of course, they are also varieties that require huge inputs of fertilizer and pesticide to produce their optimum yield – without these inputs and precise irrigation, they yield less than normal varieties. The Green Revolution was extolled and sold around the world to hungry governments and desperate farmers.

At first, the success rates were miraculous – more wheat from the Punjab, more rice in Indonesia– but the costs quickly outweighed the gains. Since farmers had to buy the seed, the fertilizer, the pesticide and the fuel to run the irrigation pumps, only the wealthier ones were able to compete – smaller and poorer farmers went out of business and joined the post-war rising tide of urban migration in southern, developing countries. As well, local pests were foiled successfully for a few years, but they eventually got more and more resistant to ever greater doses of pesticides resulting in what are called today, super-pests. Finally, with all these expensive inputs, green revolution food is much more expensive than old-fashioned varieties and so didn’t end up alleviating food shortages though on paper, it made countries look food sufficient. In fact, a lot of GR crops were sold as exports to people somewhere else who could afford them.

WWII added to our farming toolkits by providing us with synthetic pesticides and antibiotics. Western food production increased so dramatically that we felt confident that we could export some of our good ideas to parts of the world having trouble producing enough to eat. The global consequences of this technology exchange have been dramatic: increased urbanization around the world as small farmers go out of business; the rise of corporations controlling significant elements of food production like seeds; and the environmental and human health consequences of exposure to toxins in our food.

To boot, many intensively farmed regions around the world have also become infertile as a direct result of over-use of fertilizer and pesticides – they both have the consequence of destroying soil structure so that it can no longer hold water or nutrients and becomes effectively dead. Over-irrigation has also killed productive land by causing salts in the minerals in soil to percolate to the surface. Covering land with salt is an old Roman trick to starve enemy populations – we’ve been doing it to ourselves. And to add insult to injury, the over-use of antibiotics on humans and animals has given rise to extremely resistant and deadly forms of bacteria like E. coli and salmonella in our food and deadly staphylococcus in our hospitals.

Comparative Advantage, Corporate Control and Suburban Sprawl

The last phase in the globalization of food is one most of us are more familiar with. This is where we began our journey: with the global trade in foodstuffs linking producers and consumers across the planet by means of cheap produce. The overall mechanism for this current food regime is the economic idea of comparative advantage whereby a peaceful and harmonious global community is created by virtue of everyone producing just exactly what they’re good at and then trading on a free market with everyone else. Of course, the system is intimately dependent on cheap fuel to move the stuff around and farm it, cheap labour where mechanization hasn’t worked, consistency of supply and conformity of product.

One of the keys in this new global food production regime is the corporate control of both land and food. While actual independent ‘farmers’ continue to bear the risks of good or bad seasons, they are increasingly controlled by and at the mercy of a few seed companies, and a few main buyers and processors of their products. To the extent that a species has become intellectual property via its genetic code; to the extent that a few buyers can set prices and terms; and, to the extent that a few companies control the global trade in key foods like wheat; we have sacrificed independent control of our food system to unelected and unaccountable corporations.

The fact that most of us can now expect to eat lots of imported food – whether fresh meat and produce from other countries or processed foods containing essential ingredients from other places, we have collectively decided to forfeit farming for ourselves. This is not true everywhere inCanada, but certainly in the Greater Toronto Area, we have made the asinine calculation that farmland is worth more as cookie-cutter suburban development than it is as food producing land. Who needs the apple orchards of Niagara or eastern Ontario – those areas are within the acceptable 90 minute commute of the big smoke, so rip ‘em up and put houses on them, we’ll get our apples from Washington or BC. If they make the same decision as we have, who cares, we’ll eat Chilean or South African apples. Clearly, this is only going to work if oil remains cheap enough to move all this food around and if those who export food continue to want to do that when the imports they rely on get more expensive as oil prices climb. This situation, combined with corporate control, leaves most of us drastically food insecure. We have no direct or increasingly even regional or national claims to the food required for a varied and balanced diet.

In this new food world of ours, some of the themes we explored in history still hold true, most significantly, the pressure to keep food cheap. This is what explains the appeal of comparative advantage because it means that we Canadians can have a red pepper grown in far awayMexicocheaper than what we would pay Canadian farmers to grow it. This can happen because, in a sense, it’s not just the food that is globalized but the labour. We seek food produced by cheap labour so that our own wages can stagnate, thus keeping the costs of goods and services down while increasing corporate profits and shareholder payouts. When we don’t get the pepper fromMexico, we get it picked by Mexicans and Jamaicans working in Holland Marsh – the result is the same, exploit cheap labour to get cheap food to keep labour cheap. It’s a vicious circle with vicious consequences.

Summary & Discussion

I’ve tried to show that the globalization of food can be understood from many angles and not just as the production of food in different places around the world. As a result of the last 500 years of history, we have globalized food in the following ways:

  • Ø We have moved species around the world to take advantage of new ecosystems
  • Ø We have moved stimulants around the world to fuel work forces (not to feed them, mind, but to fuel them)
  • Ø We have moved fertilizers and later the ingredients needed to make them around the world and have at different times become dependent on far away sources of them
  • Ø We have developed a farming system that relies on hydrocarbons to work (machinery, fertilizer, pesticides) which means we are dependent on sources of these fuels to eat even if the food is locally grown
  • Ø We have moved technologies and knowledge about farming around the world as equipment and inputs like seed and pesticides
  • Ø We have moved food production to sites of cheap labour and moved cheap labour to sites of food production


The consequences of these globalizing tendencies can be summarized as follows:

  • Ø Loss of Biodiversity: Species have been brought to new niches, where they displace others and we increasingly farm fewer and fewer varieties of crops and animals in order to maximize yields
  • Ø Increased Human Population: Various ‘revolutions’ in farming have increased the global food supply which in turn has allowed a massive increase in the human population. We are now far too numerous to realistically imagine returning to global organic and sustainable production systems as these would feed, at most, about 1 billion of us.
  • Ø Global Climate Change: the way we produce and ship food contributes to global climate change via the use of hydrocarbons at all stages. For example, global meat production produces 18% of human-made greenhouse gases which is more than we produce driving cars.
  • Ø Human Health Consequences: These are too many to list but speaking for those living in this region of the world, we could include the consequences of exposure to pesticides on our food and in our water, the consequences of a highly processed diet (heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity), and the consequences of a suburban lifestyle for some of us (lack of exercise, exposure to car toxins, social isolation). I would add that we can’t blame the suburbs on food systems but we can say that they wouldn’t be what they are today without major changes in our food production and supply system.
  • Ø Loss of sustainability: As you know sustainable means forever; doing something sustainably means never having to stop doing it like that. For obvious reasons, a food system reliant on petrochemicals and fuels is not sustainable. Nor is one that relies on other people sacrificing their lands and water to feed strangers thousands of miles away. But the point at which this global exchange will likely collapse is far sooner than that distant speck on the horizon when we will run out of oil because we will destroy and exhaust and lose our arable soil long before that happens. In other words, pumping inorganic fertilizers and masses of pesticides into over-tilled, over-irrigated land is a short-term proposition because eventually the land gives out – it stops being able to support food crops – and/or blows or washes away because it lacks the structure to stick together.
  • Ø Loss of food security: I would hazard a guess that unless there are small farmers among us, no one in this room has actual or even potential food security. None of us has direct access to our own food. And we don’t even, for the most part, know how to grow the stuff so if we had the land, we wouldn’t necessarily be able to get much out of it.


That’s the short story about the bad news about the 2-for-a-buck avocados. Let’s take a few moments to brainstorm about how we might start to get out of this quagmire….


  • Ø Eat local produce
  • Ø Eat seasonal produce
  • Ø Eat organic but only after satisfying the first requirement
  • Ø Support retailers who buy local
  • Ø Grow your own; make your living space productive (roofs, patios, window boxes etc.)
  • Ø Support zoning protection of farms
  • Ø Pay higher prices so that farmers want to farm
  • Ø Pay living wages so that everyone can afford local food
  • Ø Eat as low on the food chain as possible – less or no animal products
  • Ø Don’t have kids
  • Ø Pressure govts to ban pesticides
  • Ø Pressure govts to disallow food patents – boycott the big bad companies if you can
  • Ø Other?

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