As a historian of food and agriculture, I am struck by how past catastrophes are frequently used as warnings of the existential threats our food system faces in the future. Those interested in promoting crop diversity, particularly those with a Slow Food or local farming bent, often invoke the Great Famine of mid-nineteenth century Ireland as a parable of the risks of relying on monocultures. Discussions on drought too invariably invoke the devastation of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s as a prime example of the need for better land management and farm policies. The conservation of the globe’s fisheries is often cast in the shadows the collapse of North Atlantic cod populations in the early 1990s, with this catastrophe used to promote sustainably caught or ethically farmed fish.
What is particularly notable about all these historical lessons, however, is that Western society seems to have never learnt them. Vast monocultures of soybeans, rice, wheat, and corn dominate nearly half of today’s arable land. In the American Midwest, many of the same agricultural areas that suffered through the Dust Bowl in the 1930s are still epicenters of drought today, despite the improvement of land management practices and decline in soil erosion. Exploitation of the ocean too remains remarkably consistent; global fish catches have increased exponentially since the cod collapse and international fish consumption is currently at an all-time high.
The lessons from these past catastrophes may not therefore lie in their devastating causes, but perhaps instead in their wake. In many profound ways, our modern food system still bears the scars of these catastrophes. Its current strength, however positively or negatively one chooses to interpret that word, can be derived directly from this past resilience.
My doctoral research focuses on the history of the development of food and agricultural practices in the United States. The history of monoculture in America is a prime example of crises adaptation in action. The life of a farmer has always been a precarious one and it is easy to forget that for much of modern history – particularly in the era before the mid-twentieth century’s “Green Revolution” and its related advances in grain productivity – it was tremendously hard to make enough food to feed everyone. This was particularly true in the late nineteenth-century United States, where the impact of weather on crop yields was compounded by rapid technological, economic, and demographic shifts in the wake of the Civil War. Between 1850 and 1900, the American population tripled from roughly twenty-three million to over seventy-six million. The expansion of railroads meant that farmers now competed in national and even international markets for their goods. An influx of outside capital to fuel this competition meant that it was no longer just farmers who were interested in the profitability of farmland, but banks and insurance companies too. While food distribution expanded geographically and the average incomes of farmers remained relatively steady, individual farmers were exposed to more risk than ever before, resulting in widespread political protest and organizing in farming communities throughout this period.
The combination of demographic growth, rapid urbanization, and a changing agricultural system meant that eating in the nineteenth-century was a tenuous affair, one characterized by high food prices, dramatic market variability, and periodic supply shortages. Such instability resulted in widespread food insecurity and nutritional deficiencies, so much so that the average American life-expectancy and height declined over the course of the nineteenth century. These difficulties were exacerbated by the fact that a working-class family in the United States was estimated to have spent half of its income on feeding itself.
It is no coincidence that this period of dramatic change also birthed the United States Department of Agriculture and saw the expansion of the land-grant college system, a network of educational institutions geared towards promoting the science of agriculture. The primary mission of these institutions was to develop advances in farming that would bolster farm incomes while maintaining a stable food supply. Many of these advances were geared towards developing new varieties of crops that exhibited characteristics – a more uniform shape, easier harvesting, better durability during transport – beyond flavour and tradition. In this context, the loss of heirloom crop varieties was the unfortunate byproduct of attempts to support farmers to maintain their incomes and consumers to enjoy these types of fresh foods more regularly.
Of course, pear aficionados were devastated to lose a pear that had a flavour – at least according to horticulturist U.P. Hendrick, author of The Pears of New York (1921) – that was “rather better than that of any other pear.” But the fact remained that this particular pear, as Hendrick himself admitted, was “not at all suitable for commercial orchards” and its survival thus depended on “collections of pears for home use.” While they may have had concerns of their own, when it came to their incomes, farmers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were happy to rely on fruit trees that were easier to harvest, while most eaters thrilled by the fact that they could go to the market and regularly encounter pears. Where in 1870, fruit was virtually non-existent from the American diet, by the 1920s a wide-variety of these once-luxuries were now considered staples.
The Dust Bowl too offers a lesson in adaptability, but not in how policymakers dealt with the physical reality of drought. After a boom in farm output during the First World War, the 1920s were again a period of farm crisis, as markets disappeared and crop prices plummeted seemingly overnight. Reformers sought to rectify what they saw as the “inefficiencies” of rural life through the application of industrial ideals to agricultural production, but these efforts did little to dampen the devastation of farming regions during the Great Depression. These struggles were compounded by a massive and unprecedented drought across the Midwest in 1930 and 1931, resulting in the famous Dust Bowl centered over central Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle. Thousands of farmers and their families migrated westward, seeking out fertile lands and stable incomes.
It is easy to paint this moment as one of unmitigated failure on many fronts (and it certainly was), but – in the same period – this region was responsible for the birth of industrial chicken farming. Markets for fruits and vegetables may have dried up, but profits were still to be made on chickens and eggs; two products that at the time straddled the area between everyday staple and a luxury good. In response to these rapidly shifting economic and ecological circumstances, entrepreneurs such as John W. Tyson in Arkansas and Jesse Jewell in Georgia began crowd-sourcing chickens and eggs from the local area, driving from farm to farm to pick up a few dozen eggs here, a handful of chickens there, and then trucking them thousands of miles to urban markets such as Chicago that were still financially stable enough to purchase these types of foods. As part of efforts to mitigate their own financial risk, Tyson and Jewell gradually acquired hatcheries, feed mills, commercial growing houses, and systems by which they could extend credit to farmers. These are the origins of vertically-integrated chicken firms, which emerged from drought and financial precarity to become the industries that now produce the most widely consumed form of animal protein on the planet today.
Marine species declines too can provide insights into how the food system changed in response to catastrophe. Oysters were once one of the most common foods in the United States, so much so that they were amongst the most popular form of protein in nineteenth-century cookbooks. Recipes reflected this abundance and popularity, calling for up to two hundred oysters to make a stew or one hundred and fifty to make a pie. America’s love of oysters eventually took its toll, however, and by the turn of the twentieth century, national oyster populations were irreversibly declining. Faced with compounded ecological devastation caused by over-harvesting and pollution, as well as a corresponding decline in income, the individuals who farmed or harvested oysters had to decide how to adapt with the resources and investments they had. By the 1930s, those along the Gulf Coast chose to move their ships and reconfigure their canning factories to focus on a new animal: shrimp. Markets and culinary culture, in turn, adapted to this novel ingredient, consuming it in many of the same ways it once did with oysters, eventually making shrimp even more popular than oysters once were.
It should be emphasized that move away from heirloom pears and towards chicken and shrimp occurred in very specific historical contexts, notably ones that did not have to grapple with climate change and our planet’s increasingly uncertain ecological future. Agribusiness, chicken production, and shrimp farming are three industries that are rife with deep flaws that harm people, animals, and the environment. Yet, at one point they were understood as solutions to the specific and incredibly pressing problems of their times.
Origin stories, of course, do not explain why an institution or practice endures over the long-term, but the fact that these production practices have lasted so long, despite the many fearful declarations against them, likely stems from their birth during crises. Due to the concerted efforts of individuals, businesses, and governments to keep the food system functioning during catastrophes, the way we produce food is in many ways more adaptable in the face of crises in the places that survived and needed to be rebuilt. Instead of emphasizing the lessons farmers and eaters never seem to learn and ideal solutions that never seem to appear, we should focus on those lessons that our forebears did learn, even if we don’t quite agree with them today. The structures of our modern food system are incredibly resilient today because of its survival in the past. Improving it for the future and ensuring that this adaptability remains requires fully understanding all the ways this strength came to be.