> food : distribution
Behind a basket of potatoes in a city retailer's shop is a system that has brought it from a farmer who produced it perhaps hundreds of kilometers away. The potatoes have been bought, washed, sorted, graded, sacked, transported, assembled and distributed to the shop by the various specialists engaged in that work.
today our food is supplied by a complicated distribution system."The conversion to individual ownership of an area of land in central Africa, hitherto farmed on a traditional group basis, and the establishment of a favourable marketing system resulted in a doubling of total agricultural output in the first year, without any special input of capital equipment or extension activity."
the business of food provision, the responsibility for feeding has changed. families no longer grow their own foodstuffs. collective production, distribution and consumption has been broken down into component activities, specialization. this shift in responsibility augments production:
- Marketing - Its Role In Increasing Productivity, FAO, page 7
the evidence for specialization surrounds us; it is perhaps the single most impacting accompaniment to the increasing presence of tools. by dividing tasks and labour amongst available hands, it is possible to produce more, as noted above. "traditional group" structure is abandoned, in this case, in favour of rewarding greater output without specific regard for family."The meat was not of high quality since it was not until the 18th century that improved strains of beef-cattle and sheep were developed; and since they had no means of refrigeration, butchers could not allow their carcases to hang long enough to make them tender. Also, for much of the year fresh meat was difficult to obtain, as cattle were slaughtered in the autumn, there being no means of feeding them during the winter months. So meat still had to be preserved in brine or powdered with salt; and huge amounts of salted beef were eaten."
in the case of food distribution, this shift is quite dramatic.
the pre-technological farmer was the typical citizen. the duties of farming encompassed the extended family, or village, if non family members lived nearby. they produced what they needed to eat, and maybe a little more; in 1962, "...still very common in Asia, Africa and Latin America is the small holding worked primarily to feed the farmer's family, but producing a small seasonal surplus which is sold at a village market to pay taxes, meet social obligations or to obtain a few things which the farmer cannot produce himself." (Marketing - It's Role In Increasing Productivity, FAO, 1962, page 7)
the farmer's small production permits him to exploit his labour pool and available resources to expand beyond his immediate needs without changing the scale of his endeavors. that small surplus is exactly the product of organized agriculture, and the harbinger of global food distribution. food distribution technology is developed by that urge to turn that surplus into something that might sustain over the long term, rather than simply piecemeal life improvements.
stone age food management cannot sustain that surplus food storage or distribution. but as people became settled, managing the supply of food throughout the year became an increasingly complex managed task; here speaking of renaissance europe:
- from the The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, 1970-83, as quoted in Food in England Since 1066 -- A Vegetarian Evolution?, Compiled by John Davis
preservatives more complex than salt are critical to food composition, especially now that we expect those foodstuffs to last for months and even years in the trucks and barges between the fields and factories, and on the shelves in the stores where we buy them.what do we do if/when the food distribution system breaks down?
these technologies of prolonging the shelflives and expanding the flavours of foods are intimately tied to the modern system of food distribution; without them we could not expect to feed as many urban dwellers as we do. but even more than chemicals hidden in foodstuffs, the distribution of food today is more or less invisible. invisible means embedded - in this case, out of our reach. i do not handle my food before i cook and eat it, and as noted elsewhere in the food section, an estimated fewer than 85% of the american population doesn't neither.
the use of human employees in the distribution of foods concerns primarily the ordering of packaging, a holdover task that should soon be managed by fully computerized containerized freight; this development is evidenced in comments from ethan holland, who worked in an enormous frozen food storage facility in the mid-atlantic coast. there he was performing tasks informed by, preceded by, and surrounded by machines. he was needed insofar as machines have not been refined to the point of making all of the right decisions with regard to stacking cases of ice cream.
his participation in the process of putting van de kamp's fish sticks on my plate is invisible to me. one of the integral aspects of the system of food distribution is its transparency - we only have to know about it if it goes broke.
i was turned on to the situation in late 1996 by a crotchety old buddhist, Dan, who sat in a cafe on lower haight street advising numerous young actresses and saying mantras over some old beads. he admonished me to store food, and opened my eyes to the massive engineered food distribution network around me.
from september, 1996 notes:
used to be you could walk out of town and kill a rabbit, now, no sir
mcdonald's is the daily cafeteria for millions, if their trucks didn't make it, there would be some serious suffering,
or not, people can survive for weeks without food,
like carl, he would survive in comfort, he's got three months worth of supplies (including 50 lbs charcoal) to keep him going through the next earthquake and result loss of power and freeway
what about the rest of us?
me, I'm coasting through so many things, being prepared for survival in the event of physical realm catastrope is not on my list
but he made me think seriously about survivalism
especially if it's just as simple as buying a few extra canned goods and storing some extra water
a little paranoia can go a long way I guess
but me, I'm relying on larger things for now, no pantry for to provide.
what was especially alien to me at the time was the entire notion of having to collect food in an urban environment. would trash be the only option? depends on whether things were bad enough to warrant squirrel sushi.
for me as a typical mindles urban consumer, it took this kind of survivalist, doomsday scenario to make me aware of being absolutely subject to food distribution expertise.