Industrial Food Chain: What is it? Omnivore’s Dilemma

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is the Industrial Food Chain? How does it produce food? How’s the industrial food chain different from organic farming? Learn the key facts from Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Changing to Industrial Food Chains

We used to rely on a traditional food chain: It started with animals and crops raised locally on small farms and sold locally. We prepared it ourselves and very little processing was involved.

Nowadays, the industrialization of the traditional food chain, to the point that food is now mass produced with the aid of chemicals and reshaped through processing, has changed how we eat.

  • The industrial food chain depends on energy from fossil fuels rather than relying totally on the sun. This has greatly increased the amount of food energy available to us, but has created many new problems, including pollution and health issues.
  • The industrial food chain is built on monocultures — huge farms growing or producing just one thing for maximum efficiency but to the detriment of the environment. 
  • Corn is the dominant species of the industrial food chain.

For the rest of the country, corn is a key ingredient in much of we eat. Out of 45,000 items in a typical supermarket, a quarter are derived from corn. It’s a component of beer, soda, coffee whitener, spreadable cheese, microwaveable dinners, cake mixes, condiments, and hot dogs. Most processed foods contain an array of hard-to-pronounce ingredients derived from corn.

The Evolution of Industrial Farming

Today most of our food comes from corn-based industrial farms. But in the early 1900s, most farms started out as diverse operations, with corn, fruits/vegetables, oats, hay, chickens, and pigs. One in four Americans lived on a farm.

Beginning in the fifties and sixties the availability and cheap price of corn made it more profitable to fatten livestock on feedlots, and chickens in giant factories. So chickens and cattle moved from farms to industrial areas, creating space for farmers to plant more corn, which made it even cheaper.

By the 1980s, diversified farms had basically disappeared in Iowa and a single crop or monoculture — corn —  dominated.

Growing just corn required much less labor than diversified farming, thanks to fertilizer, pesticides, mechanization, and other practices. Monoculture farms got bigger but required fewer people to operate.

Here’s how industrial farming works today. George Naylor is a typical farmer, raising corn and soybeans in Greene County, Iowa. Naylor rotates the two crops. (Soybeans have become the second crop supporting the industrial food system; like corn, they’re fed to livestock and are a component of a majority of processed foods.)

Naylor plants a hybrid corn variety developed by Monsanto, which yields 180 bushels per acre; in 1920 the average was about 120 bushels per acre. The higher yields stem from the fact that the hybrid corn can be planted close together.  It has a stronger root system, stands up straight, and is amenable to mechanized harvesting.

Naylor and other midwestern farmers are going nearly broke because the price they get for corn doesn’t cover their costs — and it keeps declining as they get more productive (we’ll explain more about why later). Naylor’s farm, which has been in his family for generations, no longer financially supports the four people who live on it; his wife works off the farm and he depends on a federal subsidy.

Industrial Food Chain: What is it? Omnivore’s Dilemma

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" at Shortform . Learn the book's critical concepts in 20 minutes or less .

Here's what you'll find in our full Omnivore's Dilemma summary :

  • What does Omnivore's Dilemma mean?
  • Why is industrial farming so bad for you and the environment?
  • How did corn and its byproducts (like corn syrup) end up in tens of thousands of foods?
  • How is Industrial Organic food like at Whole Foods not much better than massive industrial farming?
  • What happens when you try to forage for your own food?

Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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