Features & Images » Feature Story

The real price of today's cheap food



The floors and the peppers both glimmer with a waxy sheen. Long, symmetrical aisles are stocked with rows of brilliantly coloured packages, all vying for our attention with bold claims of healthfulness. The dairy products sport images of idyllic pastures where cows still munch grass and chickens roam free beneath a clear sky. And in the meat department, neatly butchered steaks lie peacefully on beds of Styrofoam, any traces of unpleasantness surrounding their life and death conveniently forgotten. Welcome to the modern supermarket, where all traces of our food's origins have been neatly concealed, leaving only barcodes, clever marketing and blissful ignorance of the dirty work that is involved in providing us with dinner.

The evolution of eating has taken us off the farm and into the supermarket, a place where the realities of food production are easily forgotten. We generally take nature's bounty for granted and rarely pause to consider what it takes to provide us with such an astronomical amount of food. Where does it come from, how is it grown and what impacts are modern agricultural practices having on our planet? In fact, the way our food is produced has changed exponentially in the last century and one could argue that perhaps the biggest change was wrought in Germany in the early 20 th century, just prior to World War I.


The Dubious History of Synthetic Nitrogen

Once upon a time in the early twentieth century, the amount of food farmers could produce was limited to the amount that they could replace the nitrogen in the soil. This was achieved in an archaic and highly inefficient manner. Farmers planted a variety of crops that were rotated annually in order that the soil's nutrients were not overly depleted. Fields were left dormant for entire growing seasons beneath blankets of green manure, specific crops that replace the important nutrient rather than consume it. Such farmers also raised livestock in order that their manure could be used as fertilizer. Weeds were still pulled manually.

These were the farms of yesteryear, what today we might call 'organic.' Little waste was produced and entire operations could be powered by man, beast and the boundless energy of the sun.

Meanwhile, in the early 1900s, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch were working on a discovery that would change the face of agriculture and, subsequently, the world. The two scientists discovered that by using high heat and pressure they were able to manufacture a synthetic form of nitrogen fertilizer that plants were able to absorb. They had, in fact, discovered a way to cheat nature. Now farmers were able to disregard their old fashioned, labour-intensive techniques. The Haber-Bosch Process used to produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer had planted the seeds for the vast mono-cultures, or single crop farms that dominate our agricultural landscape today.