Our Food System’s Equation

Posted: 30 May 2012 in Uncategorized

This post was published in The Ellul Forum in 2010.  It was not available for free until recently.  I still think it is relevant and I am glad to share it here as Congress begins another round of discussions on the US Farm Bill.  You may not heard of Jacques Ellul (I quote him from time to time in this blog) and this will provide only a basic introduction to a small sliver of his thoughts.  It has some general interest parts and some Christian theological stuff (not for all tastes!)

Our Food System’s Equation:

Inattention to Ends + The Imperative of Technique =

Prodigious Food Producing Capacity and Food Insecurity for Hundreds of Millions

Inattention to Ends:

The first enormous fact that springs from our civilization is that today everything has become means.  There are no more ends.  We no longer know towards what we are heading.  We have forgotten our collective goals.  We have enormous means and we put into place prodigious machines in order to arrive nowhere . . .[1]

The Imperative of Technique:

[Reason] . . . takes account of the fixed end of technique–efficiency.  It notes what every means devised is capable of accomplishing and selects the ones that are the most efficient. . . . Thus the multiplicity of means is reduced to one: the most efficient.[2]

Prodigious Food Producing Capacity:

Earl “Rusty” Butz, Richard Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture . . . revolutionized American agriculture, helping to shift the food chain onto the foundation of cheap corn.

Butz made no secret of his agenda: He exhorted farmers to plant their fields “fencerow to fencerow” and advised them to “get big or get out . . .” [He] began replacing the New Deal system of supporting prices through loans, government grain purchases, and land idling with a new system of direct payments to farmers. . . .

[T]he new subsidies encouraged farmers to sell their corn at any price, since the government would make up the difference . . .  Instead of supporting farmers, the government was now subsidizing every bushel of corn a farmer could grow–and American farmers pushed to go flat out could grow a hell of a lot of corn.[3]

Food Insecurity for Hundreds of Millions:

Progress was made in reducing chronic hunger in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s.  For the past decade hunger has been on the rise.[4]

FAO estimates that 1.02 billion people are under-nourished worldwide in 2009. This represents more hungry people than at any time since 1970 and a worsening of the unsatisfactory trends that were present even before the economic crisis. The increase in food insecurity is not a result of poor crop harvest . . .[5]

Our Food System: What Ends?

As the foregoing quotes reveal, we live in a world that simultaneously produces an extraordinary amount of food and sees a billion human beings facing food insecurity (which is not equivalent, but related, to the concept of chronic hunger).  The reasons for this level of food insecurity are complex but an understanding of the pillars of food security reveals how it can exist in a world in which enough food is produced.  Food security, according to the World Health Organization, is a function of food being physically available where people live, of people having sufficient financial resources to access food and of their ability to actually utilize the food they consume.  This last point concerns whether a person’s body can adequately absorb the nutrition from food s/he eats if that person has parasites or other diseases that impede absorption.

Increasing food security, then, requires that a complex set of factors be present within communities and households of which increasing food quantity (globally) is only one.  This points to an initial challenge with our current global food system: it is largely focused on the “end” of producing more food.  In itself this end is not bad but is not really an “end” at all. Rather it is a means to another end–food security.

The theme of “ends” runs through much of Jacques Ellul’s writing and he summarized its relation to technique in a series of interviews with William Vanderburg of the Canadian Broadcasting Network:

Technology[6] is the extreme development of means. Everything in the technological world is a means and only a means, while the ends have practically disappeared.  Technology does not develop toward attaining something.  It develops because the world of means has developed, and we are witnessing an extremely rapid causal growth.  At the same time, there is a suppression of meaning, the meaning of existence, the meaning of “why I am alive,” as technology so vastly develops its power. (1981, p. 50–emphases in the original)

The fact that our industrial food system is not oriented towards the “end” of increasing human food security, leads to a number of pernicious effects, one of which is the use of food for other “ends” besides enabling human flourishing.  The commodification of food is a simple fact of our industrial food system and places food at the mercy of global trade and markets. So a natural question might be “what are the ‘ends’ to which markets are oriented?”  William Cavanaugh (2008) suggests this response:

In the ideology of the free market . . . [t]here are no common ends to which our desires are directed. In the absence of such ends, all that remains is the sheer arbitrary power of one will against another. Freedom thus gives way to the aggrandizement of power and the manipulation of will and desire by the greater power . . .

Where there are no objectively desirable ends, and the individual is told to choose his or her own ends, then choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good. When there is a recession, we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.

That the market does not provide a sense of the ends to which our desires should be directed comes as no surprise, but what Cavanaugh argues is that many economists–and others–consider even questioning the ends of market exchanges as meaningless.  However, if markets cannot assure a reasonable allocation of a commodity necessary for human survival (as the quotes at the beginning of this article suggest they do not) then the question of ends in relation to those markets would seem very relevant indeed.

In the 2009 documentary film Food, Inc., which critiques the industrial food system, Richard Lobb of the US National Chicken Council says this about our industrial food system and its highly concentrated and intensive production approach: “What these systems of intensive production accomplish is to produce a lot of food, on a small amount of land at a very affordable price.  Somebody explain to me, what’s wrong with that?”

Presumably, what is wrong is the confusion of means and ends implied in his argument.  Is the end of our food system to produce more–more cheaply (note: Loob has a very narrow definition of the true cost of our food system which we examine below concerning sustainability)?  Or, is the end of our food system to assure that everyone has sufficient food of sufficient quality to lead a healthy life?  The Economist (2009), in an article concerning the prospects for increased food prices and future food crises, would seem to argue along the same lines as Loob:

It may be too late to avoid another bout of price rises. Despite a global recession and the largest grain harvest on record in 2008, food prices are heading up again. Still, countries have a brief window of opportunity in which to set long-term policy goals without being distracted by panic measures. They need to do two things: invest in the productive capacity of agriculture and improve the operation of food markets. . . Boosting world food production without gobbling up land and water will also require technology to play a larger role in the next 40 years than it has in the past 40, when people have been more or less living off the gains of the Green Revolution. Technology means a lot of things: drip irrigation, no-till farming, more efficient ways to use fertilisers and kill pests. But one way of raising yields stands out: developing genetically modified (GM) crops that, for example, use less water. (p. 14)

While the writer raises two critical elements concerning food insecurity, dealing with both the question of availability (boosting production) and access (improving markets), nowhere in the article is the question of the ultimate ends of the food system discussed.  It is really all about “means”: more food and better distribution.

The Economist article also takes us back to Ellul–the belief that technique will enable us to solve the problems that led to the 2008 food crisis so that it will not be repeated.  Our fixation on technique and means are two sides of the same coin.  For newspapers like the Economist this faith in technique is unquestioned. Mennonite economist Henry Rempel (2003) summarizes the two sides of our technique- and means-focused economic system this way:

Our economic incentive system promotes continued technological change, but it does not encourage or welcome questions about its purpose.

We are working longer and rushing onward without deciding where we want to go… We have tried to avoid the issue by elevating progress to a matter of faith. (pp. 92 and 262).

Ellul says much the same thing in the short film The Betrayal by Technology: A Portrait of Jacques Ellul,

Technique does not accept to be judged.  In other words, technicians cannot accept that someone articulates an ethical or moral judgment concerning what they do.  And yet, to ethically, morally, and spiritually judge something is the highest human freedom. (Author’s translation, emphasis added)

And so we are left with a food system that is capable of producing large quantities of food but incapable of focusing on the true ends for which it exists.  And, because we focus on the technological means of producing and distributing, rather than on the ends, to question whether our technique–our prodigious means–are good or useful becomes a meaningless question—or, rather, a question that simply cannot be asked.

Joel Salatin, a self-proclaimed “grass farmer” in Virginia summarizes our modern food system’s inattention to ends this way in Food Inc.

You know, we’ve become a culture of technicians.  We’re all into . . . we’re all into the how of it.  And nobody’s stepping back and saying . . . “But why?”

So, what is the result of our modern food production system?  If it is not focused on ends what do all these prodigious means actually produce?  We have already seen what they do not produce: increased food security.  But what are the results?  I would like to briefly suggest four results of our industrial food system: the output of the system is unsustainable; the system produces commodities rather than food; the system produces great wastage and obesity in the industrial world–even as people struggle to eat elsewhere; and the system neglects critical elements that make for a truly human system.

Result: An Unsustainable System

Space does not permit a full analysis of the sustainability challenges of the industrial food system.   In general, one can argue that the logic of technique has led to a system that solves every problem that comes its way, but in the process lays the groundwork for even more unforeseen problems.  Ellul (1967, p. 105) addresses this reality, interestingly, in talking about modern “capitalistic” agriculture and Michael Pollen articulates it eloquently in the film Food, Inc.  Notice how he returns to the theme of efficiency and links it to the problem of unpredictable and unsustainable systems that follow in the wake of the search for (as Ellul has put it) “the one best way:”

The industrial food system is always looking for greater efficiency but each new step in efficiency leads to problems. . . The industry’s approach when it has a systematic problem . . . is not to go back and see what is wrong with the system, it’s to come up with some high tech fixes to allow the system to survive. . . We’ve had a food system that is dedicated to the single virtue of efficiency.  So, we grow a very small number of crops, a very small number of varieties, a very small number of companies. And even though you achieve efficiencies, the system gets more and more precarious.

And so technique is piled upon technique to maintain efficiency and find solutions to the inevitable emerging problems.  The solutions applied then create their own problems.  In the 2009 documentary film Fresh corn and soybean farmer George Naylor says this:

I’m a conventional farmer.  Most of the chemicals and the technology that conventional agriculture uses is aimed at eliminating risk so you can produce the most “efficiently.”  It’s not necessarily good for the environment, it’s not good for the farmers, it’s not good for our rural communities or consumers.  But that’s the way the system works.  You produce the most to survive.

Notice that the challenge farmers face–the only way to survive is to produce “the most.”  We return, therefore, to the theme of “ends.”  The only end in sight is to increase production, even though that end is not sustainable for the land, for the farmer or for farming communities.

Result: Food as Commodity

I have already alluded to the problems that arise when food becomes merely another traded commodity.  When food is a commodity not only does its price depend on markets–which, despite all the rhetoric are not “free” in any real sense (this is the point of The Economist article sited previously)–but it also becomes seen more and more merely as an input used to produce other consumer goods.  This is the case for corn in the US, which is used to feed cattle that have evolved not to eat corn but to eat grass.  In itself using food crops to produce other forms of food may not be a problem (despite the real problem of feeding corn to beef cows), but when crops destined, even indirectly, for food are transformed into non-food products the ends of human food security are completely lost.

Mark W. Rosegrant, the Director of Environment and Production Technology Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute in testimony for the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (May 7, 2008) stated that nearly 40% of the increase in the price of corn and 20% of the price of wheat and soy during the 2008 food crisis was due to corn being shifted into biofuel production.[7]  Indeed, even the price of rice in Asia was influenced by corn’s shift away from food to biofuel because dry season rice in places like Thailand was replaced by corn which fetched higher prices on world markets.  This non-food use of a food product led to higher prices for the basic staple of the world’s poorest people and was promoted by the US government.

In addition, since World War II industrially produced food has become a commodity of a very different type as well.  In their book Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting its Role, Christopher Barrett and Daniel Maxwell describe how excess food commodities (primarily corn and soy) have become a major element of the US government’s contribution to international “food aid.”  And while the relative quantities going into food aid are small in comparison to the total amount of food produced, the authors show that this system has benefitted grain producers, grain processors, grain transporters and non-governmental humanitarian organizations much more than it has benefitted food insecure people around the world.

Again, the picture here is quite complex but official US assistance policy, which requires nearly all food aid to be grown and processed by US interests, shipped on US flag carriers and distributed by US-based NGOs, has created perverse incentives for all those concerned to keep the system in place despite its questionable impact on food insecurity. Barrett and Maxwell conclude a series of chapters in which they describe the development of food aid policy in the US and beyond over the past generation by saying this:

[I]n many ways, the global food aid regime remains tied to objectives that are often only tangentially related to the needs or rights of food-insecure people. (p. 192)

If the true ends of food production are not identified, food becomes a commodity like any other.  This means that something produced to feed humanity can, if the prices are right, be diverted into the production of non-food consumables and be used as a political pawn in a global “humanitarian aid” system.  In addition, if food is merely a commodity, its price determined in global markets, then those with financial resources can afford it–and do what they like with it–even as those without those resources go without.  We turn to the implications of this in the next section.

Result: Wastage/Obesity

During the 2008 food crisis Homi Kharas a food policy analyst at the Brookings Institution summarized succinctly the reality of the crisis on the PBS Newshour (23 April 2008):

[T]his is not a problem of a global food shortage.  This is really a problem of distribution.  This is a problem of people who don’t have enough money to buy food.

When food is a commodity those who have no money cannot get it.  And what of those who do have the money?  In the USA and other wealthy nations (and even among the wealthy in poorer nations) we see two realities that stem from cheap (relative to income) and plentiful food (keep in mind that the 2008 crisis occurred in the face of plentiful food): obesity and massive food wastage.

Summarizing data from the Centers for Disease Control a publication by the non-profit Trust for America’s Health (2010) notes the following:

Nationally, two-thirds of adults and nearly one- third of children and teens are currently obese or overweight. Since 1980, the number of obese adults has doubled. Since 1970, the number of obese children ages 6-11 has quadrupled, and the number of obese adolescents ages 12-19 has tripled.

While it is true that obesity is due to many factors including lack of adequate physical exercise, the availability of inexpensive and highly processed food with its high quantities of fat, salt and sugar is also a contributor. When a limited variety of food (such as corn in the US) is overproduced, means are deployed to transform it for use in many ways, such as extracting its sugars for inexpensive sweeteners.  These sweeteners then show up in a variety of cheap processed foods, fueling the obesity crisis.

A second result of cheap, plentiful food is food wastage that occurs during production, processing, and shipping, and in what is thrown out by consumers.  A recent study by Hall, Guo, Dore and Chow (2009) estimated the following:

In 1974 approximately 900 kcal per person per day was wasted whereas in 2003 Americans wasted approximately 1400 kcal per person per day or about 150 trillion kcal per year. . . [F]ood waste has progressively increased from about 30% of the available food supply in 1974 to almost 40% in recent years . . .

Our industrial food system produces large quantities of food and for those who can afford it this means wastage and overconsumption–even as one billion people remain food insecure.

Result: Neglect of Critical Elements of a Truly “Human” Food System

One other, rarely assessed, result of our industrial food system is that it neglects important elements of what make for a truly human system–one that honors humans in their roles as producers, preparers and consumers of food.  We see this neglect in things such as consumers no longer being in contact with producers, the loss of fellowship during food preparation and eating, disconnect from the land, the loss of family farms and the devaluation of the role of farmers.

We will look at just one specific example of this neglect that concerns one of the most critical parts of our food system that serves the most vulnerable members of our global community.  I am referring to the role of breastfeeding in the first two years of life.

In a landmark study of childhood mortality published in the Lancet (2008) researchers estimated that suboptimum breastfeeding is responsible for 1.4 million child deaths each year around the world. (p. 243)

Our industrial food system has no place for encouraging “optimal breastfeeding” because breastfeeding cannot be commodified.  Indeed, food companies such as Nestle have spent a great deal of money convincing mothers to abandon this critical element of the human food system in favor of breast milk substitutes which are produced by the industrial food system.

If the ends of our food system were human food security we would take a more holistic look at all elements of the system to determine how best to achieve this end. In such a case we would be compelled to consider how to best support mothers to breastfeed their children given the critical place of this practice for the health and development of children. This is but one example of how our industrial food system neglects a critical element of a truly human approach to food.

Reorienting our Ends: Understanding our Food System as a “Power”

The foregoing argues that our industrial food system is a “technique-dominated” system that is focused on deploying prodigious means but pays scant attention to the ends of human food security.  Ellul understood that such systems–indeed technique itself—was a “power.”  He described it as an “objectifying power” (1981, p. 49).  Space does not permit an analysis of the concept of principalities and powers in the writing of Ellul, but we live in a time when theologians have begun to recapture a broader understanding of the concept from the writings of St Paul.[8]  Included in this broader understanding is the idea that institutions and systems which God has created for good act as dehumanizing forces; essentially trading their true role in maintaining the conditions for human flourishing for other ends, including their own survival. In this way they reveal their “fallenness.”

Our industrial food system has the potential to do great good.  It is capable of producing food efficiently and in great variety.  The markets that are part of the system have the potential to move food to places where it is in deficit. Governments have the potential to use the excess to meet acute suffering in the face of disaster or conflict. Despite this we find a system that is not focused on the ends of human food security.  This, I have argued, has led to outcomes that do not honor human flourishing.  In this sense one could argue that the system acts as a fallen power.

If indeed our “technique-dominated” food system is a fallen power the question then becomes, what should our response be?  Ellul (1981) provided one way for Christians to think about how to face the power of technique (his words are echoed by others such as Stringfellow, Barth and Wink):

[O]ur attitude will be what may be called iconoclastic. . . . Iconoclasm means the destruction of religious images, but what does it mean here?  It simply means that we must destroy the deified religious character of technique. . .  If we see technique as nothing but objects that can be useful (and we need to check whether they are indeed useful); and if we stop believing in technique for its own sake or that of society; and if we stop fearing technique and treat it as one thing among many others, then we destroy the basis for the power of technique over humanity (pp. 108-109).

Applied to our modern food system, Ellul’s words present both a way forward and a challenge to the received wisdom of what it will take to “feed the world.”  Technique does not focus on ends.  However what we desperately need at this time is to focus on the true ends of our food system. Perhaps initially this means raising the simple question of what, exactly, the end of our food system should be.  Joel Salatin, in Food, Inc., does just that.

Imagine what it would be if, as a national policy, we said we would only be successful if  we had fewer people going to the hospital next year than last year?  How about that for success?  The idea would be to have such nutritionally dense, unadulterated food that people who ate it actually felt better, had more energy and weren’t sick as much?  Now you see that’s a noble goal.

In addition to focusing on ends we need to challenge the idea that our industrial food system is the only way to “feed the world” as many would argue. There is a deep faith that the “means” we have deployed are the best way forward (if only we can continue to apply better technique to improve them). It would thus seem that as we focus more on the ends of our food system we must also be willing to challenge the belief that it is necessary to maintain the industrial food system we have evolved. This is a complex task that will require time and the creation of alternatives to what we have. Such alternatives are being created in many places around the world and this provides hope that we can faithfully challenge the “religious” commitment to the “essentialness” of our industrialized food system.


Barrett, C. B., & Maxwell, D. G. (2005). Food aid after fifty years: Recasting its role. London ; New York: Routledge.

Black, R. E., Allen, L. H., Bhutto, Z. A., Caulfield, L. E., de Onis, M., Ezzati, M., et al. (2008). Maternal and child undernutrition: global and regional exposures and health consequences. (Cover story). Lancet, 371(9608), 243-260.

Cavanaugh, W. T. (2008). Being consumed: Economics and Christian desire. Grand Rapids, Mich., William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.–accessed in e-book format

Ellul, J. (1948). Présence au monde moderne. Geneva: Editions Roulet.

Ellul, J. (1967). The technological society. New York: Vintage.

Ellul, J., & Vanderburg, W. H. (1981). Perspectives on our age: Jacques Ellul speaks on his life and work. New York: Seabury Press.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2009). The state of food insecurity in the world 2009: economic crises – impacts and lessons learned. Rome: FAO.

Grebmer, K. v. (2009). 2009 Global hunger index: The challenge of hunger, focus on financial crisis and gender inequality. Bonn; Washington, D.C.; Dublin, Ireland: Welthungerhilfe ; International Food Policy Research Institute ; Concern Worldwide.

Hall, K. D., Guo, J., Dore, M., & Chow, C. C. (2009). The progressive increase of food waste in America and its environmental impact. PloS one, 4(11).

How to feed the world. (2009). Economist, p. 14

joanes, ana Sofia. (Director). (2009). Fresh. USA

Kenner, Robert. (Director) (2009). Food, Inc. USA: Magnolia Productions

PBS. (2008). As Food Prices Soar, U.N. Calls for International Help.

Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York, Penguin Press.

Rempel, H. (2003). A high price for abundant living : the story of capitalism. Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press.

Boeckel, J. von. (Director). (1992). The Betrayal by Technology: A Portrait of Jacques Ellul. The Netherlands: ReRun Produkties.

Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2010) F as in fat: How obesity threatens Americas future.


[1] Ellul, J. (1948). Présence au monde moderne. Geneva, Editions Roulet. P. 62–author’s translation

[2] Ellul, J. (1967). The technological society. New York, Vintage. p. 21

[3] Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals. New York, Penguin Press. pp. 51-53

[4] Grebmer, K. v. (2009). 2009 Global hunger index : the challenge of hunger, focus on financial crisis and gender inequality. Bonn; Washington, D.C.; Dublin, Ireland: Welthungerhilfe ; International Food Policy Research Institute ; Concern Worldwide.

[5] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United,. (2009). The state of food insecurity in the world 2009: economic crises – impacts and lessons learned. Rome, FAO.

[6] Technology is the translation here though Ellul would have preferred technique which I will attempt to use throughout.

[7] See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRY5Klj8R9w accessed 23 September, 2010

[8] Some critical writings include: Berkhof, H. (1962, 1977). Christ and the Powers. Scottsdale, PA, Herald Press. Wink, W. (1992). Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis, MN, Augsburg Fortress. Dawn, M. (2001). Powers, Weakness and the Tabernacling of God. Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans. Yoder, J. H. (1994). The politics of Jesus : vicit Agnus noster. Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans / Paternoster Press (esp Chapter 13).  Stringfellow, W. (1973). An ethic for Christians and other aliens in a strange land. Waco, Tex.,, Word Books.  Gingerich, R. and T. Grimsrud, Eds. (2006). Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice and the Domination System. Minneapolis, MN, Augsburg Fortress.


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