It is safe to say that humanity has never seen an age as prosperous as ours. And while we can attest to the gap between the wealthy and the poor rising in some parts of the world, mere observation tells us that there are more middle-income earners overall now than before. This is a key component of the modern economy that has seen diversification from traditional sectors of employment such as manufacturing to services and non-tangible goods.
Not surprisingly, the new middle-class is characterized by its strong buying-power and in fast developing nations such as India and China, domestic demand from this group is a key driver of the economy. Surging interests in a variety of products from vehicles to mobile phones is obvious, the lesser but equally important has been in the food industry.
Food consumption changes with affluence and greater levels of income have facilitated access to more types of foods. For example, in emerging markets with its dominant young population, there has been heightened interest in the fast-food market. Young working adults, who are brand conscious are in the segment most targeted by international fast-food chains, capitalizing on a global dining experience that was hitherto inaccessible.
Glamorous as this may seem to a society with a relatively young consumer culture, making informed choices on the kinds of foods consumed is a major determinant of a healthy and environmentally considerate lifestyle which has largely been ignored.
Food Choices Yesterday & Today
The end of the second world war ushered in a pioneering spirit in the development of food. Food was not considered a mere necessity but also a determinant of one’s social standing. With war-time restrictions dismantled, ration programs dumped and widening opportunities for export established, new products were marketed to the delight of a burgeoning American and European suburban class.
Food manufacturing intensified its use of marketing, scientific and industrial ingenuity. Knowledge gained in the mechanization of factories for manufacturing war supplies had become useful in producing ever larger quantities of food. Advancements in food quality and ingredients allowed food to be moved longer distances whilst retaining quality and consumers found a dizzying array of competing products to choose from.
The net effect of these introductions would not make themselves apparent until another fifty years. Today American and European consumers have become used to buying all types of fruit, available year-round rather than eating what is in season and produced locally. That millions of litres of fossil fuel (diesel) are used ferrying produce from one part of the world to another has become a forgone conclusion, few are willing to contest its environmental implications.
More people today are afflicted by diabetes, heart disease and obesity as a result of the choices they have made – or not made – because of the grip of commercial interests over modern food production. Having the option to eat fresh and healthy is not a viable reality and those who suffer are often the poor. Food that is free from genetic modifications, contains little preservatives seems to have become part of the dominion of the rich.
The Bottom Line
The business of producing food has become like any other and is obligated to yield favorable returns to its investors. Hence corporations can and will use whatever is at their disposable to obtain this value. Urban consumers have indirectly contributed to the growth of processed foods and supermarket chains.
Translated at the farm what this means is shorter life-cycles and greater demands placed on the biology of plants and animals. For example, the time taken for a chicken to be produced and processed has been drastically reduced, what results in not only an inferior product but also disregards any concerns about the welfare of the animal. All of these decisions have been made to the detriment of the environment because profitability is more important than sustainability.
Compassion and the Rise of Social Obligations
Of course, we are bearing witness to this because of choices consumers have made. It is entirely plausible that a more educated consumer would have the capacity to slow and eventually halt the damage that is being done to the environment. This calls for the average consumer to become conscious of his or her life activities and make changes that will preserve the condition of the environment.