Mechanization Takes Command
The next global shift to effect how we eat was the industrialization of food that continues today. By the mid-18th Century the application of inexpensive external energy sources to basic mechanical principles in England ushered in the Industrial Revolution. The industrial assembly line became the new standard of economic efficiency and soon those principles were applied to food production. Farm output advanced through the engineering process of identifying the factors that most limited production and eliminating them. As a result of this intensely applied science, the yield of food per acre and per farmer increased rapidly.
Industrialized agriculture has greatly increased the amount of food available for humans, but at a very real cost to the Earth's ecosystems and to the variety of human cultures. The increase in the total amount of available food has been mirrored by a sharp decline in the variety of foods we eat. It is estimated that worldwide 75% of our calories are derived from just eight of the more than 350,000 species of flowering plants. These are wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, cassava, barley, oats and soy. Where hundreds of local varieties of beans, and apples and corn had grown a hundred years ago, today only a small handful of the most profitable hybrids remain.
As we become further removed in both time and space from the plants and animals whose lives make our lives possible, the respect for those living beings becomes ever more abstract. For example, in order to supply the fast food industry, a single farmer in Kentucky will raise 240,000 chickens a year and net only five cents per bird. A similar situation exists with carrots, corn, beef or any other food. Despite 10,000 years of agricultural innovation, today's farmer is a desperate and disappearing character. While trying to live by feeding distant cities, today's farmer has become increasingly unaware of the life around him.
Powered by industrial agriculture, the human population has been growing exponentially and is expected to reach over ten billion by the middle of this century. The booming number of humans and associated species such as cats, dogs, cattle, pigs and chickens has pushed many species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles to the edge of extinction, and some forever beyond it.