Meat consumption research – Part 4 Industrialisation and modernisation

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work.

As the early industrial countries enriched themselves in the 19th century, the spectre of famine gradually diminished with international market-based trading generally guaranteeing food availability. In these societies, eventually even the poorest members came to be able to afford meat regularly. Rising incomes allowed more of society to eat as only the rich had done in the past making elite cuisine more attainable and widespread.

Meat consumption was especially high in the US in the 19th century, consumption mid-century was not matched in the richest countries of Europe until a hundred years later (Smil 2003).

Cheap international shipping coupled with exceptional grazing lands lead to the start of a large cattle industry in South America. At first, due to the problem of conservation, the meat was less valuable than other products such as the hides. Canning introduced a way to transfer the meat to other parts of the world, often in the form of corned beef. But the real value came with the introduction of refrigerated shipping towards the end of the 19th century, allowing fresh or frozen meat to be exported. This international trade greatly increased the supply of beef in land-constrained Europe.

The First World War, Great Depression and Second World War temporarily suppressed the international food trade and growth in food security. Some countries, like Britain were particularly affected due to their previous reliance on trade for significant proportions of food supply. Starved of easy imports, insufficient local production had to be relied on and meat was one of the first casualties of the rationing systems.

The wars, while temporarily bringing food shortages and hunger back to many richer countries, ended up giving food production tools for its next great advance. Large explosives industries that had been key to war efforts faced collapse at the end of hostilities but were saved by the realisation that the production of agricultural fertiliser relied on similar ingredients. Likewise, scientists who had worked to develop chemical weapons such as “nerve gases” found that much of their work could be adapted to killing agricultural pests, heralding the dawn of the chemical pesticide industry.

The introduction of artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides alongside the quickly developing oil industry and cheaper mass-manufactured machinery allowed an agricultural revolution with increasing yields produced with less and less man-power. Plant breeding was brought under the control of scientists rather than farmers and high-yield varieties that could exploit the generous application of chemical fertilisers were created. In the US corn/maize had always been the highest yielding grain and it proved to be especially suitable for the new, mechanised, fertiliser-rich agriculture.

There were some voices of caution during this revolution in agricultural practices.  Sir Albert Howard for example, a botanist who had worked as an agricultural adviser in India raised questions about the simplistic scientific thinking of the time.  He understood that agricultural fertility was a complex system and could not just be reduced down to the measurement of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.  However, his and other warnings were generally ignored and most agricultural science focused on new technologies and practices.

After the Second World War, the modern production model started to be exported to less wealthy, developing countries in what became known as the “Green Revolution”. This move was greatly welcomed and supported by the agricultural supply industries as it created vast new markets for their products and services. The “Green Revolution” eventually spread Western agricultural practices and high yields to much of the rest of the world.

With the modernisation of agriculture, relatively expensive human labour was replaced with relatively cheap chemicals, fuel and machinery and the real cost of food began a long downward trajectory. As output increased and prices fell, it was easier and cheaper to feed animals and the cost of meat fell. The industrialisation of animal rearing reduced labour costs and brought even cheaper meat. Chicken gradually shifted from being one of the most expensive luxuries to being one of the cheaper meats due to its relatively efficient feed to meat conversion ratio.

Commoditisation of agricultural products, which had been increasing since the introduction of the corn commodity market in Chicago in 1856, shifted the focus of all producers to production yields rather than other factors such as quality. The commodity market system inserted added complexity and distance between producers and end customers, eroding the requirement for responsibility and trust that producers had always needed to maintain in order to keep customers.

Creation of the modern food system

While the US agricultural system had modernised and intensified incredibly in the preceding 20 years, by the early 1970s it still had a long way to go to reach the levels of today. At that time there were many more farms and average sizes were smaller. Farmers were a large, politically powerful group that politicians needed to take carefully into consideration when making decisions. Farming subsidies that Roosevelt’s New Deal had created protected farmers from some of the dangers of producing for the volatile agricultural markets. If market prices fell below farmer’s costs, there was a federal grain reserve that would guarantee the farmer did not lose money by either loaning the protected sale price until markets recovered or actually buying the produce at that protected price if markets failed to recover in time (Pollan 2006).

In 1972 the USSR was suffering from a series of grain harvest failures and organised the purchase of a large amount of grain from the US. The size of the purchase coupled with bad weather that threatened future US harvests pushed prices of grain in the US to record levels. The situation quickly spread inflation throughout the food chain and Americans, who had been used to years of relative food deflation started to protest loudly. President Nixon ordered his secretary of agriculture, Earl “Rusty” Butz to urgently fix the situation. Empowered by the gravity of the situation, Butz was able to push through radical measures that, in normal times, would have been strongly resisted by the powerful farmer lobbies. He scrapped much of the New Deal system of price supports and replaced them with direct subsidies to protect farmers from low market prices. He also started a drive for efficiency in agriculture, urging consolidation and maximisation of production. (Pollan 2006)

The key outcome of the price support method that was to impact the future of agricultural production was that it removed the market forces from the farmer’s production decisions – it would no longer matter if too many farmers were growing corn as his sale price was guaranteed by the subsidy. This started an era of subsidised over-production. With the market signals of supply and demand suppressed by the new subsidy system, farmers growing the big commodity crops like corn found themselves supplying a saturated market in which prices kept falling. The subsidies meant that they would earn something but the only way to do better was to expand production, either by increasing yields or land planted. Corn was most often the crop of choice due to its incredible productivity compared to other crops. Farmers found themselves in a vicious circle of raising production to improve their situation only to find that the raised production was helping to further depress prices generally. The only way to become viable was to create larger, more efficient operations. Over the next few decades the number of farms and farmers collapsed in the US as small farmers were forced out of business by low prices, selling their land to expanding larger farms. (Pollan 2006)

While farmers were suffering from the changes in agricultural support, the food processors who relied on buying farm output were benefiting from the ever cheaper cost of their ingredients.

The livestock industry also benefited from the cheaper costs of grain and enlarged their operations such as with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Cheaper inputs and larger, more efficient operations meant cheaper meat for the consumer. However, these operations had unaccounted external costs like pollution, animal disease proliferation and added transportation needs.

During the 1980s and ’90s various crises hit the livestock and meat industries. Probably the most significant was bovine spongiform encepalopathy (BSE), a lethal brain disease that emerged in cattle first in the UK in the 1980s. The cause of the outbreak was eventually thought to have been caused by practice of adding slaughter-house wastes to cattle feed supplies and this practice was subsequently banned. Due to the nature of the disease, there was considerable concern about human health from eating affected meat. The outbreak devastated British production and exports for some time and hastened a shift in consumption patterns towards meats other than beef. Outbreaks were later found in cattle in other countries, leading to similar crises.

In the West, cheap food had become the norm for the last part of the 20th century and appeared to be set to remain that way until agricultural commodity prices suddenly rose in 2006 What had not been widely noticed at the time was that global meat consumption had been growing robustly and was using significant proportions of the world’s agricultural output for feed. Additionally, the US had decided that considerable amounts of its giant corn surplus could be diverted to produce ethanol for vehicle fuel, helping efforts to reduce dependence on foreign oil imports. Finally, there had been harvest failures such as in Australia due to draught. This confluence of factors led to increased demand and massive price increases in many agricultural commodity crops. The poorest of the world, facing hunger and even starvation were hardest hit and the situation threatened the stability of governments such as Egypt’s. Since that time the crisis has significantly receded, higher agricultural prices encouraged more planting, harvests in Australia have recovered and enthusiasm for food crop-based biofuels has diminished somewhat.

The most recent threat to the food production system appeared from the oil markets. The immense oil price rises seen in 2007-08 clearly indicated that the global supply of oil was constrained and suggested that peak output could have been reached. With a large number of producer countries now in oil production decline against only a few countries with rising production it is difficult to be optimistic about the world’s future supply of oil. The global financial crisis has now suppressed economic growth and raw material consumption and the price of oil has fallen to very low levels again. Considering future oil production projections it is difficult see these low prices lasting once global growth resumes.


Pollan, Michael. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Press.

Smil, Vaclav. 2003. Eating Meat: Evolution, Patterns, and Consequences. Population and Development Review 28:4, 599-639


2 Responses

  1. Hi Henry – really good to hear from you and well done on your thesis. This is a fascinating subject.

    Organic pioneers, such as Sir Albert Howard, foresaw how the commercial drive towards artificial fertilisers would also impact on animal welfare.

    Traditionally, livestock had a role on the farm, not only as meat in the future but as live manure-givers in the present. The advent of artificial fertiliser ended that. No longer needed for their fertiliser, the creatures could be reared indoors in animal-factories – the birth of modern intensive farming.

    • Thanks Elisabeth,
      Yes, you highlight that despite its size, there is a lot more to add that could be useful and interesting – I could have gone on to write a whole book, although I had difficulty with something this size so I’m glad I didn’t have to!

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