Forgive me for saying this, but I am sure I am not alone: I have never really given a whole lot of thought to how the food on my table arrives in front of me. Sure, I’m old enough to recognise that there is a whole lot more products available year round than there ever used to be, but like most people I’m working for a living and not pondering the ins and outs of every element of life.
The latest offering from PBS, however, makes one really stop and wonder. In its new show, America Revealed, presenter Yui Kwon, takes audiences across the United States to explain exactly how it is that the nation ticks on a day-to-day basis. The first show, Food Machine, examines the systems and networks that ensure that Americans, and indeed those far beyond America’s shores, keep eating day after day.
This fast-moving, highly kinetic show is a real eye-opener. In an age of high impact, low yield television, PBS has hit gold with a programme that is beautifully produced, informative and engaging. The show reveals the technical and logistical miracle that is America’s food supply chain, stretching from coast to coast.
The show reveals the importance of irrigation to the Californian agricultural industry, the extraordinary changes that industrial farming has brought to the American landscape and turned desert into fertile high yielding farmland. The irrigation network in California is truly remarkable, with the state’s farmers using 80% of the state’s water, delivered via a network of underground man-made rivers and piping systems. It doesn’t come cheap, however, with water accounting for 50% of farming budgets.
The information contained in the show is remarkable. It reveals the manner in which practises have changed to ensure productivity has matched growth in demand; explains the reasoning for circular, as opposed to square fields (its all about central pivot irrigations!) and explains the dominance of corn in the American diet, which accounts for 80% of farming output.
The show also raises some worrying issues with regard to the use of fertilizers, antibiotics and Genetically Modified food crops. If this is having an impact on the bee population (which is another fascinating element of the show) then one wonders what effects they are having on the human consumers?
The show doesn’t hold back from considering some of the side effects, in particular the impact on American waistlines. One impact of the improved supply chain is that foods that were once considered celebratory, or reserved for special occasions, are now routine and as a result Americans are now on average consuming 600 more calories per day than they were 30 years ago. The results are visible all around you!
The figures involved are revealing: 4 million agricultural workers are constantly moving around the nation as work cycles and harvesting patterns dictate their location. 100 years ago, a third of all Americans lived on farms in a Jeffersonian-style agrarian society. Today, less than 2% of Americans feed the remaining 98%.
America Revealed: Food Machine is a fascinating and insightful documentary that reveals the degree to which bees, machinery and people are on the move constantly, ensuring that American demand is constantly met with an endless supply of food, even if it is more than they really need!
America Revealed: Food Machine premiers in the UK on June 20. or can be viewed on-line HERE
PBS broadcast in the UK on Sky channel 166 and Virgin Media channel 243
Dr. James D. Boys is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London.