The Farms Race
The decades-long Cold War between the United States and the USSR featured a space race, an arms race, and . . . a farms race. This farms race – which involved substantial government policies to deliver high-volume and standardized agriculture – was about more than just food; it was a battle over which was the superior system, communism or capitalism.
The farms race had an obvious winner: American supermarkets were filled with affordable food, while the USSR was ultimately forced to import grain from the United States.
The Supermarket Reigns Supreme
Post World War II, the most important change in food marketing for home consumption was the gradual shift to the modern supermarket. The share of total food sales by supermarkets increased rapidly from 28% in 1946 to 69% by 1963.
Around the same time, perhaps the biggest changes to American agriculture were mechanization and automation. Here’s an example: Peter Timmer, a former Harvard economist, grew up on a farm in Ohio where he worked for his grandfather’s company, Tip Top Canning. When he was young, all the tomatoes on the family’s farm were hand-picked and hand-peeled. In a successful year, 40- or 50,000 cases of canned tomato and product were produced. By the time he completed graduate school, the company had mechanized and was putting out 1,000,000 cases a year. But it had taken years, primarily because they had to breed a new variety of tomato that could withstand the rough treatment of the mechanical harvester.
A Display of Abundance
As far as “the farms race” was concerned, a display of abundance was crucial. The supermarket took care of that.
In 1950, the average supermarket stocked 2,200 items. This number soared to 17,500 by 1985. By 1954, the average supermarket size had grown from 10,000 square feet in the 1930s to 18,000 square feet.
In 1957, the United States brought the supermarket to the communists. They created a Supermarket U.S.A. exhibit in communist Yugoslavia. “The exhibit featured a fully functional supermarket full of affordable frozen and packaged foods, and fresh produce airlifted in from the United States.”
If you like our breakfast cereal, just think how much you’ll like the rest of our capitalism.
Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia’s leader, liked the supermarket so much that he purchased the entire exhibit and used it as a model for a chain of socialist supermarkets. Even so, the Soviet Union couldn’t figure out how to replicate the American model. The Soviets were ultimately forced to buy grain from the US.
Supermarkets Meet Some Challengers
Challengers to the dominance of supermarkets began to emerge in the 1970s with the rise of chain convenience stores like 7-Eleven.
Soon large drugstore chains, headed by Walgreens and CVS, started building larger stores and selling milk as well as a wide variety of soft drinks. Later they would also sell groceries and ‘ready to eat’ food.
The final evolution in the postwar retailing of food involved the emergence of supercenters like Target, Costco, and Walmart, combining one roof shopping for food, clothing, appliances, and drugs. Now shoppers could avoid the supermarket altogether using a combination of convenience stores, large chain drugstores, and big-box stores.
Supermarkets were further battered after the end of the Cold War by the growing popularity of upscale food chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
Aisle upon aisle of fresh produce, cheap meat, and sugary cereal — a delicious embodiment of free-market capitalism, right? Not quite. The supermarket was in fact the end point of the U.S. government’s battle for agricultural abundance against the USSR. Our farm policies were built to dominate, not necessarily to nourish — and we are still living with the consequences.” (Medium: August 2, 2019)
The United States won the “farms race” with an industrial approach that was heavily influenced by government policy and funding. But, are we now suffering the consequences?
Government support for farmers began during World War I when incentives like price supports were employed to meet wartime goals. With the onset of the Great Depression, demand for food collapsed, but agricultural productivity stayed the same. There were large surpluses, so the federal government starting buying and storing the excess.
The rise in agricultural productivity tended to favor larger, more industrial farms. Between 1940 and 1969, 3.4 million American farmers and their families stopped farming.
Since 1975, there has been a growing divide in the quality and quantity of food consumed at the top and bottom of America’s income distribution. Income inequality, nutrition, and obesity go hand in hand.
After 1970, daily calories from food consumption increased by more than 20%, enough to add fifty pounds to the average adult each year. More than half of this has come from fats and oils, and most of the rest from flour and cereal.
Obesity is a particular problem for the poverty population. There is a lot of talk about food deserts, but studies have shown that sugary, fat, and processed foods from nearby supermarkets are just as much to blame.
The all out push for productivity has negatively impacted the environment as well. But that’s a story for another day.
Photo Credits (all from Flickr)
Featured Photo: Don Graham
Supermarket and 7-Eleven: Allen
Walmart: Mike Mozart
Trader Joe’s: Aranami
Soybean Harvesting: United Soybean Board
If you’d like more on statistics and policy, you can consult the works below. I’ve relied heavily on them for the information in this article.
The Rise And Fall of American Growth
Robert J. Gordon
Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the Cold War Farms Race
The Jungle is a 1906 novel by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair. The novel portrays the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrialized cities. (Goodreads)
You can find the full Freakonomics Radio episode “How the Supermarket Helped America Win the Cold War” at Freakonomics.com.
Fast Food Nation ( a movie about meat packing that is not for the faint of heart; you can rent it on Amazon). You might want to pair this with Sinclair’s The Jungle.
The Food That Built America – a free series on the History Channel app