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date: 24 April 2017

Food and Agriculture in the 20th and 21st Centuries

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

American food in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is characterized by abundance. Unlike the hardscrabble existence of many earlier Americans, the “Golden Age of Agriculture” brought the bounty produced in fields across the United States to both consumers and producers. While the “Golden Age” technically ended as World War I began, larger quantities of relatively inexpensive food became the norm for most Americans as more fresh foods, rather than staple crops, made their way to urban centers and rising real wages made it easier to purchase these comestibles.

The application of science and technology to food production from the field to the kitchen cabinet, or even more crucially the refrigerator by the mid-1930s, reflects the changing demographics and affluence of American society as much as it does the inventiveness of scientists and entrepreneurs. Perhaps the single most important symbol of overabundance in the United States is the postwar Green Revolution. The vast increase in agricultural production based on improved agronomics, provoked both praise and criticism as exemplified by Time magazine’s critique of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in September 1962 or more recently the politics of genetically modified foods.

Reflecting that which occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, food production, politics, and policy at the turn of the twenty-first century has become a proxy for larger ideological agendas and the fractured nature of class in the United States. Battles over the following issues speak to which Americans have access to affordable, nutritious food: organic versus conventional farming, antibiotic use in meat production, dissemination of food stamps, contraction of farm subsidies, the rapid growth of “dollar stores,” alternative diets (organic, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, etc.), and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all, the “obesity epidemic.” These arguments carry moral and ethical values as each side deems some foods and diets virtuous, and others corrupting. While Americans have long held a variety of food ideologies that meld health, politics, and morality, exemplified by Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among others, newer constructions of these ideologies reflect concerns over the environment, rural Americans, climate change, self-determination, and the role of government in individual lives. In other words, food can be used as a lens to understand larger issues in American society while at the same time allowing historians to explore the intimate details of everyday life.