(Infographic) What Happened to Our Food – A Timeline

Sometimes it blows my mind to think that there were no grocery stores when my grandmother was born. They didn’t exist yet. Within just two generations of me typing on my laptop right now – my grandmother walked to the butcher for meat, to the bakery for bread, and to the farm stand for veggies, eggs, and milk. Not because she was a trendy organic shopper – but because those were the only places to buy food! She knew each of these people by name, and they knew each others’ families. My, how things have changed…

I was talking about this with a friend, discussing all of the huge changes that taken place over the past few generations. I thought that it would be cool to have a visual aid, so that I could see just how much had changed with our food over our lifetimes. I wrote down all of the major changes I could think of, and then started to plot them out by date. What I found is really interesting. There were very few changes in our food supply for almost our whole 160,000 year history as a species. There were small improvements here and there like better hand tools, better methods for sowing seeds and harvesting grains, and the advent of animal-drawn plows. But, aside from these improvements, things were done pretty much the same way for a very long time. Then, in 1864, Louis Pasteur figured out how to sterilize things – and that kicked off the whirlwind of huge changes that we’re in the middle of today.

This isn’t a complete list. I’m sure there are some important changes that I’ve overlooked. And a few of these are things that haven’t directly effected our food supply yet, like cloned animals, but they’re things that seemed relevant on this timeline. After I looked at the list of changes, I thought it would add some perspective to see the good side of the story too, so I added in significant events in the development of organics, regulation, etc. Finally, I included some statistics on diabetes and obesity – so that you can see how those have changed over the course of the timeline – I think those numbers tell the real story.

It’s amazing to see how much has changed in so little time. I don’t consider myself especially old, but a ton of changes have taken place during my life already. When I was born, high fructose corn syrup hadn’t been approved by the USDA, and synthetic bovine growth hormones didn’t even exist yet. Place yourself on this timeline, and look at what has changed since you’ve been alive – I bet you’ll be surprised…


Note: Sorry for the small print. It’s hard to squeeze this much information into a small space. If you can’t read the print, there’s a text-only version below the picture.

infographic-what-happened-to-our-food-a-timeline


Text Timeline

160,000 BC – 1849: There are no events on this timeline before 1850, because there were few fundamental changes in our food supply before that time. Modern science tells us that man first lived in approx. 160,000 BC. He hunted and gathered and carried on primitively for 140,000 years or so, until the dawn of agriculture around 20,000 BC. Very little changed from that time to the last 150 years. We pick up here in 1850, when people were still growing their food with hand tools and animal-drawn plows, using natural fertilizers. Food was grown and consumed locally, with limited means for preservation and distribution.

1864: Louis Pasteur heats his beer up in 1864, thereby inventing modern sterilization.

1865: Large scale pasteurization of milk begins.

1897: Catalytic hydrogenation allows scientists to start chemically prolonging the shelf left of oils and fats.

1902: New patents allow mass production of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Image Credit: “Margarine”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1905: The search for preservatives turns up Sodium Benzoate, which will be a major player in American food for the next century.

1911: Crisco introduced by Procter & Gamble. Yummy!

1912: Paul Sabatier receives Nobel Prize for work on hydrogenation.

1912: A&P opens the first grocery store, consolidating dry goods, a bakery, and produce under one roof. Piggly Wiggly followed in 1916. Image Credit: Acme Grocery – By November 2008er (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1918: Fritz Haber wins a Nobel Prize for creating the synthetic nitrogen needed for the first chemical fertilizers.

1923: International Harvester’s Farmall tractor paves the way for massive monocultures. Image Credit: Richard Webb CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1924: Rudolph Steiner lectures European farmers on biodynamic agriculture.

1926: SPAM! Ground pork packed in gelatin. A sign of things to come. Image Credit: “Spam can” by Qwertyxp2000 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1930: Frigidaire synthesizes freon, bringing safe electric refrigeration to consumers and retailers.

1933: The beginning of electric refrigeration coincides with the birth of the supermarket; self-service, single-serving meats, fish, produce, baked goods, and dry goods. Image Credit: “Pickles (5194454932)” by Leslie Seaton from Seattle, WA, USA. Licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1939: Weston A. Price publishes Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, based on his study of traditional diets.

1940: Albert Howard publishes An Agricultural Testament, the first publicly available work on organic growing. Image Credit: By Ryan Franklin from Gilbert, AZ, US of A CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1942: J.I. Rodale publishes Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine. Image Credit: By Shuvaev (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1943: Eve Balfour publishes The Living Soil in London. Image Credit: By Ryan Franklin from Gilbert, AZ, US of A CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1948: Paul Muller receives Nobel Peace Prize for developing DDT as an insecticide.

1950: Developments in antibiotics and manufactured feeds create the advent of the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation), which start with chickens but quickly add pigs and cows.

1951: The advent of electric refrigeration in railroad cars allows perishable goods to be distributed nationally.

1953: Swanson’s TV Dinners hit the market to address the problem that cooking requires one to stop watching TV for a while. Image Credit: Smile Lee at English Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1958: Geigy labs produces Atrazine, an insecticide that increases corn production by about 5%, at the expense of some of the most fragile ecosystems on earth. Image Credit: Ron Nichols / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, via Wikimedia Commons

1959: Chicago’s Glidden Company introduces the first soy additive for processed meat, the first of many fine “ingredients” to be added to beef.

1961: Kei Yamanaka creates the first food-grade High Fructose Corn Syrup, presumably because it’s cheaper than sugar.

1962: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring jump starts the modern environmentalism movement, and leads the US to ban DDT.

1965: NutraSweet synthesizes aspartame, launching a fake sugar economy that will reach $6B by 2015.

1970: Sysco Corporation IPO brings industrial food supply to American restaurants. Image Credit: By Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1974: Rudolf Jaenisch creates first GMO animal, a lab mouse with a number instead of a name. Image Credit: By Whitehead inst (Sam Ogden/Whitehead Institute) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1974: John Jeavons publishes How to Grow More Vegetables… Image Credit: By Spedona (Spedona) (Cliché personnel – own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1976: USDA grants “Generally regarded as safe” label to high fructose corn syrup.

1979: Monsanto & Genentech collaborate on GMO bovine growth hormones to increase lactation in cows. Image Credit: By 4028mdk09 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1980: McDonald’s “borrows” Robert C. Baker’s work and patents the Chicken McNugget. Image Credit: By Fritz Saalfeld (Own work) CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

1980: Whole Foods Market founded in Austin, TX. Image Credit: © Jared Preston, via Wikimedia Commons

1981: Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening brings intensive food production to back yards everywhere. Image Credit: By Thomask0 (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1983: Antibiotic-resistant tobacco becomes the first GMO plant. Image Credit: (c)2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) (Own work (Own Picture)) GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

1984: Coke and Pepsi switch to High Fructose Corn Syrup in the US. Image Credit: By Bene16 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1988: Walmart opens its first Supercenter stores with full grocery departments. Image Credit: By Ben Schumin (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1994: Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomatoes are the first GMO produce offered to US consumers. Image Credit: By Assianir (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1994: Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO soybeans hit the agricultural market.

1996: Who can forget Dolly, the first cloned sheep? She lived half as long as a real sheep, but we remember her well. Image Credit: Mike Pennington CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1999: Per capita consumption of High Fructose Corn Syrup in the US peaks at 64 lbs/year, about half of all the sugar we ate.

2000: European Union requires clear labeling of products containing GMOs. No comment from the FDA… Image Credit: By Orin Hargraves from Carroll County, MD, USA (Better Living through Genetic Modification) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2000: European Union bans the use of rBST bovine growth hormones. No comment from the USDA… Image Credit: By 4028mdk09 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2000: Golden rice is the first plant genetically modified to increase its nutritional value. Yay? Image Credit: By Jfi7811 (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2001: Walmart becomes the top food retailer in the United States. Image Credit: By Abras2010 (Walmart Uploaded by SchuminWeb) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2003: Organic foods become the fastest growing segment in the US food industry, offered in 75% of supermarkets. Image Credit: By Alanthebox (Own work) CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

2004: EU bans Atrazine because of “ubiquitous and unpreventable water contamination.” No comment from the USDA… Image Credit: By Jenni Jones from Lacey, Wa, United States (Crop Duster) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2005: 100 years after its inception, Sodium Benzoate comes under fire for causing cancer. The original 1993 study wasn’t publicized until 2005. Image Credit: By José Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2005: USDA deregulates GMO sugar beets. Image Credit: © Jörgens.mi, via Wikimedia Commons

2006: Michael Pollan publishes The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

2007: Independent cinema joins the conversation with King Corn (2007), Food, Inc. (2008), and Fresh (2009).

2013: Marjory Wildcraft starts GrowYourOwnGroceries.org to help people learn to produce their own food and medicine.

2014: Walmart brings organic food to the masses, applying its proven strategy for destroying supply chains to the one we need most. Image Credit: By Walmart from Bentonville, USA CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2015: USDA approves Arctic apples for sale in the US, making Okanagan Specialty Fruits the “Johnny Appleseed” of GMOs. Image Credit: By Apple and Pears Australia Ltd CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Disease Statistics:
*All diabetes statistics from CDC – http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics/slides/long_term_trends.pdf
**All obesity statistics from NIH – http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/Pages/overweight-obesity-statistics.aspx

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Michael Ford


Contributor

Michael has been the resident editor at The [Grow] Network since January 2015. Michael grew up in St. Louis, where he became a lover of nature - hiking and fishing his way through the Ozark hills in Missouri. He attended Baylor University in Waco, TX, and he currently lives in Austin. Michael has background experience in small-scale farming, commercial growing, vegetable gardening, landscaping, marketing, and software development. He received his Permaculture Design Certification from the Austin Permaculture Guild in 2013.


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36 Comments
  • Martin Tener

    It is important to note that Pasteur on his deathbed condemned his own work, pasteurization, presumably in favor of the work of a rival.

  • Big OOPS! You forgot the WHEAT story! Why today’s wheat is FAR from your grandma’s wheat – Today’s “shorter” wheat and the use of round-Up to aid in mega-harvesting – has made the cases of Celiac Disease and other gluten intolerance problems in MANY rise greatly!

    • Profile photo of Michael Ford

      Hi Marianne – Yep, big oops there! I’m sure there are some other big ones I left out too. I’ll update this sometime later after everybody lets me know what they are… Thanks – Michael

  • Tina

    Great job, I love this!

  • JanetD

    Awesome infographic! I know its not practical to have the length of the timeline correspond equally to the time periods covered (e.g with a LONG timeline showing the 160,000 years to 1800s), but that would make it even more dramatic! I will just have to envision that, I guess.

    My only quibble would be to add the percentage of people who also medically qualify as being overweight, because I believe the U.S. now has something like 67% of the population as being overweight or obese. But that’s a minor point. Nice job!

    • Profile photo of Michael Ford

      Hi Janet – Thanks – I made 3 or 4 attempts at visually showing the length of time from 160,000 to 1850, but none of them really fit into this small space. Maybe there’s a creative mathematician in the group who can come up with a good analogy to express this in words rather than pictures? I hope someone will try! Thanks – Michael

  • Bill

    Really liked this article – very informative. Could you please email me your references as to the age of man? Your article states 160,000 BC. Modern science has a real problem of being theory and not fact.

    • Profile photo of Michael Ford

      Hi Bill – Glad you liked this. I tried to do a little disclaimer on the age of man with, “modern science tells us” haha. If you ask 10 people you might get 10 different opinions on this one – but I don’t think it changes the point I was trying to make here – it was a long, long time, whether it was 2.8M years, 160K years, or 4K years. The opinion I ended up going with was from UC Berkeley, here: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/06/11_idaltu.shtml Thanks – Michael

  • Alice

    In your infographic photos corn syrup, such as Karo, is different from high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is manufactured from corn syrup by converting a large proportion of its glucose into fructose (according to Wikipedia).

  • Jennifer

    Wow – there are things I remember, but never realized how they tied in to the bigger picture.
    I really like how you added the obesity/diabetes numbers too – though I’m surprised our obesity % isn’t higher right now.
    Great project!

  • Kerry

    Another great article. It’s shocking when you look at it all laid out like that.

  • Awesome, thank-you. Here are a couple more twists in the road.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masanobu_Fukuoka

    1970s – Masanobu Fukuoka introduced his techniques of no-till, no-herbicide grain cultivation farming methods traditional to many indigenous cultures, i.e. “Natural Farming” or “Do-nothing Farming.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture

    1978 – The term permaculture was coined by Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, referring to “permanent agriculture” and later expanded to stand for “permanent culture”, to include social aspects integral to a truly sustainable system as inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farming philosophy.

    • Profile photo of Michael Ford

      Hello Estar – Doh! How could I forget those? Haha – I’ll add them into a revision after all the omissions roll in. Thanks – Michael

  • Cynthia Barnes

    I really liked your article, I learned a lot. Diabetes has been in my maternal family since at least 1900. I am overweight and struggling to change. I find frustration with those who say it’s all will power. I enjoy my garden a great deal and I feel our food industry has lost sight of what’s important. Thanks for all the information.

  • John Wesley

    Let’s not forget all that time before “modern” agriculture in the Americas.
    Books 1491 & 1493 by Charles C. Mann were very eye-opening about all the awesome (sustainable) and terrible (destructive) actions made by many different native groups, as well as the influences of foreign powers and results of the “Columbian Exchange.”
    Many New World plants and animals/critters/microbes as well as culture had huge impacts on the rest of the world.

  • sclindah

    Very informative! I definitely want any updates. I know you can only fit so much in but my thought would be distance food now travels now and the number of hands it goes through now as compared to the 1850s! Everyone needs to read this article!

  • Renee

    It is so nice to know that the year I was born was the year High Fructose Corn Syrup was invented!!! In 2000 I became a Diabetic! Growing up we always had a garden and ate a lot of veggies out of our garden and a lot of dry beans etc. But I remember in my mid teens it seemed like we were buying more cake mixes, canned meat, rice. Of course when I moved out I bought anything I wanted to eat and gave up most of the garden foods I had grown up with and also drank a lot of Cokes which I did not have growing up! I of course raised my sons on my new eating habits. So today I try to coach them to eat better than I did/do. Sometimes when things change to what looks like it will be better… it just is not better. Diabetic, overweight, heart problems, etc. are caused by these “better” things being added to our foods!

  • Sandy

    Brilliant! So few of us have time to write or read a book these days, despite this being a truly vital story to tell.
    If you decide you want to play with it more I could see a button that would open up with more historical details or consequences.
    I also got a mental flash or what stories a 40 acre plot of farmland could tell us about who lived and died there, what was done with the food grown there, how far that food traveled, a sense of who ate it and how that food affected them. Getting fanciful here, but It is amazing and perplexing to reflect how our perception and use of food has changed.
    Many thanks, really enjoy your bulletins, Michael! Sandy

  • Bonnie

    Another great article. Hopefully it will be read by those who need to know these things. Thank you

  • Diane

    Perhaps mentioning the fake sugars—aspartame and sucralose could be included as well,

  • Diane

    This is so wonderful! How clever and succinct! Even teenagers would take a few minutes to look over this. Thank you. Very interested in updates. Wonderful idea…

  • Fayette

    This is really bazaar! I was just talking to a co-worker about how our culture has gone through so many changes in the last couple of generations. This really puts it in perspective. Reading the comments, there are so many other facets that have not made it into this info-graphic! It could take up pages and pages and still not get everything in it. There is so much more and many don’t realize the half of it.

    • Fayette

      additional comment: In our discussion one person was touting the benefits of monoculture farming and how it has helped to feed the world, but now we have to figure out a way to avoid the toxic results. He did not advocate organic nor did he see it as a viable alternative. I wish I could give him the link to this time line, however I do not think it will help. Only because the language used is obviously slanted against the conventional monoculture farms and factory farming of animals and slanted in favor of organics and saving the earth. I am sad this presentation of true facts was not presented as just facts. The truth of the occurrences speak for themselves. A lot of work went into this presentation, but it may prove useless to anyone but those of us who understand the devastation. In this case I do not think I can use it to show him and others like him the light that would open their eyes. He would reject it hands down without even considering the facts that are presented in the timeline because he would detect the obvious bias. In my opinion it would need to be truly neutral to have the greatest effect on those that are still blinded by what they perceive as progress. It is still a great timeline and I will give it anyway, who knows how they will react. Thank you for the information gathered and the time spent putting it together!

  • Joe

    Thanks for the timeline Michael, I really like timelines for their clarity. I find that graphics greatly increase the impact of information for me. It’s amazing how much has changed in a hundred years!

    The only thing I would add is at about 10 to 12,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent, the beginning of “Totalitarian Agriculture,” which continues today. This form of agriculture created untold environmental damage and huge surpluses and enabled the rulers to lock up the food and make people work to pay for it. This event brought about the divisions in labor, the nuclear family, cities (civis in Latin, from which we get “Civilization”), Social stratification, income disparity, ruling elites and class warfare, politics, frequent famines and plagues, standing armies and constant war, crime, law, sky god religions, ecosystem destruction to increase farmland, a grain based diet, desertification and more. It was all based on a paradigm of “The Earth belongs to man to conquer and rule”. This paradigm is still the master paradigm that informs all societies, East and West and is at the root of all that Permaculture and Regenerative Agriculture are striving to change. It was a 180 degree flip of the original, tribal paradigm of “Man belongs to the Earth, which provides abundantly for us” – which aligns with permaculture ethics and principles.

    Whew! that was a mouth full! If you want to read about this massive shift and “The Great Forgetting” of the tribal paradigm that it ushered in, please read Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” trilogy. I think we need to understand where this paradigm came from and how it affects us in order to overcome it and return to cooperating with the Earth instead of fighting against it.

    Kind Regards, Joe

    • Profile photo of Michael Ford

      Hi Joe – You said a mouthful there! Yeah, visuals can really help with complex topics. I’m glad you liked it.

      I loved Ishmael, but I never read The Story of B or My Ishmael. I guess I should work those in to my reading list sooner than later… Your points about agriculture and it’s many effects on society remind me of some of the ideas in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. He makes a strong case that job specialization and separation of classes can only happen when there is an excess of food from agriculture. It’s a similar vein to what you’re describing here. Thanks – Michael

      • Joe

        Hey Michael, If you liked Ishmael, then you’ll love the other two. “The Story of B” is my favorite of the three and really digs deep with fats and figures, plus the story is dynamite, like a great spy novel. I’ve also read Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse by Jared Diamond, both great books, although having read the Ishmael books, I think his scope of history is a bit narrow at times.

    • Sylvia Lynn Gillotte

      Another good book that clarifies how the agricultural revolution did not necessarily improve the condition of man or the earth is Harari’s book Sapiens, which is currently on the New York Times Bestseller list.

  • Daryle in VT

    I’m not going to touch DDT, anything that saved millions and millions of children from the ravages of the Anopheles flying hypodermic has GOT to be bad.
    I’m not sure what “Yay?” is, apparently it suggests derisiveness. Golden Rice was developed by Syngenta, the GMO people, as a HUMANITARIAN gesture to save the lives of millions of children who rarely made it to their 5th birthday due to VAD. The lack of beta carotene in India and Asia did more than cause irreversible blindness in children under 5. Many childhood diseases, not as well known, are caused by lack of the vitamin A precursor.
    “Let them eat (non-GMO) carrots!” Carrots aren’t a major food source in Asia and India. They were discovered in Afghanistan, and were white. A mutation (synonymous with GMO, a couple of hundred years ago) was discovered in Holland that turned carrots orange. The horticulturist presented the new carrot to the Dutch royal family of Orange-Nassau. It still didn’t help the kids in Asia. A GMO did.
    You wouldn’t believe the real reason for the Arctic Apple, so I won’t tell you. They make a lousy apple pie, as well. Same reason.
    Actually, the time line had a lot of good information, especially in 2013. 🙂 Big Agriculture has produced some highly questionable products. I remember putting Karo syrup and brown sugar on pancakes, while growing up in the 50s … in Vermont! Apparently, it was cheaper than Maple syrup.

    • Profile photo of Michael Ford

      Hi Daryle – Thanks for taking the time to read the timeline. I’m glad you thought it had some good info – along with the other stuff you didn’t like. Thanks – Michael

  • Jean

    Very interesting timeline. It would interesting also if heart disease were put on it.

  • Ashley Waghorne

    Your work is wonderful! Loved the graphic and the info you included

  • Enjoyed the article so much. Also, remember the days when a family ate dinner together and shared the day’s happenings. I think the emotional loss of sitting at the TV and phones/aps etc. enters into the enjoyment of relationships.
    Marti

  • Reed Burch

    It should be noted that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is responsible for millions of deaths from malaria. Of all pesticides, DDT was one of the safest. Banning DDT has ushered in misery beyond belief because of some touchy feely attitudes. There is room for balance in the way things are approached. Lionizing Ms. Carson for the damage she has done to mankind is despicable.

  • Bret -Sorry, qulwl-fokiocup: would you recommend random, instinctive rotation of exercises or would you lean towards something closer to a preestablished A,B,C,D and E workout, to cover the five days, repeating each week ? Thanks again!

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