things never change
Never trust a dog to watch your food.
Patrick, age 10
Our country has witnessed sweeping changesfrom
the untamed wild times of Buffalo Bill to the technological
era of Bill Gatesbut food has never lost its
central role in our lives. Food not only sustains life
but also enriches us in many ways. It warms us on cold,
dreary days, entices us with its many aromas, and provides
endless variety to the everyday world. Food is also
woven into the fabric of our Nation, our culture, our
institutions, and our families. Food is on the scene
when we celebrate and when we mourn. We use it for
camaraderie, as a gift, and as a reward (and sometimes
as a crutch).
We are all aware of how food has changed. At the turn
of the 20th century, home cooking and canning were
fixtures of life in America. Lard, seasonal vegetables,
potatoes, and fresh meats were the staples of our diet.
And 40 percent of Americans lived on farms. Today,
convenience foods and dining out are common. Ethnic
diversity has influenced our tastes and the variety
of foods available. Technology and trade allow us to
enjoy most foods all year round. And only 1 percent
of the population grows our food, while 9 percent are
involved in the food system in some wayin processing,
wholesaling, retailing, service, marketing, and inspection.
What Americans often forget, however, is the remarkable
system that delivers to us the most abundant, reasonably
priced, and safest food in the world. The American
food systemfrom the farmer to the consumeris
a series of interconnected parts. The farmer produces
the food, the processors work their magic, and the
wholesalers and retailers deliver the products to consumers,
whose choices send market signals back through the
system. Every piece fits every other piece, notwithstanding
an occasional gap and pinch. Our mission at the Economic
Research Service (ERS) is to understand this system
and effectively communicate our findings to the players
in the system.
Some of those gaps and pinches currently receiving
ERS scrutiny include obesity and food choices, the
need for better targeting of food assistance benefits,
as well as the environmental impacts of agriculture.
The challenges of biotech foods and of emerging global
markets and competitors (including Brazil, China, and
Ukraine) are also among the issues analyzed by ERS.
At the end of the day, it is safe to say the U.S.
food system has done a remarkable job of using technology
and inventiveness to its advantage and ultimately to
the benefit of the consumer. We get the foods we want,
when we want them, in the form we want them, all at
affordable prices. Thanks to this system, Americans
spend less of their income on food than do consumers
anywhere else in the world.
Despite the dramatic evolution of the American food
system, there are some constants in our ever-changing
world. Americans will always love food. The American
food system will continue to adapt, grow, and provide
us with the products we desire. And yes, that timeless
advice stands: Never trust a dog to watch your food.
James R. Blaylock, Associate Director
Food and Rural Economics Division, ERS