By Krista Marshall
A Good Rise? Wonder Bread and the Anthropocene
In the year 1921 Wonder Bread was introduced to the market, and it would soon become both a staple in grocery stores and homes alike.2 The paper-white, nutrient enriched, sugar loaded loaf perfectly symbolizes the characteristics that demonstrate that humans have transitioned into an era we call the Anthropocene. Today we live in a world where many of the environmental, social, and ecological problems can be attributed, at least partially, to human activity. Wonder bread represents this era through it’s connections to the industrialization of the food system, a shift in human lifestyles pertaining to food, and the increased intensity of energy demands surrounding the industry. Each of these features contribute to different consequences of human activity, and to different degrees. Although the issues we face today seem daunting, using Wonder Bread as an example can help us understand features that define the Anthropocene and, in achieving this better understanding, help us move forward.
The end of World War I ushered in an era of rapidly increasing rates of conversion from small scale to industrial farming methods. This shift was accompanied by more large scale farms, less family owned operations, and higher productivity. The USDA noted that in the year nineteen hundred 41% of the American workforce was employed by the agricultural industry, and with the onset of the 21st century less than 2% of that workforce still remained. In addition to a decrease in the workforce to support the agricultural sector, the number of farms and average farm size has changed dramatically after the year 1920. A USDA graph shows that the average farm production size has increased, almost exponentially between the years 1920 and 1990 while the number of farms has experienced the opposite effect. 3 This general trend was an important aspect in the start of intensified agribusiness. Consequently, the integration of capital business and agriculture has had significant impacts on the environment like loss of biodiversity, increased soil erosion, and emissions into the atmosphere from the introduction of more intensive, environmentally unsustainable practices.
The Taggart Baking Company introduced Wonder Bread in 1921 and was shortly bought by The Continental Baking Company, which became and remained the largest commercial baking company in The United States throughout the 1900s.2 This buyout wasn’t uncommon for large food commodity companies, and happened frequently. The United States experienced this shift to industrial agribusiness and capital markets earlier than many other countries, but it should be noted that many nations around the world would follow pursuit shortly after World War II; although not without influence from these Western nations of course. One study suggests that global trends were indeed following similar paths of agricultural production, but didn’t see rapid growth until around 1950.7 This intensification of agricultural land operations from small to large scale is obviously an important aspect for these companies because access to larger amounts of resources makes producing their products more efficient and cheaper, while simultaneously increasing the intensity of the effects these productions had on the landscape.
One consequence of human activity and the onset of the industrial revolution that is easily recognizable by many is the increased use of energy, mainly fossil fuels. During the period of 1920 to 1970 farm production as a function of energy input doubled, which happened to take place during the rapid increase of mechanical labor use on farms.11 A shift from manual to mechanical labor is just one of many examples that contributed to the increasing demand of energy needed to sustain our ever expanding food industry. This demand could also account for the new processes needed in food production like increased transportation around the world, industrial processing of food products, and subsequent distribution to markets. The impacts of the food industry, mainly attributed to its’ increasing energy needs, account for nearly 33% of global warming effects, which is a clear indicator that it’s closely tied to aspects that define the Anthropocene.12
The takeoff of highly processed foods, Wonder Bread included, from the 1920s onward just over quadrupled the total energy input to the US food system.11
The processed food industry added extra energy inputs that included things like transportation both to and from facilities, processing the foods, and production of packaging. Let’s take Wonder Bread for example, an American made staple that gained popularity because of it’s highly processed, “nutritious” qualities. The introduction of Wonder Bread was accompanied by the introduction of a piece of machinery, created by Otto Frederick Rohewedder, that revolutionized the industrial baking industry. He created the first machine to have multiple blades and a power driven motor, making it capable of both slicing and packaging bread. An advertisement for the first factory operated using this technology exclaimed that it was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped”.1 It was right, by the 1930s sliced bread became a staple in many households across the nation. This piece of equipment, among many others, is a great example of the added energy that went into producing food throughout the 1900s. A study published in 1976 by Gerald Leach found that 8 units of fossil fuel energy was used for every 1 unit of food energy produced in “developed” societies.9 This finding is significant because it helps to quantify the enormous amounts of energy being used to fulfill growing food production demands. This fossil fuel powered food system and its’ high emission rates, from seed to table, has had serious implications for the environment including increased global temperatures, depletion of the ozone layers, and acidification of water, just to name a few. Although the food industry isn’t entirely to blame for the consequences of our human activity, it is clear that it does play a major role in key environmental issues we deem important for the Anthropocene.
Wonder Bread not only represents a changing food industry during the twentieth century, it also narrates the story of a changing lifestyle for the people of nations that have access to these foods. The lifestyle changes surrounding food included the takeover of the supermarket and subsequent consequences of that takeover, both vital aspects of a more prevalent suburban lifestyle. The growth of supermarkets was slow at the beginning of the twentieth century, but rates grew from 3.2% of sales accounted for by supermarkets to nearly 75% between 1935 and 1982.5 The growth of supermarkets was accompanied by the increasing popularity of processed foods, you couldn’t find a store without the gleaming 1.5 pound loaves of Wonder Bread lining the bread aisle. The USDA Research Service released it’s food consumption report in 1968 and it reflected “a shift to foods requiring less preparation by the homemaker”.6 Mainly, an increase in supermarket purchases of highly processed, easy to prepare meals. The increasing instances of supermarket trips to purchase not only your processed food needs, but many other conveniences contributed to an effect that could be considered one of the most significant human activities in regards to its’ impact on the environment.
One effect of the increased popularity of supermarket shopping in place of small neighborhood grocery stores was the need to use transportation, most prominently cars. The increasing distances that consumers need to travel, currently a staggering average of 19.5 minutes, has dramatically increased consumer reliance on car use.8 One of the main results of this increased use of cars is the need to provide a fuel to power the vehicles required, in most cases, to access the supermarkets. The world consumption of petroleum, the main energy source for cars, has increased almost 5 fold between the years 1920 and 2000 (Vaclav Smil). This poses a great threat to the environment because cars emit high rates of green house gases, specifically carbon dioxide. As a result, the transportation industry now contributes to 14% of global green house gas emissions, and combined with the effects of the food industry as a whole has had significant impacts on the environment.4
Wonder Bread is obviously symbolic of the shift of the food and agricultural sectors to larger, environmentally intensive operations, but it also reflects the changing lifestyles of the consumers of these products. It is clear that the consequences of the industrialization of agriculture and food, energy consumption due to this transition, and a drastic change in consumer lifestyle and habits has had serious consequences for the environment, with the effects taking on many forms. In analyzing the roles each of these aspects plays in the understanding of the Anthropocene it becomes easier to understand and form relationships between each role, creating a more well rounded view of what it means to live in the era of human activity dominating global environmental changes.
1. Chillicothe Baking Company. “Sliced Kleen Maid Bread.” Advertisement. Grand River Historical Society Museum. April 29, 2016.
2. “Continental Baking Company: List of Deals.” Harvard Business School Baker Library Historical Collection. Accessed April 15, 2016. http://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/lehman/company.html?company=continental_baki ng_co.
3. Dimitri, Carolyn, Anne Effland, and Neilson Conklin. “The 20th Century Transformation of US Agriculture and Farm Policy.” United States Department of Agriculture 3 (June 2005). Accessed April 15, 2016
4. Edenhofer, Ottmar, ed. “Climate Change 2014 Mitigation of Climate Changes.” Cambridge University Press, 2014, 27. Accessed April 25, 2016. https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_full.pdf.
5. Ellickson, Paul B. “Revolution of the Supermarket Industry from A&P to Walmart.” March 15, 2015. Accessed April 15, 2016.
6. Food Consumption of Households in the United States Spring 1965. Vol. 1. US Depatrment of Agriculture, 1968.
7. Goklany, Indur M. “Comparing 20th Century Trends in US and Global Agricultural Water and Land Use.” Water International 27 (September 2002): 3. Accessed April 15, 2016. Science Direct.
8. Hamrick, Karen S., and David Hopkins. “The Time Cost of Access to Food.”International Journal of Time Use Research 9, no. 1 (2012). Accessed April 29, 2016.
9. Leach, Gerald. “Energy and Food Production.” Food Policy, November 1975. Accessed April 15, 2016. Science Direct.
10. Smil, Vaclav. Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, and Prospects. Santa Barbara, 2010.
11. Steinhart, John, and Carol Steinhart. “Energy Use in the U.S. Food System.” April 19, 1974. Accessed April 15, 2016. PubMed.gov.
12. “Taking a Bite Out of Climate Change.” Sustainable Table. Accessed April 29, 2016. http://www.sustainabletable.org/982/agriculture-energy-climate-change.