Planned Obsolescence

Herd About It?

By Ana Grarian

How is Industrial Agriculture like General Motors? In the 1950’s GM came up with the idea of planned obsolescence Make a product that will fall apart and the consumer has to buy a new one. Think of the difference between denim jeans that wear like iron and the cheap stuff we buy in most stores today that barely make it through a season. Or think of that antique, well made, hard oak desk with dovetailed drawers versus the fiberboard crap we buy today. Or think of how they are both dependent on the petroleum industry.

I’ve been reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, available in fine Independent Bookstores like Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca NY, and others in your hometown. Michael outlines how the nutritional value of raw foods has deteriorated over the years. He quotes USDA figures which show significant decline in vitamin and mineral levels in produce since the 1950’s. These findings are echoed by research done in England.

This only makes sense. Plants take up nutrients from the soil and make them available to us in tasty vehicles like tomatoes and apples and carrots. If the nutrients aren’t in the soil, the plants can’t make them available to us. Likewise, if the nutrients aren’t in the soil, they aren’t in the feed crops, and they aren’t in the meat that we eat from livestock fed those crops.

How has industrial agriculture changed that? We now grow mono-cultures of crops over and over again in the same fields causing a depletion of soil nutrients. Heck even as a suburban school kid I learned about how important crop rotation was, but that’s all down the drain now thanks to you guessed it the oil companies.

After the world wars we had an industry that manufactured chemical weapons. Without a need for these products in large amounts, they were turned into chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Mono-cultures require fertilizers as the soil becomes depleted. The understanding of the nutrient requirements of plants became reduced to NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium). These elements could be easily provided through chemical fertilizers manufactured with and by fossil fuels.

Of course, those are not the only nutrients our food provided us. But nutrients like iron and zinc and calcium were being depleted from the soil too. And the plants that were growing fast with the addition of unusual amounts of nitrogen, did not have the same concentrations of these nutrients in their flesh. Hence today we would ave to eat 3 apples to get the same amount of iron that you would have from 1 apple in 1940. Not to mention better flavor. Hence we now also have fabricated vitamins and nutrients added to our food products. Another boon for industry and the petroleum industry in particular.

So we have food, grown in mono-cultures with the aid of vast amounts of petroleum products, shipped long distances to be manufactured into value added food products, packaged in multi levels of packaging (can you say plastic?) and shipped again to grocery stores around the world. And the Exxon Mobil profits rise as our health falters.

Or as Wendell Berry said: As scale increases, diversity declines; as diversity declines, so does health; as health declines, the dependence on drugs and chemicals necessarily increases. (from his essay The Pleasures of Eating).

Planned obsolescence deplete the soil and sell fertilizer and pesticides. Deplete the nutritional value of food and sell more product, more supplements, and more health care. The rich get richer and we all get sicker.