Blogs & Comment

America's food is its best military weapon

American guns may not stop global terrorism, but American burgers just might.

(Photo: Gary Tramontina/New York Times)

Food technology is the foundation of any country’s prosperity.

Not coincidentally, the United States is both the most prosperous country in the world and its biggest food producer. Today, it’s the biggest per-capita exporter of food by nearly double—the next country on the list, France, produces only about half as much. In fact, the American food system has created so much abundance that it literally wastes more food than many countries produce. Americans actually throw away about half the food that is harvested for them.

By the numbers, American consumers spend a trillion dollars a year on food, which is roughly split between supermarkets and restaurants. About half of that restaurant amount—a quarter of a trillion dollars—is spent on fast food. It should be no surprise that Americans have some of the highest caloric intake on the planet, as this map illustrates.

It should similarly not be a surprise that many of the world’s biggest companies are American food producers. Pepsi, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Tyson Foods and McDonald’s are Fortune 500 companies that form the backbone of an industry that is worth nearly $5 trillion dollars, or around 10% of global economic output.

With so much money at stake and the competition between producers so fierce, there is constant pressure to innovate. Whether it’s creating new and better food products or distributing, transporting, packaging and selling them more efficiently, technology is at the heart of everything we eat. It indeed manifests itself in ways we hardly notice thanks to the passage of time. Consider that in 1965 it took around an hour to prepare a meal. By the mid-nineties, thanks to processing, packaging and new cooking technology such as the microwave and better ovens, that preparation time was shaved in half. That means more time to get on with being prosperous.

Some would point out that all of this excess has resulted in an obesity epidemic in the United States, but that’s only partially true. The World Health Organization identifies a sedentary lifestyle—also known as lack of exercise—as a major cause of obesity, so it’s not all the burgers’ fault. Even still, as with all technologies, food advances have solved many problems and introduced new ones.

One final aspect of food technology, which I explore in my book, Sex, Bombs and Burgers, is its use by the United States as a weapon, figuratively speaking. The biggest driver of war, terrorism and conflict is poverty, which is usually found in places that don’t have enough food or where it isn’t distributed properly. By eliminating hunger, countries also eliminate the main motivating factor for why people enlist in conflicts. A happy and well-fed populace is a largely peaceful populace.

As such, the United States has tremendous motivation to better distribute the tremendous amount of food it wastes, as well as encourage the proliferation of its food technology producers. American guns may not stop global terrorism, but American burgers just might.