What’s grain got to do with it? How the problem of surplus grain was solved by increasing ‘meat’ consumption in post-WWII US

In the second half of the 20th century, global ‘meat’[1] production increased by nearly 5 times. The amount of ‘meat’ eaten per person doubled. By 2050 ‘meat’ consumption is estimated to increase by 160 percent (The World Counts, 2017). While global per capita ‘meat’ consumption is currently 43 kg/year, it is nearly double in the UK (82 kg/year) and almost triple in the US (118 kg/year).

Have you ever wondered how ‘meat’ became such a central part of the Western diet? Or how the industrialisation of ‘animal agriculture’ came about? It might seem like the natural outcome of the ‘free market’ meeting demand for more ‘meat’. But from what I have learned from Nibert (2002) and Winders and Nibert (2004), the story of how ‘meat’ consumption increased so much in the post-World War II (WWII) period is anything but natural. They argue it is largely due to a decision in the 1940s by the US government to deal with the problem of surplus grain by increasing the production of ‘meat’.

The concentration of US agriculture and the ‘Green Revolution’

The concentration of agriculture and government policy

In the early 1920s, US agriculture was shifting towards mechanisation and industrialisation. Tractors started to replace horses and mules as farm labour. Land used to produce feed for ‘labouring animals’ was converted to cash crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat. By the late 1920s there was a large grain surplus. Falling prices forced many farmers out of business. Grain was increasingly used to feed ‘livestock’, especially ‘cattle’ as Western grazing lands were becoming degraded. Grain facilitated rapid weight gain and reduced ‘production’ time (Nibert, 2002; Winders and Nibert, 2004).

During the 1930s, the government attempted to reduce the grain surplus, boost prices and increase farm income. It did this through price supports and production controls. Farmers were guaranteed minimum prices for certain commodities in return for not planting part of their land. These policies succeeded in increasing farm income. But by limiting land rather than production, they also encouraged farmers to intensify production (Winders and Nibert, 2004).

The ‘Green Revolution’ and the problem of surplus grain

Intensification was enabled by new technologies such as mechanisation, chemical fertilisers and high yielding seed coming out of the ‘Green Revolution[2]. Some of this technology was a result of repurposing weapons of war after WWII. For example, after the war the government had a huge surplus of ammonium nitrate – the main ingredient in explosives. It also happens to be a good source of nitrogen for plants. Agronomists at the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) came up with the idea to use it as fertiliser. As noted here: “The chemical fertiliser industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on the poison gases developed for war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes.”

After 1940, ‘Green Revolution’ technology rapidly increased the productivity of corn, wheat and soybeans in the US. This led to growing surpluses. Ironically, farmers were able to invest in these new technologies because the government was paying them artificially high prices through their price support policy (Winders and Nibert, 2004).

Negative impacts of the ‘Green Revolution’

The ‘Green Revolution’ is often referred to as a ‘modern miracle’ credited with ‘feeding the world’. While these claims are debateable, its negative environmental impacts are not. The industrial ‘Green Revolution’ production system required huge increases in mono-cropping, agrochemicals and irrigation. This has resulted in significant decreases in biodiversity, top soil, and fresh water in the US and globally. The focus on a few ‘high yielding’ hybrid seeds, developed in research laboratories and controlled by corporate agribusiness, have also come at the expense of the wide variety of resilient and nutritious traditional crops and locally owned seed systems. For more on the ‘Green Revolution’ see the additional information section below.

In the US, increasing productivity led to more surpluses which reduced profitability. This prompted further intensification. The resulting soil erosion was dealt with by increased use of chemical fertilisers. Insecticides and herbicides allowed farmers to stop their traditional crop rotation and other soil conservation practices. They focused on short term yields while polluting and depleting fresh water sources (Nibert, 2002).

To stay competitive farmers took loans for equipment, agrochemicals and land. Many small farms went bankrupt and were replaced by large, capital-intensive agricultural operations. Consolidation and vertical integration led to increasing concentration of agribusiness under corporate control. Between 1930 and 1994, the number of farmers in the US decreased from 7 million to 1.9 million. Of these 1.9 million, 6 percent produced the majority of food (ibid.).

“No other animal ...such a disregard for life”

Expansion of ‘meat’ production and consumption post-WWII

The role of the state in promoting ‘meat’ production and consumption

Farm organisations argued that supply management was not a solution to surplus grain as it limited profits. The answer lay in increasing demand by increasing ‘meat’ consumption (Winders and Nibert, 2004). They lobbied the government and in 1949 the state began to promote ‘meat production’ through: i) price supports for ‘pork’ production; and ii) research to increase the efficiency of ‘livestock production’. This resulted in the rapid growth of industrial ‘production’ of other animals for human consumption (ibid.).

Between 1946 and 1975, the number of ‘cattle’ slaughtered in the US more than doubled from around 19 million to nearly 42 million. Per capita consumption of ‘beef’ almost doubled from 23kg in 1946 to a peak of 41.5kg in 1976. This trend was reflected worldwide. Worldwatch Institute reports that “worldwide meat production has tripled over the last four decades and increased 20 percent in just the last 10 years. Meanwhile, industrial countries are consuming growing amounts of meat nearly double the quantity in developing countries”.

The link between the ‘Green Revolution’ and the industrialisation of ‘animal agriculture’

Traditionally cows were consumed by the more affluent due to their high ‘production’ costs. The grain surpluses driven by ‘Green Revolution’ technology reduced feed costs significantly making ‘beef’ more affordable (ibid.). Much of the increase in agricultural inputs and output resulting from the ‘Green Revolution’ has gone into producing ‘meat’. At least 70 percent of grain produced in the West is sold as feed for ‘farm animals’ (Nibert, 2002). This has led to significant shifts in agricultural land use. Currently almost 80 percent of agricultural land globally is used for pasture and feed grains.

The promotion of ‘hamburger culture’

In Mmm bacon: The engineering of consent, I described how our habits and desires are manipulated by elite groups for their own interests. How propaganda, advertising and ‘public relations’ are used to manufacture demand for products. Agribusiness corporations and the state have used these techniques to encourage ‘meat’ consumption.

The decreased cost of ‘beef’ production due to cheap feed led to the mass consumption of ‘ground beef’ and ‘hamburger culture’ (Rifkin, 1992). New fast food chains such as White Castle and McDonald’s were founded. The industry boosted demand through relentless advertising. By 1977 nearly 40 percent of ‘beef’ consumed in the US was ‘ground beef’ (Nibert, 2002).

Rifkin (1992) argues the rise of ‘hamburger culture’ had as much to do with government regulation as with personal taste and convenience. He notes that the ‘beef’ industry has been able to monopolise the market due to a 1946 USDA code. The code defines the hamburger as “a ground meat patty which contains no meat or fat other than beef or beef fat”. Hamburgers require fat for firmness. According to Harris (1987) (quoted by Rifkin), if hamburgers were allowed to be made with fat from any other source “the entire beef industry would collapse overnight”. By having a monopoly on hamburger ingredients and being allowed to mix ‘beef’ and ‘beef’ fat from different animals, the ‘beef’ industry was able to create a cheap ‘beef’ patty[3]. To make these hamburgers, cheap range-fed ‘beef’ from Central America was mixed with the waste fat from grain-fed ‘cattle’ from the US (Rifkin, 1992).

The impact of ‘hamburger culture’ on low income countries

In the 1960s, Central and South American governments began to convert millions of acres of tropical rain forests and cropland to pastureland for ‘cattle’ for export. This was supported by loans from the US controlled World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Much of Central America was turned into a giant pasture to provide cheap ‘beef’ for the US. In South America the Amazon rain forests were cleared for ‘cattle’ grazing, largely to supply ‘beef’ to England and Europe (ibid.).

In Central America, at least 40 percent of the rainforest has been destroyed since the 1950s due to ‘cattle’ farming. Traditional agriculture has also increasingly been pushed out as the land of native people has been expropriated to create pastureland (ibid.).

The power of the ‘meat’ and ‘dairy’ lobby

The ‘meat’ and ‘dairy’ industry lobby groups in the US have increased demand for ‘animal products’ in many other ways. For example, between 1956 and 1992 the USDA nutrition guidelines recommended four basic ‘food’ groups, two of which were ‘milk’ and ‘meat’. Rather than being based on scientific evidence, the information for this recommendation was provided by the ‘meat’ and ‘dairy’ industries (Alessio, 2016). While the food groups now have less emphasis on ‘meat’ and ‘dairy’, ‘dairy’ still has its own separate category. No other food has this. This video shows how milk has been heavily promoted by the US government and ‘dairy’ industry to deal with surplus milk production after WWI (sound familiar?). This article shows how the ‘meat’ and ‘dairy’ industry has lobbied the USDA and influenced the nutrition guidelines since at least 1977. It also touches on the use of ‘peer-reviewed’ journals to promote the industry’s agenda.

The devastating consequences of industrialised ‘meat’ production

The concentration, industrialisation and corporatisation of both crop and ‘animal agriculture’ has had devastating effects on other animals. Since the end of WWII factory farms have replaced traditional ‘animal agriculture’. Between 1945 and 1960 the majority of ‘farmed’ animals in the US moved into factory farms or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These operations focused on increased efficiency, economies of scale and profitability (Winders and Nibert, 2004). All animal exploitation is morally wrong whether it is in ‘backyard farms’ or factory farms. But the industrialisation of ‘animal agriculture’ has significantly increased the scale and intensity of suffering inflicted on other animals. Corporate agribusiness has also killed countless free-living animals whose habitats have been destroyed to create pastureland (Rifkin, 1992).

There have also been devastating impacts on:

Is vegan education enough?

Our corporate controlled food system is responsible for the majority of the oppression and suffering of other animals. As Winders and Nibert (2004) argue, this is largely due to

the definition of other animals as commodities and as food, a social construction exacerbated by the fundamental processes of the capitalist market – the drive for profit, expansion and capital accumulation – and the state’s role in supporting that market.

This same drive is also responsible for oppressing humans and destroying the planet. The tradition of exploiting humans and other animals for the economic gain of a wealthy elite was established 10,000 years ago with our domestication of other animals. But our state supported corporate capitalist system has continued and intensified this tradition (Nibert, 2002).

So what can we do? Most animal rights advocates, myself included, focus on individual change through vegan education. I am starting to realise however, we also need to focus on overcoming the structural forces which facilitate and fuel our industrialised system of animal oppression.

One way to do this is to support grassroots organisations and movements which are working to resist the power of global agribusiness and reclaim our food systems. Movements for food justice and food sovereignty which promote sustainable, agro-ecological production systems. One such movement is La Via Campesina which represents over 200 million farmers all over the world.

However, we will never achieve true justice if we are still commodifying and exploiting the lives and bodies of other animals. Supporting and promoting organisations and initiatives working to create alternative food systems that exclude animal exploitation through veganic farming is essential. Organisations and initiatives such as Seed the Commons, Food Empowerment Project, Vegan Advocacy Initiative, Vegan Organic Network, Spiralseed and Empty Cages Design.

As with most things though, the first step must be to educate ourselves. From what I have learned so far, our oppression of other animals is not just a result of individual choices. It is underpinned by a state supported economic system driven by profit. A system which relies on the domination and exploitation of humans, other animals and the planet. Transforming this system is just as important as promoting veganism. It seems to me both are needed to create a world which is just for all.


Alessio, J. 2016. Social Problems and Inequality: Social Responsibility through Progressive Sociology. Routledge

Farmer, B. H., 1986. Perspectives on the ‘Green Revolution’ in South Asia. Modern Asian Studies. 20 (01): 175–199

Harris, M.  1987. The sacred cow and the abominable pig. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.

Nibert, D., 2002. Animal rights/human rights: Entanglements of oppression and liberation. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Rifkin, J. 1992. Beyond Beef. Thorsons.

Winders, B. and Nibert, D., 2004. Consuming the surplus: Expanding “meat” consumption and animal oppression. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 24(9): 76-96.

The World Counts – World Meat Consumption Statistics. Available here

Additional information

The ‘Green Revolution’

The ‘Green Revolution’ refers to a set of research and technology transfer initiatives between the 1930s and the late 1960s that increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in low income countries and the US. The new technologies adopted included:

“…new, high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of cereals, especially dwarf wheats and rices, in association with chemical fertilizers and agro-chemicals, and with controlled water-supply (usually involving irrigation) and new methods of cultivation, including mechanization. All of these together were seen as a ‘package of practices’ to supersede ‘traditional’ technology and to be adopted as a whole” (Farmer, 1986).

The social, economic, human and ecological costs of the ‘Green Revolution’ are eloquently articulated in this open letter from Bhaskar Save, an Indian organic farmer, to M.S. Swaminathan, the ‘father’ of India’s so-called ‘Green Revolution’.

Colin Todhunter has written extensively on the negative impacts of the ‘Green Revolution’, especially in India, and the corporate takeover of our food system. He argues persuasively that, rather than ‘feeding the world’ the ‘Green Revolution’ was about concentrating control of the food system under corporate agribusiness along with the ‘programmed destruction’ of traditional agriculture. As a result it has incorporated “nations and farmers into a system of international capitalism based on dependency, deregulated and manipulated commodity markets, unfair subsidies and inherent food insecurity”.

You can read more about the current state of our broken food system in this article by Felicity Lawrence.

[1] Following Nibert (2002) and Winders and Nibert (2004), I use quotation marks for commonly used words which disguise oppression (e.g. ‘meat’) and objectify other animals (e.g. ‘cattle’). I realise this may be disruptive to the reader but I feel the trade-off is worth it to: a) try and avoid using language which implicitly supports oppression, and b) draw readers’ attention to the way language can hide and perpetuate oppression.

[2] The ‘Green Revolution’ refers to a set of research and technology transfer initiatives between the 1930s and the late 1960s which increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in low income countries, such as India and Mexico, as well as the US.

[3] I haven’t researched how this legislation came about but I am willing to bet ‘beef’ industry lobbyists had something to do with it, much like they got the USDA to allow  ‘pink slime’ to be sold for human consumption in the early ‘90s.