Industrialising food and people: why it needs to stop

In our imperfections, may we be known.

Kinks and blemishes show our true selves.

Make us the same and we lose our essence.

Ripen us too fast and we lose our taste.

Yet we were on the earth long before you.

Whilst you were swimming in the sea,

Blowing bubbles, bobbing and floating,

We were right here, growing every season,

Wild and free.

There are 300,000 edible plant species on the planet. Yet 60% of our plant-based calories are from wheat, corn and rice. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization says that 75% of our food is made up of five animals and twelve plants. And we’re losing plants all the time. Since the 1900s, 90% of the US’s native fruit and vegetable have vanished.

It’s because we mechanise everything. We confuse plants and animals with cars. We apply the factory model to nature, bending flora and fauna to our needs. One crop. A thousand acres. Efficient and cost effective. 

If we think it’s bad for plants, then what about animals? This Scientific American article discusses research by Pennsylvania State University. There are 9 million dairy cows in the USA and most are Holsteins (the black and white ones from our toy sets). They’re so popular because they produce a very high milk yield. 

However, 99% of male Holsteins are traced back to just two bulls born in the 1960s. Because this amounts to only two Y chromosomes, the population size is equivalent to just 50 animals. The writers note that “if Holsteins were wild animals, that would put them in the category of critically endangered species.”  Leslie B Hansen is a Holstein expert and professor at the University of Minnesota and she also says, “It’s pretty much one big inbred family.” 

Biodiversity is crucial for human health, ecological stability and wildlife protection. The World Wide Fund for Nature says our reliance on such a small selection of plants and animals creates a serious threat for food security and ecosystems.

With our mindset of conformity, we also want apples to all look the same, taste the same. We force them to ripen in winter and we throw away the knobbly ones. Efficiency equals lower cost. It also equals loss. The price? Tasteless vegetables, low in nutrients and vitamins, that damage our guts, ecosystem and planet. 

Yet we do the very same to ourselves. We want everyone to conform at work. Fit this role, behave like that. Where we industrialise farming, we also industrialise people. We squeeze out creativity, resourcefulness and innovation. 

This is why so many people don’t feel they fit in at work. Here is what some my Spoon by Spoon interviewees said. 

First off are the peggers: Adam and Mark said they felt like they didn’t belong where they worked – they were “square pegs” in “round holes.” Kira feels the same. “Although the team and people I work with are amazing, there is no team spirit. There is no purpose. It’s very corporate and career driven. And it doesn’t really leave a lot of space for being yourself. Like you have this square job you have to do. Or you just get out.”

Tim agrees. “I trained as an accountant. I hated it, every minute of it. Three years auditing and learning about numbers… it’s been kind of a long struggle I’ve always known. For a long time I felt ‘you’re in the wrong place here. This is a square peg, round hole.’ And I’ve not really been able to fix it.” 

Interesting that we still use this engineering peg/hole metaphor, which was introduced 120 years ago by Sydney Smith. Industrialisation also means we deconstruct the world to make sense of it. This happens when our skills are oversimplified or ignored, like the pigeon-holers

Adriana said “I was pigeon-holed into this type of client…I felt really frustratedOh my God, almost every day felt like déjà vu. How many times have I had similar conversations with clients? Same problems, similar things.

Ellen agrees. “I’ve got stuck because I’m mid 40s now and it’s frustrating really. I’ve known it for a long time. I feel like I’ve got pigeon-holed… It feels like I’ve got such a great skill set but only ever been in one type of job for such a long time.”

Misha said of her work “I decided to do accountancy but was pigeon-holing myself in the corporate world. I just progressed and progressed and then got to the point where I was in such a toxic environment that it was a tipping point for me.”

What a liberation when we stop being so compliant. Helen found leaving her role to be a release. “I was polite and tactful, but I didn’t seem to fit in with the whole conformity. So, I was very, very relieved to go.” 

Steve feels the same way. “I suppose I don’t have to conform anymore.” Previously he was trying to model the behaviour they expected from a Managing Director. “Now I openly make excuses about being a bit random. About being a non-conformist, about being an outsider. And it’s almost like that has become my new currency.” Previously he was trying not to stand out. “Now I’m not making any attempt to fit in at all. Quite the opposite.” 

Deloitte’s report Welcome to Generation Z tells us that young people will change all of this for us. They are only just joining the workforce but already they are demanding greater personalisation in their careers. Deloitte’s advice about how we deal with this? If organisations want to attract the best and brightest of this generation, they’ll have to change their corporate mindset. Young folk will force organisations to re-think their old industrialised models of work. 

Is this something we can get behind?  The old Sausage Machine is on its way out? Deloitte says “employers will need to understand… [this is a]… generation that expects much more personalization in how they want to be treated by their employer.” They want much more than “cookie-cutter roles.” 

So, let’s all raise a big cheer for the young people of the world. Thank you Generation Z. You are releasing us from the notion of the factory. Helping us move on from industrialising people and food. Here’s to meat free sausages and cookies in any flavour we want.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon— a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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