A visit to any supermarket, with its elaborate displays of food from all parts of the world, is a readily available demonstration of the choice and variety available to the modern consumer. The supermarket itself may be considered one of the most successful outcomes of the development of modern systems of food production and distribution, indicating the extent of control over quality and the reliability of supplies. It might be tempting to consider such quality and reliability as unequivocal evidence of progress. However, in trying to understand the developments and beliefs which underpin the modern food system, we are faced with a fascinating paradox. In the past, certainly in the West, ascendancy over the natural world was taken for granted, yet it was not always possible to use that ascendancy to provide constant and reliable supplies of food. However, in modern society, where food supplies are virtually guaranteed, there are now serious doubts about the extent and moral acceptability of our control over the natural environment. In parallel with the technological, engineering and scientific changes which have established control over food production and distribution, serious debate has emerged about the unanticipated consequences of such changes, together with challenges to the allegedly overconfident exploitation of natural resources. Thus, in giving an account of the development of the modern food system, it is important to include some discussion of several issues: the character of the food system itself; the processes which made it possible; the operation of the system; current debates about the system. These issues are the focus of this chapter and all are relevant to understanding the making of the modern food system as we know it today.
The use of the term ‘food system’ may conjure up an idea of a formally organized set of links between food production, distribution and consumption which is arranged according to some well-thought-out plan or scheme. The issues discussed in Chapter 1 and the studies covered in the following pages will make it clear that such a model is inappropriate and unworkable. However, if we are careful not to assume that there is some underlying plan which informs