Every Saturday throughout the early 1960s, a dull drone could be heard over the Colorado plains. The light aircraft flew low, at around 2,000ft. Inside, the pilot plotted future roads, suburban housing schemes and new business parks. Ray Kroc was looking for cheap land and was planning a revolution for suburban America even before the suburbs existed. Kroc, the mastermind behind McDonald’s, soon graduated to helicopters and by the 1980s, the company was one of the largest purchasers of commercial satellite photography, using it to predict suburban sprawl from outer space
The story of the spread of American suburbs makes disturbing reading, particularly in light of this week’s forecast by the Department of the Environment that the population of greater Dublin will grow to 2.4 million by 2020. Such anxiety is made yet more acute by the fact that the vast majority of new building is going up in commuter towns and all roads are leading to Dublin.
The prospect of a rural Ireland characterised by soulless concrete housing estates — with makey-uppy names such as Parkwood Way, Cedarview Downs and Mountain Pines — is now very real. These enclaves will be serviced not by the local town or village, but by clusters of shopping malls, all-night Seven Elevens and fast food joints which will be located on proposed motorway intersections. This is the West Coast American model and despite all our government’s rhetoric, the ‘facts on the ground’ suggest it is the blueprint for suburban development in Ireland.
Apart from the obvious implication for traffic, the suburbanisation of rural Ireland is likely to presage a fast food revolution. In the US in the 1960s, McDonald’s Inc realised that, as the amount of time spent in the car rose, people would eventually have to eat as they crawled through the daily commute. Fast food — instant, hot and very (or varyingly) edible — is made for the wheel of a car. The answer to the hungry commuter problem was simple: on the spot, disposable meals without any need for cutlery. Suburban sprawl, traffic and fast food soon went together.
In the US these days, the establishment of fast food outlets often serve as the advance warning of suburban sprawl. Thriving on traffic, restaurants tend to be located on intersections where traffic is likely to clog up. A pattern has emerged whereby typically McDonald’s is the earliest settler, followed by the rest of them: Burger King, Pizza Hut and Wendys. A cluster of fast food joints sprouts as if out of nowhere, announcing the arrival of another faceless concrete enclave that serves as little more than a “shuteye dormitory” for tired commuters. Fast food clusters also create a neon twilight zone. A couple of years ago, while driving at dusk through the flat Everglades in Florida, all I could see on the horizon were rows upon rows of neon hoarding, beckoning me in for Chicken McNuggets and fries. The reason for this, as I discovered in a fascinating new book called Fast Food Nation*, is that despite the relentless advertising, 70 per cent of all fast food purchases are impulsive and brand loyalty is almost non-existent. Therefore, commuters have to be constantly reminded.
In a few years, don’t be surprised if the main Dublin-Mulligar road comes to be dominated by a smiling imbecilic clown called Ronald, offering your children a Happy Meal.
As fast food engulfed the US and a standard product looked, smelled and tasted exactly the same from Vermont to Virginia, a revolution occurred in US agriculture. McDonald’s, which is the single largest buyer of beef, pork and potatoes in the US, demanded large, reliable suppliers. These suppliers have come to dominate US agriculture, to an extent unimaginable only a few years ago. Many small farmers and ranchers have left the land as a result of being priced out by intensification. Today there are more people in US prisons than there are in farming and ranching, and the meat packing business is sewn up by four huge corporations which control 84 per cent of all beef packaged in the entire country.
These monumental changes have resulted in a food industry which is described by US commentators as an hourglass: two million producers at the top, a dozen or so huge corporations in the middle and two hundred and 70 million consumers at the bottom. If there was ever a mechanism for corporate domination or a licence to print money, it is this type of industrial structure. Yet this structure, driven by a consumer demand for cheap food, is precisely the one we are trying to avoid in this country.
One of the main reasons foot-and-mouth disease spread so quickly in Britain from Devon to Cumbria was the large distances infected cattle were transported to be slaughtered. What is driving such intensified production? Among other things, it might not come as any surprise that the British eat more fast food than any other country in Europe.
Among the many rational suggestions that have emerged from the foot-and-mouth tragedy, one of the most appealing is the promotion of local food, produced and branded locally, for local consumption. This would give consumers some idea of where their food comes from, what state the beasts were in and who packaged the meat. In contrast, the beef in any fast food outlet in the US is likely to come from hundreds of different cattle, from all over the country. In a country where we brand bottled water, branding local beef cannot be too difficult.
However, as the report on Dublin’s suburbs pointed out, huge demographic pressures, together with the prohibitive and ludicrous price of Irish land, are likely to make dormitory estates home for tens of thousands of Irish people in the future. These enclaves, cut off from towns and villages will, if the US model comes to pass, depend on clusters of shopping malls and fast food joints on the arterial intersections. It is hard to see how local production and, by implication, slightly more expensive food can compete with the convenience of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The next time you are out for a stroll in Westmeath, Kilkenny or Louth and you hear the drone of light aircraft, look out because Ronald the clown may be watching you, scanning the countryside for future concrete jungles, prospective motorway intersections and the next Golden Arches.
*Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, is published by Penguin