Freakonomics Radio

How the Supermarket Helped America Win the Cold War

Aisle upon aisle of fresh produce, cheap meat, and sugary cereal — a delicious embodiment of free-market capitalism, right? Not quite. The supermarket was in fact the end point of the U.S. government’s battle for agricultural abundance against the USSR. Our farm policies were built to dominate, not necessarily to nourish — and we are still living with the consequences.

Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio
Published in
8 min readAug 2, 2019
People picking up treats at a self-serve delicatessen in Bergs Supermarket, circa 1950.
People picking up treats at a self-serve delicatessen in Berg's Supermarket, circa 1950. Credit: Gifford Photographic Collection via OSU Special Collections & Archives/flickr

The decades-long Cold War between the United States and the USSR featured a space race, an arms race, and… a farms race. This farms race — which involved substantial government policies to deliver high-volume and standardized agriculture — was about more than just food; it was a battle over which was the superior system, communism or capitalism.

The farms race had an obvious winner: American supermarkets were filled with affordable food, while the USSR was ultimately forced to import grain from the United States.

But the American victory was, to some degree, a Pyrrhic victory whose aftereffects are still being felt. Today on Freakonomics Radio: how a sprawling system of agriculture technology, economic policy, and political will come to life in… the supermarket.

“A supermarket is not just a retail box, but actually the end point of an industrial agriculture supply chain,” explains the historian Shane Hamilton, author of Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the Cold War Farms Race. “A supermarket can’t exist without the inputs of mass-produced foods.”

The American supermarket — a one-stop shop that, unlike its predecessor the dry-goods stores, sold pretty much everything — was born around 1930. Between 1946 and 1954 in the United States, the share of food bought in supermarkets rose from 28% to 48%. By 1963, that number had risen to nearly 70%.

Around the same time, perhaps the biggest changes to American agriculture were mechanization and automation. Peter Timmer is a former Harvard economist who studied agriculture and food policy. Before that…



Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio
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Stephen J. Dubner is co-author of the Freakonomics books and host of Freakonomics Radio.