More “Edible History” reviews

There have been more reviews of “An Edible History of Humanity” in the Financial Times, Scotland on Sunday, the Toronto Star and the National. As a result I was asked to go on the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme. This  pushed the book to #68 on — not that I am checking obsessively, you understand.

It also prompted a rather odd editorial from the Guardian, which seems to think that I am opposed to agriculture in all its forms (when I am, in fact, merely interested in why anybody originally adopted it, given the relative drawbacks of farming compared with hunting and gathering). Jared Diamond, among others, has argued that the adoption of agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race. It’s a convincing argument, when you compare the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers with those of early farmers. But agriculture is, of course, the basis of civilization as we know it. So we can hardly object — particularly those of us who live in industrialised societies, the very definition of which is that most people are no longer farmers. Living in the rich world, as I do, I can safely say that agriculture is a good thing. People trapped in a life of subsistence agriculture in the developing world may well feel otherwise, however, and might well agree with Diamond.

  1. Hi Tom,

    I heard part of the discussion on NPR today and I was very intrigued. I spent this past semester researching the Food Crisis of last year. Unfortunately I only heard the last bit of what you had to say about the food crisis, but from what I did hear it sounded like a pretty “standard” explanation of what happened. The purpose of my research was primarily to devise a schema for making sense of all of the numerous solutions proposed for the crisis. I compared this with similar crises in the 80s. After digging through the literature, I feel very strongly that this most recent crisis definitely has a different feel to it than those previous. I know it is a long shot, and a lot to ask, but I would be eternally grateful if you could read the paper I wrote for this research. I am in looking into publishing it, but it may be trash. Though of course, I’d like to think it is brilliant 🙂 You are obviously very knowledgeable about the sort of things I discuss in my paper and I am curious to see how much of what I said you will agree with, how much editing it needs, and if you think my ideas are in any way novel. It is only about a 19 page paper, shouldn’t take you long to read. You must be incredibly busy at the moment though, so I understand if you’d rather not. Just bought your new book today. Looking forward to reading it!


  2. David Evershed said:

    Hello Tom,

    I recently saw you speak in Santa Cruz and bought your book after some hesitation. The reason I hesitated was that I do not agree with your position on agriculture, and GM crops in particular. But I figured we could all do to read something we don’t necessarily agree with once in a while so I bought the book and am now reading it. In your talk, you told the crowd that you used to eat GM tomatoes on principle, and that you were for them as long as they were tested. I was wondering what principles those were, and if you realize that in fact, most of the GM crops out there in production have not been adequately tested, but instead pushed through the regulatory process in a hurried fashion by large corporate interests? Another point of disagreement is that in your book, you say maize is just as man-made as a magazine or a missile, and go on to say that agriculture is not “natural”. While I agree that maize would never have come about without human influence, it was a give and take situation. Early farmers were working with material that nature provided them after who knows how many years of adaptation and evolution. These genes that were selected for could only be selected once a year, and so there was a certain timeline involved that allowed for natural laws to still be in effect and test if these new genes were sutaible to be passed on. With GM crops, however, all of nature’s safeguards have been completely bypassed, and we are noe using genes to combine different species, something that, by definition, cannot happen in nature. This is what separates GM crops from crops that have been bred in the traditional way: working with the laws and gifts of nature, instead of disregarding them altogether. You also claim that these mutations and adaptations were not beneficial for the corn plant, but look at that plant now. Sure it probably could not survive without humans, but because it coevolved with us, it is now one of the most widspread crops arguably ever, with millions and millions of acres planted out. It seems that this strategy has worked pretty well for this plant so far. And just because humans selected which kernals of corn got to survive the next year does not make that unnatural. Are humans not part of nature? Is nature separate from us, something “out there” that we can go and visit? Or are we, and subsequently our actions, intimately connected and embedded in the natural world? I tend to think it is the latter, and as such, we need to be more aware of natural laws, and try to act more within our bounds, or else face some of the dire consequences that nature has for righting her systems again. I live and work on an organic farm here in Santa Cruz, and the joy that I get from working with these plants cannot be matched. There is a way of farming that is out there and has been developed that takes nature and her rules into account. It is a way of farming that depends on the farmers footsteps for the best fertilizer, instead of some, petroleum-derived, processed, imported, carbon-emitting liquid spray. Next time you come to California, I would love for you to come and visit, and we can continue this dialog. Until then,

    David Evershed

    • tomstandage said:

      Thanks for your considered and detailed response. I guess we’re going to have to agree to disagree on GM crops. I think GM technology provides a more precise way to introduce new properties into crops than other approaches that have been tried in the past (eg, irradiation, which was used to produce one of the more popular varieties of organic wheat). And horizontal gene transfer (ie, between species) does in fact happen in nature, though it’s rare. But ultimately it comes down to what you are personally comfortable with. I think people should be able to avoid GM crops if they want to, as with religious food preferences. So I’m all for labelling and certification of GM or GM-free foods, to ensure that we can both make food choices that we are happy with, and accord with our values, as with other aspects of our lives.

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