More “Edible History” coverage

It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, in part because I’ve been in rural Uganda researching mobile phones. It was also a good opportunity to see subsistence farming close up, and find out what farmers in the developing world are doing on the ground. Anyway, in the past month the Los Angeles Times has run a Q&A with me in which I am described, strangely, as “the ultimate foodie”. Time Out picked “Edible History” as one of its “best new food books”. The Guardian ran a favourable review. The Daily Telegraph picked up the “farming was a big mistake” discussion. The Financial Times included the book in its “hottest holiday reading” selection.

I also wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times, drawing parallels between 18th-century concerns about the potato and modern worries about genetically modified crops. Yup, historical analogy again. There was one point I didn’t have room for, which is worth mentioning. I am in favour of GM in theory although, as I note in the piece, so far the technology has not really delivered the goods in practice. That said, I think one of the risks of an over-reliance on GM is that monocultures are vulnerable to the appearance of an unexpected disease or predator. The Irish Potato Famine is, of course, the single best example of the danger of monocultures in food history. So that’s another lesson from the history of the potato.

How can we learn from it? What we need is lots of different GM crops to provide variety, rather than dominance of a few strains from a couple of big companies. And there’s no reason, as I point out, why future GM crops might not come from government research labs, which could do a lot to neutralise anti-capitalist opposition to GM. If the government of Mexico or India, say, produces a GM wheat that is drought-tolerant and requires very little fertiliser or pesticide, gives away the seeds to farmers and allows them to reuse seeds from one year to the next, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

  1. Kevin Buckholtz said:

    Read the piece on historical views of the potatoe. I just finished a short story called Dirty Christmas about a Prussian family that refuses to eat potatoes during the holidays. If you’re interested in taking a look please contact me.

  2. I am attending Duke University’s CC MBA program and I was at your talk today. Found it very interesting, Will have more to write when I have the time to write more(MBA course load)

  3. Gena Fleming said:

    Just read your potato op ed published today in the Austin American Statesman.

    Very well written, from a journalistic point of view.

    But as you clarify on this website, your piece neglects the essential facts. Among those facts are the dangers of monocultures. Genetically engineered crops are designed explicitly for efficient large-scale monocultures. That’s why herbicide resistance is one of the top traits being engineered. So development of GM crop perpetuates the problem.

    Your fantasy that there is no reason they couldn’t become public domain is fantasy indeed. First of all, why would we want this? But GM crops are not developed to be given away. And they are already developed in government research labs; the United States govenment is listed as co-assignee on some the corporate patents. That’s right. Our tax money pays for the research and then they’re patented by private companies and our government. And the purpose of patenting is market control (and hence, price elevation). This relates strongly to why our country won’t sign the International Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

    These GM crops are even specifically being developed with reproductive ablation technology (the infamous “terminator” patent) so their reproduction is difficult or impossible (without buying new seed from the corporation). If these genetic constructs contaminate other crops, they might have their reproductive capacity compromised as well.

    If you believe the answer is in biodiversified small scale farming, why won’t you raise your voice in support of saving indigenous crops, staggering numbers of which have been run into extinction by modern agriculture?

    It is particularly frustrating that, by your own admission on this website, you knew you were ignoring the facts when you wrote this piece. In their place you substitute a condescending and irrelevant “historical analogy”. The result is a well-crafted piece of propaganda that is sure to be of good use to Monsanto and possibly of great detriment to humanity.

    You’re a good wordsmith. Clearly, that’s a skill that can weave fiction more easily than truth.

  4. tomstandage said:

    Apologies for the delay in approving that comment, Gena; I was on holiday. To address your points:

    * Monocultures/Ignoring the facts. We may disagree on the interpretation of the facts, but I don’t think I’m ignoring them. I believe my potatoes/GM analogy holds even without the monoculture proviso; it’s a second-order point, in my view, though evidently you disagree. I genuinely think opposition to GM will diminish in the face of famines during this century, as happened with potatoes in the 18th century, and that’s the point I make in the Op-Ed. (I am not paid to think this by Monsanto, or anyone else, by the way.) There are already signs that opposition to GM in Africa is cracking: worrying about EU export markets suddenly seems much less important than maintaining yields at home. I think we need diversity of GM varieties, but that’s what happened with green-revolution high-yield wheat in the 1970s, for example: Indian government scientists produced a local variant, based on Borlaug’s Mexican prototype, that was resistant to local diseases. So the same will probably happen with GM varieties.

    * Giving away seeds. This is what happened with high-yield wheat and rice in the green revolution; they were developed by charities and government researchers and then given away. The Gates Foundation, among other NGOs, is backing a green revolution for Africa. So I think it’s plausible that it might back the development of, say, drought-tolerant GM crops that are then given away. Similarly, governments in many developing countries are working on GM crops suited for developing-world conditions. I don’t think they plan to charge for them.

    * Terminator genes. This is an old argument. The industry says it developed terminator genes in order to ensure GM crops were sterile and assuage concerns that GM traits would spread into other crops. But terminator can also be seen as a plot to prevent seed piracy, eg with soy in Argentina. In the end the technology was not deployed. A lot of people seem to think all GM seeds in the market today have terminator genes; in fact it is licensing terms, not genetics, that companies use to try to get farmers to pay up every year. (The fact that non-GM hybrids do not breed true probably confuses the issue and leads people to assume terminator genes are involved.) This is really a concern about the power of corporations, which is why I think GM seeds from NGOs/governments would be an interesting development.

    * I’m not sure why you think I believe “the answer is in biodiversified small scale farming”. I don’t. My book *does* support saving indigenous crops, citing for example the helpful case of PI 178383 wheat from Turkey on page 241. But I don’t think small-scale farming is necessarily better than large-scale farming. Large-scale farming can be more efficient, and development/industrialisation is, by definition, the process of switching most of the population from farming. That implies fewer, larger, more efficient farms.

  5. Hi! I wanted to share with you my review of your wonderful book that appeared on Sunday, September 6, in Mail Today, which is a joint venture newspaper of India’s largest magazine publisher, India Today, and the Daily Mail.

    IDLE speculation is not the domain of the historian; it is the adrenaline of the philosopher. Yet, our collective past is crowded with so many what-ifs that you can’t but wonder what the world would have been had Christopher Columbus
    not followed the flawed cosmology of the Italian, Paolo Toscanelli, and not sailed west from Spain in search of India.
    We would have to wait much longer for chillies (which the
    French philosopher Voltaire, as late as 1756, believed were
    peppers from Calicut “dyed red in blood”), or a pineapple
    may not have been enough to bribe an English king,Charles II, to grant the sugar producers of Barbados a major favour in 1661, and the world may not have seen the institution of slavery taking root, essentially to sweeten the world’s table and have rum in plenty to keep sailors alive on long voyages. African slaves became necessary to sustain the sugarcane plantations that flourished after Chris Columbus —who had worked as a sugar buyer for Genoese merchants — brought sugarcane to the Americas in 1493.
    After syphilis from the Old World decimated the native population in the Americas, Africa was where the sugar industry turned for slaves. And this deleterious demand intensified when certain enterprising people discovered you can make a heady drink from molasses, the syrupy leftover of the sugar production process. To make tea, coffee and cocoa, imports from China, Arabia and the New World, more palatable to Europe, 11 million Africans were transported from Africa to the America over four centuries, and this was just half of number of men and women who boarded the ships, for the rest couldn’t survive the voyage. At the same time, attempts by the home government to restrict imports of molasses by New England’s most profitable industry — rum — triggered the first stirrings that eventually led to American Declaration of Independence.
    Tom Standage, business editor of The Economist, is a master at making connections, linking the evolution of the western world’s palate with the defining moments of our history. And he does it with the lucidity with which he took us on an alcohol-infused tour in A History of the World in
    Six Glasses. Our history is a series of collisions of accidents with well-scripted plots, and food has forever been the fuel driving historical forces.
    Columbus may not have found either gold or the glory of spices in the New World, but because of him, the Japanese take their sweet potatoes so seriously (the tuber kept them alive whenever typhoons would wreak havoc on rice), the Africans adopted cassava (the fact that locusts can’t
    attack these roots have ensured their lasting popularity), and it’s hard to find a society that can live without potatoes.
    When the ancient Greek author Theophrastus wrote his Enquiry
    into Plants, his list had only 500 of them. A millennium and a quarter later, in 1596, a Swiss botanist named Caspar Bauhin listed 6,000, and in less than 100 years, in the
    1680s, the list ballooned to 18,000 in the Englishman John Ray’s Historia Generalis Plantarum. Botany, no doubt, was the ‘big science’ of that time. Standage writes, “… the number of plants a nation had at its disposal, and its botanists’ ability to grow them outside their usual habitats, demonstrated that nation’s technical prowess.” The concerns are different now, with the demon of carbon overload.
    THE overriding food issue — a thought the Roman philosopher-statesman Pliny the Elder, first articulated to oppose pepper imports from India, and is now being amplified
    by ‘locavores’ for different reasons — is to patronise food grown locally. Indians may find this argument odd, for the food we eat is still almost entirely locally sourced, but in the supermarket-driven societies, economies of scale determine where grocery chains buy the food they keep on
    their shelves.
    Locavores argue shipping food across the world — a practice that enabled Columbus to change forever, albeit unwittingly, the way humanity eats — increases carbon
    dioxide emissions and lengthens our carbon footprint. Standage writes, “This has given rise to the concept of ‘food miles’ — the notion that the distance food is
    transported gives a reasonable measure of its environmental
    damage, and that one should therefore eat local food to minimise one’s [environmental] impact.” But then he goes on to point flaws in this argument. The carbon footprint of lamb from New Zealand, Standage points out, is far less (because of the extensive pastures where the sheep get to graze) than that of lamb from Britain, for sheep there
    have commercially manufactured feed, to produce which a lot of carbon gets pumped into the air. Similarly, tomatoes grown naturally in Spain are more eco-friendly than the ones that are produced in Britain’s carbonemitting greenhouses.
    In the snowballing debate on the carbon load of food, there’s one number that should get Indian policy-makers thinking harder. Our agricultural produce, including
    vegetables, gets transported in trucks, which are the most fuel-inefficient means of moving goods after cars. “A large ship,” Standage informs us, “can carry a ton of food 800 miles on a gallon of fuel; the [corresponding] figures are 200 miles for a train, 60 miles for a truck, and 20 miles for a car.”
    Maybe, it is high time our policy-makers revisited the old but unimplemented idea of promoting our rivers as channels to transport agricultural produce and even bulk goods. We are what we eat. This isn’t just a clever play of words, for
    what we eat and the way we eat it is inextricably interlinked with our history and politics.

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