More “Edible History” stuff

This week I talked about “An Edible History of Humanity” on The Forum, an excellent BBC World Service show which puts together three guests from entirely different fields to see what happens: in this case an Australian expert on fire, a Romanian Dadaist poet, and me. (You can hear the show here.) One of the guests is also invited to present a slightly silly “60 second idea” to improve the world, so I proposed making everyone over the age of 40 play video games. (You can hear that bit here.) After the show had been recorded, but before it aired, Charlie Brooker in The Guardian published a very good list of games that everyone should try, which is very much in the same vein; his choices were bang on. Anyway, back to the food. I recently contributed to the Spiked debate on the future of food and did a Q&A on the book for Mother Nature Network. I’m also taking part in an event in New York in January linked to the Silk Road exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. I’ll be talking about the connections between food, trade and cultural exchange, along with a history professor and a chef. I’m the glue, I guess. I love the AMNH because of the planetarium, the whale, the dinosaur exhibits laid out in evolutionary order (take that, creationists), and because it does amazing things like this.

4 comments
  1. Hi. Got “edible history humanity” for christmas. I m looking forward to reading this book for several reasons:
    i became a produce farmer in May of 1996( married into the family); i have 4 year business degree and study the evolution of historical world business ; my parents both well educated ( historian english and music majors); and just finished Peter s. Wells “barbarians to angels”.

    I ve just started your book. I like your humorous quip on the bottom of page 15 ” far more than just a grain of truth” ; cute.

    I d like to comment as i read thru your book becuase i think u might find interesting the cultural changes taking place in our regional agriculture climate in iowa and illinois concerning technological changes ( monsanto and intellectual property traits ) that are affecting the locals as far as who farms ( the farmer or the corporation ) who buys and sells, the advanced payment
    of future rents and the pressure on money supply and interest rates; and then my running a reactionary 120 year old produce business in and amongst commercialized “monsanto” farmers. I can expound more later.

    I think u may find of some interest my farming activities.
    I am a city kid. I see agriculture different than my in-laws. I m more micro then macro in management- i plant to the “seed” so to speak, becuase hybridized seed is expensive. The local bank trained me how to market corn and beans into the future . I actually dont touch my corn or beans from planting to harvest and delivery. I use my sweet corn and commercial indian corn as bargaining chips against adjacent “monsanto” farmers ( cross pollination is bad); plus it isn t out of the norm for someone to show up in the middle of the nite and spray round-up on my sweet corn . Oh, monsanto has a plant 2 miles from me (Musctaine,Iowa) that makes 75% of the worlds round-up.

    Another interesting facet is my labor. I employ otomi’indians, from the state of Hidalgo, Mexico; Ixtmiquilpin : the center of Otomi’ populations. They to farm on the mountain sides, where i have visited several times and observed there practices of farming and marketing. Also, the local pulque is excellent. And , the 100 year old people that still walk, hoe, and snap and crack pinto beans is truly remarkable (nutrition:; u touched on it briefly) But i have back to more planting by hand: cheaper and in some instances more economical. I gave the corn to plant by hand, and would u believe they planted the corn in hills, 3 ft. aprt ( is that an acient method or what). And , the harvest was abundent, and the cost cheaper.

    There is simply to much to go into here for now. I would however like to comment on this book as i’m reading and relate to u elements of the modern make-up our southeast iowa agribusiness make up. Ethanol is a huge issue here,huge. I can explain later.

    So,it would be fun to share my experience and culture here.

    Regards,

    John Kiwala

  2. comments pertaining to Part IV: ethanol . I now market my soybeans straight out of field, knowing carryovers are short, more land diverted to corn: cant lose. June soybean futures were around $12.00, usually last chance to catch good fall price. The basis anywhwere from .75 to 1.25. I waited sold straight out of the field october 16 for almost $11.00 with no basis. No middle men. When u talk to a traditional farmer in Iowa, they can never tell u what the price of soybeans are, becuase corn has always been better cash flow per acre. Now beans have replaced corn as better cash flow.

    To also save money, i plant 140,000 seeds per acre versus the 200,000 plus per acre traditionally. I started that 10 years ago. I raise round up beans, a win-win, but i only spray round up once, not the 2 to 3 times they recommend. I send the mexicns out with back pack sprayers to illeviate trouble areas. And my yields are highter.

    I have a farmer friend, who doesnt drive his tractor to plant corn, thanks to GPS technology and John Deere. He invested in the Burlington, Iowa , ethonal plant 8 years ago. He got in right, the plant is paid off. I know another farmer who has lost his ass investing to late.

    My mother was born and raised in Sioux County, Iowa, the # 1 agriculture county in iowa, and the hightest per acre values. Just since 1955, when my mother left the farm, every section in Sioux County has a corporate hog or cattle operation. Many of my buddies from Iowa State University are secure in their agriculture jobs. This isnt to mention that my uncle recieves a nice annual stipend from Iowas’ first ethonal plant , in Sioux Center, Iowa.

    And the piles of corn, its truly an ag architectural landscape. The standard of living amongst pigs and cattle, relatively, is better then most Iowans; and i can’t complain about the way i live. Oh ya, my moher is dutch, and so is the whole of Sioux County. They could have the resources to break away from Iowa (?)

    But what truly scares me is Iran. Maybe one of those missles is heading for Iowa. That would be a good objective. Knocking out Iowa and the surrounding states would cripple the world economy : and then what would Napolean Bonaparte have to say?

  3. From page 194 , section democracy of food.

    I manage the Muscatine Farmers Market. The percentage of vouchers sales versus cash sales has increased to 60%, from %40 3 short years ago. There would not be farmers markets in Iowa if not for Iowa Senator Tom Harkins federal welfare food programs. The cash buyers are going to wal-mart and the large corporate food store chains otherwise. Price and coupon sensitive consumers are the norm, as well as convenience of one stop shopping, of which wal-mart paved the way.

    Amazingly i look at my business activity in the farmers market business as ” going after the vouchers “, as does all other vendors; it is big business. And because i grow produce commercially, i promote and advertise heavily going after those vouchers that inturn increase my sales.
    My average price of products are higher at the markets then at the grocery store: e.g., sweet corn $5 dozen versus store sweet corn of $4. Vendors tend to raise the price of the products in the face of government vouchers.

    In essence, the farmers market cash buying group is minute compared to the franchise store buyer. From that u can figure out where the political clout is.

    Concerning larger fruit on plants causing lodging.
    Pioneer, the largest and most successful seedcorn company in the world, has engineered out of the stock the strength neccessary to stand in winds. Yet there yields outdistance on average, whether on the ground or standing, all other brands. All farmers in the midwest have wheels now for their combines. The wheels pick up the corn so the combine can run corn through the bowels. And 220 bushel to the acre is attainable.

  4. Thom said:

    “Edible History of Humanity” contains a couple of errors I would like to point out, just for the sake of accuracy.

    First, the claim that only humans practice agriculture is a false one, inasmuch as agriculture may be defined as the active and deliberate management of other living organisms to provide some essential resource (e.g., food, fiber, shelter, energy, etc.). For instance, leaf cutter ants also farm — they grow a fungus to eat on the leaves they collect. There are other ants that “farm” aphids and protect them from threats in order to harvest a sweet nectar that they exude.

    Another error I noticed was the claim that the ear of a corn, being placed lower on the stalk than other grains makes it more accessible to nutrients from the roots, thereby allowing it to grow larger. In fact, the distance from the roots does not matter at the this scale due to capillary action. The same process is used to transport nutrients from the roots to the tops of giant redwoods. Rather, a lower-placed ear could probably grow larger because it does not cause the plant to become top heavy and topple over especially under heavy winds.

    Standage states that it is an anthropological “mystery” why people would choose to switch from a leisurely, healthy hunting and gathering culture to the hard work and uncertain harvests of agriculture. He points out that hunter and gatherers were taller, healthier, suffered fewer chronic diseases, experienced less malnutrition and starvation, worked fewer hours (less than 20 for hunters and, well, a light work week for a farmers is 80 hours), and had longer average life expectancies than farmers (although I’m not sure to what degree this last difference was driven by infant and child mortality rates or by average adult life expectancy). So why would any rational person acting in self-interest ever choose to abandon a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle in exchange for the self-imposed slavery to the land of settlement and farming? The key to answering this riddle is hidden in Standage’s own prose (although he fails to recognize it as such): nomadic women of hunting and gathering cultures were unable to have more than one child every 3 or 4 years, because their children under the age of four had to be carried during every migration, forcing them to practice strict birth control methods, and probably frequent abortions or infanticide to maintain their mobility. In contrast, women of agricultural societies who would have settled into one location were capable of giving birth virtually every year. Hence, the population growth rate of those who adopted a farming culture would have been much higher than hunter-gatherers, and agriculture would have eventually come to disproportionately dominate the human population. This is a simple case of a changing cultural frequency due to natural selection for agriculture, which yields higher birth rates and individual reproductive success (IRS). Since cultures, such as farming or hunting and gathering, are transmitted intergenerationally, they have a degree of heredity that can be compared to the inheritence of genes, and are subject to very similar laws of inheritence and natural selection. Agriculture allowed the human population to expand rapidly, which forced people to constantly seek out new farmland and push hunters and gatherers into increasingly marginal habitats as their lands were subsumed into agricultural production.

    The mistake that Standage makes is in assuming that people actually behave in a rational manner that promotes their self-interest. They do not. Evolutionary arguments are the only ones that have consistently proven their ability to explain changes in the frequency of population structures (via genotypes, phenotypes, behaviors, or heritable cultures) over time. People are animals and have been formed through millennia of evolution and ultimately we act in the manner that best maximizes our IRS; we are as subject to natural selection pressures as any other species. If the choice to farm produced less healthy and more miserable individuals, yet those individuals had more children who survived and went on to reproduce themselves, then if farming is taught to these children (or if there is a genetic component that predisposes people to farm), it will eventually over many generations represent a larger share of the cultural “gene” pool than hunting and gathering. How much leisure time people have, how happy and healthy they are, etc. are completely irrelevant to evolutionary arguments and unnecessary to explain this shift. People and animals constantly “choose” to do things that make themselves less happy, simply because we’re largely hardwired by instinct and evolution to do so. The best example is having kids: multiple studies indicate that couples who have children are less happy than couples that do not, and yet almost everyone still does, with very few exceptions. Why? Because if there’s a genetic or cultural component that promotes not having children in humans, it will NOT persist by nature of the fact that nothing is inherited by the next generation in couples who don’t reproduce. In every case, whenever you have two populations living side-by-side and one population consistently produces more surviving offspring per female than the other population, the more fecund population will eventually take over and come to dominate the species. Even if agriculture was a horrible “mistake” for personal health and happiness, or came about by complete accident (a cultural “mutation” so to speak), the fact that it allowed people to reproduce faster and that it was likely culturally inherited meant that it would eventually spread, flourish, and dominate over less fecund cultures.

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