An Edible History of Humanity

edible-lThere are many ways to look at the past: as a list of important dates, a conveyor belt of kings and queens, a series of rising and falling empires, or a narrative of political, philosophical or technological progress. This book looks at history in another way entirely: as a series of transformations caused, enabled or influenced by food. Throughout history, food has done more than simply provide sustenance. It has acted as a catalyst of social transformation, societal organisation, geopolitical competition, industrial development, military conflict and economic expansion. From prehistory to the present, the stories of these transformations form a narrative that encompasses the whole of human history.

Food’s first transformative role was as a foundation for entire civilizations. The adoption of agriculture made possible new settled lifestyles and set mankind on the path to the modern world. But the staple crops that supported the first civilizations — barley and wheat in the Near East, millet and rice in Asia and maize and potatoes in the Americas — were not simply discovered by chance. Instead, they emerged through a complex process of co-evolution, as desirable traits were selected and propagated by early farmers. These staple crops are, in effect, inventions: deliberately cultivated technologies that only exist as a result of human intervention. The story of the adoption of agriculture is the tale of how ancient genetic engineers developed powerful new tools that made civilization itself possible. In the process, mankind changed plants, and those plants in turn transformed mankind.

Having provided the platform on which civilizations could be founded, food subsequently acted as a tool of social organisation, helping to shape and structure the complex societies that emerged. The political, economic and religious structures of ancient societies, from hunter-gatherers to the first civilizations, were based upon the systems of food production and distribution. The production of agricultural food surpluses and the development of communal food-storage and irrigation systems fostered political centralisation; agricultural fertility rituals developed into state religions; food became a medium of payment and taxation; feasts were used to garner influence and demonstrate status; food handouts were used to define and reinforce power structures. Throughout the ancient world, long before the invention of money, food was wealth — and control of food was power.

Once civilizations had emerged in various parts of the world, food helped to connect them together. Food-trade routes acted as international communications networks that fostered not just commercial exchange, but cultural and religious exchange too. The spice routes that spanned the Old World led to cross-cultural fertilisation in fields as diverse as architecture, science and religion. Early geographers started to take an interest in the customs and peoples of distant lands and compiled the first attempts at world maps. By far the greatest transformation caused by food trade was a result of the European desire to circumvent the Arab spice monopoly. This led to the discovery of the New World, the opening of maritime trade routes between Europe, America and Asia, and the establishment by European nations of their first colonial outposts. Along the way, it also revealed the true layout of the world.

As European nations vied to build global empires, food helped to bring about the next big shift in human history — a surge in economic development through industrialisation. Sugar and potatoes, as much as the steam engine, underpinned the industrial revolution. The production of sugar on plantations in the West Indies was arguably the earliest prototype of an industrial process, reliant though it was on slave labour. Potatoes, meanwhile, overcame initial suspicion among Europeans to become a staple food that produced more calories than cereal crops could from a given area of land. Together, sugar and potatoes provided cheap sustenance for the workers in the new factories of the industrial age. In Britain, where this process first began, the vexed question of whether the country’s future lay in agriculture or in industry was unexpectedly and decisively resolved by the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

The use of food as a weapon or war is timeless, but the large-scale military conflicts of the 18th and 19th centuries elevated it a new level. Food played an important role in determining the outcome of the two wars that defined the United States of America: the Revolutionary War of the 1770-80s and the Civil War of the 1860s. In Europe, meanwhile, Napoleon’s rise and fall was intimately connected with his ability to feed his vast armies. The mechanisation of warfare in the 20th century meant that for the first time in history, feeding machines with fuel and ammunition became a more important consideration than feeding soldiers. But food then took on a new role, as an ideological weapon, during the Cold War between capitalism and communism, and ultimately helped to determine the outcome of the conflict. And in modern times food has become a battlefield for other issues, including trade, development and globalisation.

During the 20th century the application of scientific and industrial methods to agriculture led to a dramatic expansion in the food supply and a corresponding surge in the world population. The so-called “green revolution” caused environmental and social problems, but without it there would probably have been widespread famine in much of the developing world during the 1970s. And by enabling the food supply to grow more rapidly than the population, the green revolution paved the way for the astonishingly rapid industrialisation of Asia as the century drew to a close. Since people in industrial societies tend to have fewer children than those in agricultural societies, this in turn means that the peak in the human population, towards the end of the 21st century, is now in sight.

The stories of many individual foodstuffs, food-related customs and traditions, and of the development of particular national cuisines, have already been told. Less attention has been paid to the question of food’s world-historical impact. This account does not claim that any single food holds the key to understanding history; nor does it attempt to summarise the entire history of food, or the entire history of the world. Instead, by drawing on a range of disciplines including genetics, archaeology, anthropology, ethnobotany and economics, it concentrates specifically on the intersections between food history and world history, to ask a simple question: which foods have done most to shape the modern world, and how? Taking a long-term historical perspective also provides a new way to illuminate modern debates about food, such as the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms, the relationship between food and poverty, the rise of the “local” food movement, the use of crops to make biofuels, the effectiveness of food as a means of mobilising political support for various causes, and the best way to reduce the environmental impact of modern agriculture.

In his book “The Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776, Adam Smith famously likened the unseen influence of market forces, acting on participants who are all looking out for their own best interests, to an invisible hand. Food’s influence on history can similarly be likened to an invisible fork that has, at several crucial points in history, prodded humanity and altered its destiny, even though people were generally unaware of its influence at the time. Many food choices made in the past turn out to have had far-reaching consequences, and to have helped in unexpected ways to shape the world in which we now live. To the discerning eye, food’s historical influence can be seen all around us, and not just in the kitchen, at the dining table or in the supermarket. That food has been such an important ingredient in human affairs might seem strange, but it would be far more surprising if it had not: after all, everything that every person has ever done, throughout history, has literally been fuelled by food.

“A fascinating history of the role of food in causing, enabling and influencing successive transformations of human society. This is an extraordinary and well-told story, a much neglected dimension of history.” — Financial Times

“Dense in revelations, ‘An Edible History of Humanity’ demonstrates how food has continually and often radically affected the human story… Standage brilliantly demonstrates how food has transformed society, sparked wars and facilitated thepopulation explosion.” — The Independent

“It’s history you can sink your teeth into.” — Los Angeles Times

Standage succeeds in underscoring the crucial role that food continues to play in our lives. Thousands of years ago, the invention of agriculture shaped early societies. Today, it connects us to global debates about trade and the environment.” — Washington Post

“This is a clever book. It shows how many hidden forces are at work — political, social, economic — when you sit down for dinner.” — Sunday Times

“[Standage] writes with an eye to comprehension and a sure touch with anecdote and illustration… his account of the shift from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture [is] a masterpiece of summary and explanation.” — The Guardian

“The author has done  a first-class job  of collating available sources and describing complex information in a coherent and easily comprehensible way… a well-researched and written book.” — Time Out

“Tom Standage does an admirable job of showing the ‘invisible fork’ behind the fate of nations.” — Nature

“Standage has some varied stories to tell about food’s place in history, and makes them all interesting, whether he’s explaining how the human propagation of random genetic mutations in maize and wheat resulted in staff-of-life grains that could not survive without human cultivation, delineating why and how the European desire for spices inspired world exploration and the field of geography, or writing about the wide-ranging implications on world events of the humble potato.” — The Globe and Mail

“Standage’s highly readable, thought-provoking essay approaches the subject with a longer perspective and with a bit more detachment than has been the norm.  Such a standpoint shows how fundamentally food production has underpinned our existence —everything from settlement-patterns and social hierarchy to military strategy — and the ways in which, economically, we really are what we consume.” — Scotsman

“Tom Standage’s erudite and thoughtful examination of the role of food in history is a timely dose of context for many of the problems that the world faces. The strength of Standage’s history is in the detail and in the way in which he persuades the reader to look at historical events through an alternate prism… Standage’s case for food as the root of all human development is difficult to refute… a major work worthy of closer inspection.” — Scotland on Sunday

“Instead of casting backwards for one thread to stitch everything together, Standage sensibly casts a net, writing not a history of any one food but a history through food. The emphasis on food as a cultural catalyst differentiates Standage from Michael Pollan, whose plants’ eye view of the world keeps the consumables central. With Standage it is not what changes in food that matters, but rather what food changes. And it’s not just one food lifting and guiding history, but what Adam Smith might have called the ‘invisible fork’ of food economics.” — New Scientist

“Offers revelation after revelation about its too-often-taken-for-granted subject… engrossing, thoughtful, and thought-provoking.” — The Humanist

“This meaty little volume… ‘concentrates specifically on the intersections between food history and world history.’ But history isn’t Standage’s only concern. He takes the long view to illuminate and contextualize such contemporary issues as genetically modified foods, the complex relationship between food and poverty, the local food movement, the politicization of food and the environmental outcomes of modern methods of agriculture… Cogent, informative and insightful.” — Kirkus Reviews

“An intriguing history of how hunger has shaped civilizations and prompted technological advancements.” — Publishers Weekly


26 thoughts on “An Edible History of Humanity

  1. Pingback: News Roundup

Comments are closed.