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'An Edible History of Humanity': How What We Eat Has Changed the World

Author Tom Standage explains how food has been a weapon of war, an offering for peace, a force of development and imperialism and an organizer of societies.

Throughout history, food has played many roles in changing the world: It has been a weapon of war, an offering for peace, a force of development and imperialism and an organizer of societies. In many cases, food and its production have had some of the most profound effects on humanity and indeed on the earth itself. Food has affected social status, social roles, empires and the outcome of wars. The roles that food has played in shaping society and the planet itself are captured in a new book by Tom Standage, titled An Edible History of Humanity.

Maria Armoudian: Let's start with how food production has altered the planet. What is the impact of food on the earth?

Tom Standage: Farming has made the biggest difference to the environment on earth. You could call it the biggest environmental disaster in history. We use 40 percent of the earth's surface for agriculture. If farming was invented today, environmentalists would never allow it, because it has led to huge ecosystem disruption. I'm in Britain now, and the natural state of Britain is not beautiful fields with sheep and the odd tree. It is, in fact, forests of oak with wild boar running around. So when we look at an agricultural landscape we think it's natural. We think it's beautiful, but in fact it's just as man-made as the Manhattan skyline.

MA: How has food been a weapon of war?

TS: If you ask yourself the question: What's the most devastating weapon in the whole of history? People would probably say the atom bomb or the machine gun or something like that. But I think if you really do the numbers, the weapon that's probably been most devastating is actually food. And this is something that was recognized as long ago as the Roman period. One Roman writer in the fourth century AD said, "Starvation destroys an army more often than does battle, and hunger is more savage than the sword."

This is because in the old days you had armies marching around, and you had to give them food so they could keep moving around. You had to give them food so they'd have enough energy to wave their weapons, so food was basically fuel. It was a kind of ammunition because it was what powered the army. Generals who weren't able to cope with the logistics of providing enough food for their soldiers wouldn't even get to the battlefield to fight the battle.

If you look at the history of military conflict, there are a lot of battles which are forced upon one of the participants because they don't have enough food, and there are a lot of conflicts where the inability to maintain the flow of food actually affects the outcome. A good example of that is the Revolutionary War in fact, or the American War of Independence, as we call it in London. What happened there essentially was that the mightiest empire in the world at the time, the British Empire, was unable to defeat the American colonists who wanted independence, in large part because the British soldiers had to be supplied from across the Atlantic, and maintaining the supply of food across the waters was just very difficult logistically.

MA: You also mentioned the Civil War in your book and suggested that food had a major role in its outcome.

TS: Yes, in that case, in the march to the sea, you get the deliberate devastation of the agricultural productivity of the South. What was happening there is that the agricultural regions are sending food north by rail to the troops, so there's this deliberate effort by Sherman to disrupt agricultural production in the South. We get this time and time again.

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