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


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.

Another famous example is Napoleon's march on Moscow, his attempt to invade Russia. The problem there was his supply lines were stretched far too long; there wasn't food available on the land which was his usual tactic to feed his troops. Napoleon had previously had great success in his military career because he was able to draw food from the land and not worry about complicated supply lines. He rediscovered the ancient art of feeding an army from the land, but of course to make that work, you have to have food available. [He saw that] the best time to attack was just after the harvest so that the barns are all full. If [the army stops moving], they deplete the local area of any food and then you run out and then the army starves. So he had discovered all of this in his previous campaigns in Europe and had been extremely successful.

Then he attacked Russia, and he knew there wasn't going to be food there, so he had a very elaborate system. There was mud and trouble with the carriages; the army got ahead of the supplies and the Russians had stripped the countryside of anything else to eat. That was before a single shot had been fired. He had lost a huge number of men and horses and it all went downhill from there.

MA: And the Cold War? You said it actually began in earnest with a food fight in Berlin; explain that?

TS: Well, the blockade of Berlin was this bizarre situation where West Berlin was a divided city in the middle of East Germany, and as one of the communist leaders at the time said, what happens to Berlin happens to Germany, and what happens to Germany happens to Europe. So the defense of West Berlin for the western powers became a sort of test of their resolve in standing up to the communists. And the communists, the East German surrounding area, basically all of the landline access to West Germany was cut, the barges weren't allowed to get through.

The trains weren't allowed to get through; the roads were closed and so there was no way to get food through to the western-controlled sectors of Berlin. And so the western powers decided that an airlift, which they assumed would only run for a few days, would be necessary and they started to ship food and fuel and other necessities over to West Berlin, but in fact it turned out that they didn't. They had to end up doing it for 15 months -- it wasn't a few days. They had to scale it up and up and up, because once they started it, they couldn't possibly back down. It would have been a terrible admission of defeat; West Berlin would have fallen, and it would have been a terrible symbolic defeat for the western powers.

So ultimately, after 15 months, it became clear that they were serious about this, and the blockade was eventually lifted by the Soviet Union. There's a poster from this period, made by Douglas, the aircraft maker, which provided a lot of the planes used in the airlift, and it said, "Milk, new weapon of democracy." The idea was that food was being used as a weapon to defend democracy. And by providing a steady supply of food -- and of course it was largely American and British airmen and they were supplying it to German citizens who had, only a few months earlier, been their enemy during World War II. Suddenly the defense of "democracy" became important, and food became a very valuable weapon in that fight.

MA: That explains the food drops during the wars. What about Stalin's famine and Mao's famine?

TS: Well, the idea of communism is that if we all pull together the world will be a better place and we'll all contribute, and we won't have individual property or competition, and we'll all get paid the same. But [it didn't work] in the largely agricultural society, which Russia was when Stalin tried it and China was when Mao tried it. The idea is that if you collectivize the farms, you crunch all of the small farms together and you say okay folks, you all have got to work together on a big farm. What the communist leaders had thought in both cases is that this would increase the amount of food that was produced, everybody would be on the same team; they'd all work together.

But the opposite happened; less food came out of the countryside after collectivization than Stalin had expected. He was using this to demonstrate the superiority of the communist model as he saw it to prove to the rest of the world how wonderful communism was, expecting an enormous increase in wheat production after collectivization. The extra wheat would be exported to buy industrial machinery, and this would fund the industrialization of Russia. The problem was that the amount of food went down, but he'd already committed himself to this export plan, so the food was exported. Stalin and his supporters were absolutely certain that the people in the countryside were simply hiding all the extra food that they were producing, so they had this very Draconian campaign of searching everyone's house and looking for the food, assuming it was being stolen.

But it wasn't there at all. The output of the countryside had actually gone down, and the result was a massive famine in the Ukraine. This entire scenario was replayed in a very similar way in China. The Chinese tried to do exactly the same thing, and their actual output fell. Nobody dared tell Mao, and they told him that actually there were record harvests. None of it was true and there was another massive famine. The result was tens of millions of people died in the biggest famines in the 20th century.

MA: In the early days of food, it was collectivized until farming came into being with hunters and gatherers always sharing their food with the entire community. How did that change with farming?

TS: In fact Marx and Engels, the creators of the doctrine of communism were inspired by the discovery in the 19th century by anthropologists who examined the lifestyles of hunters and gatherers of which there are still some today. The idea of the noble savage became very popular. Hunter-gatherers had very little property, and what property they had, they shared. This is actually entirely practical if you're a hunter-gatherer, because if you've got a band of people traveling around trying to get food from the land, you don't really want to all be weighed down with lots of possessions. So it makes a lot of sense for me to carry a net and you carry a spear and someone else will carry a bow. And it doesn't necessarily make sense for all of us to own all of those things.

In fact, if we do, and we all start to try and accumulate goods and try and compete with each other to own more stuff, we'll actually suffer as a band because we'll be so weighed down that we'll be less able to chase after that woolly mammoth than another band that is sharing everything. So the groups of hunter-gatherers who are able to actually share things and get over the idea of building up their own superiority over others or their own collection of goods will actually do better. Essentially, bands that followed this sharing routine would do better than ones that didn't. You can still see examples of this. There are rules in some hunting tribes where you have to share. There were many means used to ensure that no one member of the band tries to exert authority over everyone else, and everyone is very equal, and everything is shared. In the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, that works extremely well.

MA: And agriculture changed all that?

TS: As agriculture comes in, people have settled, and it starts to become possible to accumulate goods. Some people are better at farming than others and they have more produce, and they can then use that and trade that with other people. You instantly get this -- in archeological time -- a division into rich and poor. If you look at the graves of early agricultural villages you've got people who are buried with stuff and people who aren't buried with stuff. It seems to be that there is accumulation of wealth going on with high status and lower status people. Here you've got the beginnings of a stratification of society. So that idea of economic inequality seems to go hand-in-hand with the settled agricultural lifestyle, which is, of course, the basis of modern civilization. Inequality seems to be kind of baked into the way civilization works.

MA: Food has also been currency, a tax and labor.

TS: In all of these early civilizations, you have various schemes whereby an elite establishes itself, typically 10 to 20 percent of the population. The rest of the population are farmers. A tax system is introduced, so that the farmers, the 80 percent of the population, produces enough food for everyone. So they're producing more than the food they need to feed themselves; they're also producing enough food to feed the elite. And the elite justifies handing over of the surplus food, usually using religious grounds.

It's very similar, the religious justification that's used in Mesopotamia, in South America, in Egypt and China. Essentially, the elite says to the masses that the gods make these crops grow, but they'll only do it if we offer them sacrifices in the form of food in some form. Therefore you need to give us food and then we will make the offerings to the gods, and the gods will continue to ensure that your crops grow next year. So there's this sort of cycle with elites and masses to dissuade them from disrupting the cycle with religious rhetoric and the idea that this is the just order of things: there are peasants; there are rulers and there are gods.

You get this strikingly similar setup in different parts of the world separated by centuries. The surpluses are then collected by the elite and used to fund things. If you've got food, then it's a currency that you can use to buy people's labor. If I'm a pharaoh and I've got a whole load of surplus wheat, then I can say, "Okay I'm going to build the pyramids and I'm going to use this wheat to essentially feed the army of people. It's how I'll pay for it." The pyramids were laborers who were taken off the land and given surplus food from the coffers of the State. Similarly, an agricultural surplus could fund state things like wars and monumental architecture and irrigation projects.

MA: What about the role of spices in building empires and imperialism?

TS: In my book I look at lots of ways in which food has affected history, and there are different foods that do different things. But probably the group of foods that made the most difference after the basic agricultural staples, which led to settlement and civilization are spices. Spices are these incredibly highly valued goods that were transported all over the Old World from Europe, to China and vice versa depending on what was going in which direction, and they were used to connect up different civilizations.

In fact, frankincense reached China from Arabia, and spices like nutmeg and cloves which come from the South Seas made it all the way into Europe shortly after the Roman period. These were the things that were traded over the longest distances. They were very valuable, although they were nutritionally completely useless. It's just that they showed how rich you were if you could afford to have them. It was the spices that inspired Columbus to go west. He was looking for gold and spices. In his accounts of the journey, he said he thought that he would be able to get to the Indies if he sailed west. Of course, instead, he found the Americas. He then spent the whole time looking for spices and had no idea what the spices looked like when they were growing. And of course none of the spices he was looking for were actually in the Americas. He was looking for black pepper and things like that.

Similarly the Portuguese and Vasco de Gama were looking for a way to get to India for spices, and he chose a different route around the bottom of Africa. Of course, that approach did actually work. Then what followed was the opening up of the massive sea trade routes, the establishment of European empires, the peopling of the Americas and the slave trade. That has obviously had a massive impact on the unfolding of world history and the way that the world is today. It was to chase after these really rather superfluous food stuffs.

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