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Book Review: An Edible History of Humanity

July 8, 2010

Like a great many people in the world today, I am basically quite ignorant about a huge range of subjects. It is true that there are one or two small outposts off the beaten track (quantum mechanics, computer programming) about which I would claim to have more knowledge than the average person on the street, but I am constantly finding new ways to be astonished by the sheer number of things I don’t know. This is why it’s always a delight to come across a book which, with the minimum of fuss, fills me in with a few basic details. And when it actually leaves me with some hope for the future, it is a special thing indeed.

An Edible History of Humanity” by Tom Standage is one such book. Not, as one might waggishly suggest, an authoritative tome on world history printed on rice-paper, it is a book about how food and the necessity of obtaining it has been a driving force, possibly the driving force behind the development of human civilisation.

It begins with the story of maize, or as we in the UK call it, corn-on-the-cob (first learning point – I had no idea what maize was before reading this book).The book sketches out a plausible hypothesis about primitive hunter-gatherers who would gather maize and by preferentially choosing plants with mutations which made them more suitable (easier to eat, easier to harvest) and scattering their seeds, unknowingly began the first genetic-engineering program. Eventually, the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle was supplanted by one in which people tended to stay put and farm the land around them systematically, sowing the seeds of future civilisation.

As the story of the development of this embryonic civilisation into where we are today unfolded, I realised what a huge chunk of understanding was completely missing from my picture of the world. For example, I didn’t know…

  • …where potatoes came from (well, I knew they came from the ground, I didn’t know they originated in South America and weren’t cultivated in Europe until around 1600).
  • …very much at all about the slave trade
  • …the full horror of Stalin’s five-year plans or China’s equally disastrous attempt to outdo them with their Great Leap Forward (people reduced to eating dogs, grass and occasionally each other).
  • …what the Berlin airlift was (2.3 million tons of food flown into Berlin between 1948 and 1949 in response to a Soviet blockade on the city, with a hearts-and-minds-winning gesture thrown in).

The book also gave me a sense of how utterly dependent we are on tinkering with food for our survival. Anti-GM protesters and “organic food” advocates may protest, but the reality is that most of the food we eat is not “natural” and never has been. There has been so much selective breeding to increase yields and produce plants where the bulk of the nutrients end up in the edible parts (rather than useless bits such as the stalks), that they would be unrecognisable to our hunter-gatherer forefathers. Indeed, we are now locked in a symbiotic relationship with some of them – they can’t grow without us, we can’t live without them. Fans of creationist absurdity may draw the obvious conclusion about the implications for Ray Comfort and his amusing ‘adaptedness of banana proves design by God‘ argument.

Finally, I mentioned that the book gave me some hope for the future. In the past, I’ve tended to be fairly gloomy about our prospects for long-term survival – I assumed that we are hurtling towards the point where we’ll no longer be able to feed ourselves, with mass starvation as the inevitable result (as predicted by Malthus). However, there are grounds for optimism:

  • The population is rising, but the rate is slowing. UN estimates from 2007 give a peak of 9.2 billion in 2075 – mainly due to falling birth rates in industrialized nation.
  • People are still finding new farming techniques which can increase yields while requiring less in the way of fertilizer and pesticide use (hence requiring less energy and having less of an environmental impact). Techniques such as conservation agriculture (developed in the 1970s) are not as widely used as they could be.

So, although we’ve still got huge amounts to do in terms of growing the food and ensuring everyone on the planet gets a fair share.

And there you have it. It’s a good book, and I’m sure it’s available in all good independent booksellers.

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