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June 2009



War and peas

The National, May 28. 2009

'A new book purports to explain 10,000 years of human history through mankind's evolving relationship with food. Matthew Price looks skeptically on the commodity fetish that dominates history writing today.'
'An Edible History of Humanity - Tom Standage ; Walker & Company ; Dh60'

In defence of the vocation of history it is often said that we can only understand the present by reference to the past. But it is equally true that each present writes the past it prefers to read - and animates and reshapes it according to the ideas and beliefs of the present.

The sweeping "world histories" that emerged in the early part of the 20th century - bulging multi-volume works like Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History and Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization - attempted to chart the lifespan of humanity through the rise and fall of civilisations and, in particular, to chronicle and explain the evolution and triumph of the West.

Today the rise and fall of civilisations no longer seems a pressing matter, and the broad canvas on which historians once painted has mostly fallen from favour. If the publishing industry is any barometer, the oft-mocked thesis of Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" - that "all of the really big questions had been settled" in favour of liberal capitalism - may be correct after all: every week, it seems, brings a new history of milk, or caffeine, or tobacco, or cotton. The secret to understanding history, it seems, no longer lies in the dialectic or class struggle, the idea of progress or the triumph of liberal democracy, but in our furniture (there's even a history of the bookshelf), the clothes we wear, or the food we eat.

If the present writes the past to reflect its own preoccupations, then it should be no surprise that the age of conspicuous consumption prefers the history of commodities to that of ideas and movements. Today it would seem naive to believe that an idea could change the world, but it's perfectly credible to assert that the potato did. Tom Standage's An Edible History of Humanity doesn't limit itself to a single starchy tuber, however - it's a world history for the food-obsessed, an update of Toynbee or Durant suited to an age when more people are more concerned with what they put in their mouths than at any time in human history.

Standage, the business editor of the Economist, who earlier produced a potable history of humanity called A History of the World in Six Glasses, here compresses 11,000 years of eating into a brisk 269-page tour d'horizon that adds up to a defence of its own conceit. If we are obsessed with food, according to Standage, we have every right to be: human history can - and must - be explained by the evolution of our relationship to food and its production. Human progress has marched hand-in-hand with developments in agriculture and food production; looking back, we can see that food itself 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."

This is a recipe for an all-night banquet of historical ideas, but Standage gives us a modest morsel that won't you give you indigestion. His "ingredients of the past" can be summarised as follows. The advent of farming and agriculture transformed man from hunter-gatherer into sedentary farmer and made civilisation as we know it possible. Food surpluses and irrigation systems enabled political centralisation and social stratification. Trade in foodstuffs like spices connected civilisations - Arab, Christian, Asian - in a global trade network, which had profound historical consequences: the settlement of the Atlantic world, for example, was spurred by Europe's attempt to circumvent the Arab spice monopoly in the 15th and 16th centuries.It turns out, of course, that the people who made history needed to eat while doing so, and Standage produces abundant examples to prove it. It was "sugar and potatoes", he writes, that enabled the Industrial Revolution in Britain, providing "cheap sustenance for the workers in the new factories". Armies were defeated and wars lost for lack of food supplies, millions murdered in famines under Stalin and Mao, and millions more sustained by the Green Revolution that transformed agriculture in the developing world.

But Standage is not out to prove that humans required food to have history: with his eye on the present and its contentious debates about the politics of food, his history serves as a kind of riposte both to goody-goody bien-mangeants like Michael Pollan and anti-GMO campaigners who scorn technological advances in food production. At a time when many people yearn for earlier alternatives to industrialised agriculture, Standage reminds us that advances in fertiliser production and the use of high-yield crops have brought unprecedented prosperity to much of the world.

To understand the debate over genetically modified foodstuffs, he argues, we must look back to the very beginnings of agriculture. If we understand "natural" to mean uninfluenced by human action, then food production has always been unnatural - the history of food is a history of human manipulation of food, a series of technological innovations no less important than the internal combustion engine.

Barley and wheat, millet and rice, maize and potatoes - the cereal crops that fed the first civilisations in the Near East, Asia, and the Americas - are "human creations, carefully crafted tools that are used to produce produce food in novel forms, and in far greater quantities than would occur naturally". They are inventions, Standage writes, "deliberately cultivated technologies that only exist as result of human intervention".

Farming, in fact, is a relatively recent innovation in human history, and Standage - who like his peers in the commodity history game cannot resist sweeping claims about his subject - notes that it has "done more to change the world, and has had a greater impact on the environment, than any other human activity".

For 100,000 years, humans subsisted as hunter-gatherers. But some 11,000 years ago, we began to hunt and gather a little less, and to cultivate cereal crops for sustenance. The process was a gradual one. Hunter-gatherers still foraged for food, but became less mobile, spending much of the year at a single encampment.

The rise of farming had other, less desirable consequences. Hunter-gatherers had a less strenuous life than you think - only a few days out of the week were spent collecting food - and a kind of rough equality prevailed. Labour-intensive agriculture changed all that. Those who exploited and controlled food surpluses achieved power and rank; others led lives of grim toil.

Noting the environmental impact of this change - deforestation, social disruption, and " the genetic modification of plants and animals to create monstrous mutants that do not exist in nature and often cannot survive without human intervention" - Standage writes that "agriculture would surely not be allowed if it were invented today". He is right indeed, given the hue and cry about modern farming practices. And yet, he adds, "it is the basis of civilisation as we know it".

It was not such a big leap from gathering wild grains to cultivating them. But early farmers did not know what they were up to; as Standage notes, via trial and error, these "ancient genetic engineers" domesticated wild plants, propagating desirable traits.

Maize, for example, which took root in Mesoamerica around 3500BC, derives from the much smaller teosint, a wild grass. Through a gradual, unwitting process, early farmers altered teosint's genetic make-up, which made it less able to survive in the wild, and more reliant on human care. The resulting crop, however, was bigger, more edible, easy to grow, and thus became a vital staple of early civilisation.

In the Fertile Crescent and Far East, similar processes gave rise to wheat (8500BC) and rice (7500BC). Humans became dependent on their innovations, which in turn became dependent on human care. Rice, for example, lost its ability to survive in floods. (As Standage nicely puts it: "more convenient food, less resilient plant".) Farming spread, taking language and customs with it. Today, he points out, some 90 per cent of the world's population speaks a language originated in regions where two of the first cereal crops originated, the Fertile Crescent and China.

This is fascinating stuff, but it has its limits. To portray the vast complexity of human progress through our cultivation of edible goods is invariably reductive. It is de rigueur for the subtitles of commodity history books to claim that their subjects "changed the world". The sceptical reader will realise that it's not possible for every humble vegetable, seed, colour and hand tool to have altered the course of human history - unless, of course, they all did, which is probably rather closer to the truth.

When a single commodity, or a class of them, is pressed into service as an explanation for all of history's twists and turns, monocausality runs rampant, and rhetorical excess is not far behind. Standage calls the 1909 synthesis of ammonia - a crucial component in the manufacturing of fertiliser - a "technological breakthrough that was to have arguably the greatest impact on mankind during the 20th century", a claim that could be made more plausibly on behalf of the microchip, the aeroplane or the atom bomb, and probably a hundred other things.

Standage himself, in response to a 1998 survey to determine the most consequential invention of the millennium, wrote that "the most important invention is telecommunications technology: the telegraph, the telephone, and now things like the internet." (That same year he published a history of those things, The Victorian Internet.)

But perhaps the commodity histories - Standage's among them - are really arguments about the present and how we got here; his comments on contemporary food controversies and the book's excellent overview of the green revolution, in fact, make for a fine polemic on the politics of food today. His account of the past is most useful for its admirably pragmatic argument about how we should now view the food we eat. For all our technological advances, the problem of feeding the planet has not yet been solved: in short, Standage argues, the world still needs a "second green revolution". "It is far too simplistic to suggest that the world faces a choice between organic fundamentalism on the one hand and blind faith in biotechnology on the other," he concludes. "The future of food production, and of mankind, surely lies in the wide and fertile ground in between."
Matthew Price, a regular contributor to The Review, last wrote on Alan Wolfe's history of liberalism.