'An Edible History of Humanity'
Author Tom Standage examines the ‘non-food’ uses of food: Its function as the foundation of civilizations and interconnector of cultures, a weapon, and more.
Wed, Sep 09 2009 at 5:58 AM
NON-SENSORY: Author Tom Standage examines how food changed history. (Photo courtesy Tom Standage)
Tom Standage is a journalist for The Economist magazine and has always been interested in the impact of new things on society. In his most recent book, An Edible History of Humanity, he examines how food changed history (rather than the other way around). He looks at everything from how surplus cereals enabled Egyptians to construct the pyramids to how the search for spice led to the creation of Europe’s colonial empires.
He didn’t write about the pleasures food and eating can bring because he says there are lots of books about the sensory aspects of food and he wanted to do something different. “My book is about the ‘non-food’ uses of food: its function as the foundation of civilizations, and interconnector of cultures, a weapon, and so on,” he says.
Mother Nature Network: In the book you look at when, why and how humans switched from hunting and gathering to farming. Why do you think this switch was so important in the history of humanity?
Tom Standage: The switch from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle was the biggest change in human existence since the evolution of modern man. Having been hunter-gatherers for thousands of years (millions, arguably, if you go back to the earliest primates), we switched to being settled farmers around 10,000 years ago. And the rest, as they say, is history: Only once you've settled do you get cities, writing, empires, civilization as we know it.
Why did hunter-gatherers have it better than the early farmers?
They ate a larger diversity of foods. The earliest farmers were heavily dependent on a few staple crops: wheat and barley in western Eurasia, rice in the east, and maize (corn) in the Americas. These staples accounted for a large proportion of their diets. So early farmers had a less interesting and less balanced diet. They were shorter, less healthy and died younger. Only in modern times have we regained the stature and health of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and only in the richest parts of the world. So for most of the time humans have been farmers, they have been worse off than they would have been as hunter-gatherers.
What are the foods that have done the most to change the course of history?
The big ones are wheat, rice and maize (the main staples, the "edible foundations of civilization"); spices (which interconnected the world's cultures and prompted voyages of exploration); sugar (which led to the Atlantic slave trade); potatoes (which boosted European populations and paved the way for industrialization); and green-revolution wheat and rice (which made possible the recent rapid development of India and China).
What was the most surprising thing you discovered during your research?
I think I was most surprised by the extent to which military success and failure is dependent on food. Military history was a new subject to me, and I was coming at it from an unusual angle. I was also particularly intrigued by the way in which the spread of farming is still visible in the distribution of human genes and languages around the world.
Did humans domesticate wheat, rice and corn? Or did they domesticate us?
You can argue it both ways. We both became dependent on the other. Corn cannot propagate without human intervention; we cannot live without our domesticated crops. Domestication is a two-way street. We struck a grand bargain with our domesticated plants and animals.
On the same tack, you write that farming is an unnatural activity? Why?
Domesticated plants and animals are man-made mutants based on wild ancestors. Cows and chickens do not occur in nature; nor does maize. Human farmers shaped and guided their development. So apart from wild fish, nuts, mushrooms and so on, very little of what we eat is "natural" in the sense that it occurs in nature. If you had a time machine and went back 20,000 years, you wouldn't find maize or cows. We made them.
Is there such a thing as “natural” food?
Yes: wild mushrooms are natural. You would find them if you went back in time to the pre-farming era. But the idea of 100-percent natural orange juice is silly. Oranges in their current form do not occur in nature.
Carrots have apparently been a number of colors. How and why did they become orange?
Carrots were white, yellow or purple until relatively recently. Then Dutch horticulturalists bred orange carrots (by selectively cross-breeding yellow carrots) in honor of the royal family, whose color was orange. The orange carrots were sweeter and tastier, and did not stain crockery in the way that purple carrots did. So they became the most popular variety.
Is a second green revolution on its way?
I hope so. Africa in particular needs to increase its agricultural productivity; the first green revolution passed it by because wheat and rice are not good crops to grow in Africa. But the green revolution was a mixed blessing; it caused significant environmental problems, even though it massively increased the supply of food. So the key will be to find a way to increase food output in Africa in a sustainable way, and to learn the lessons of the first green revolution. I'm optimistic that can be done, using a combination of traditional and modern farming techniques. Both the organic and the biotech lobbies claim to have all the answers, but I suspect a hybrid approach will be needed.
You might also like: