An Edible History of Humanity

From 1879 to 1883 Chile, Bolivia, and Peru fought the War of the Pacific. By the end of the hostilities (Chile won) 55,000 people had been killed or wounded. The aim of the combatants was to take possession of desert terrain that contained huge reserves of sodium nitrate—a fertilizer. If that sounds like an insane reason to wage war, Tom Standage’s piquant new book on how food has influenced human history and culture deftly explains why outrageous episodes like the War of the Pacific have probably been inevitable.

For those (like me) who rarely think about food except when purchasing or eating it, An Edible History of Humanity offers revelation after revelation about its too-often-taken-for-granted subject. Standage, a British writer (his previous books include A History of the World in 6 Glasses, The Victorian Internet, and The Turk) who is also the business editor of the Economist, says in his introduction: “Throughout history, food has done more than simply provide sustenance. It has acted as a catalyst of social transformation, societal organization, 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.” In
a series of interlocking essays, the author proceeds to prove his point.

The story begins about 11,000 years ago, when human beings first began growing food—corn, rice and, wheat—in, respectively, Central and South America, China, and the Middle East. Standage points out that “[a]ll domesticated plants and animals are”—and almost invariably always have been—“man-made technologies.” Moreover, agriculture “is the basis of civilization as we know it.” The collection and distribution of surplus farmed foodstuffs fostered the development of strong central governments and their attendant social hierarchies and inequalities: civilization as we know it, indeed.

One such “civilizing” force Standage examines is Western Europe’s hunger for the Orient’s spices in the fifteenth century, which became a major impetus to the inception of the Age of Exploration. The voyages made by Columbus across the Atlantic were partly initiated by his desire to obtain spices in Asia. The first circumnavigation of the globe (1519-1522), executed by a Spanish flotilla initially under the command of the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan (he was killed in 1521), was prompted by a search for spices. (A surviving ship brought back twenty-six tons of cloves to Seville.)

One of the most provocative parts of An Edible History is its scrutiny of the relationship between food production and the commencement of the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth century England. A combination of factors in that time and place—scientific innovation (“botany was regarded as the ‘big science’” of the eighteenth century), and relatively new agricultural methods such as crop rotation, to cite just two—enabled fewer farmers to grow more food on less land. This in turn impelled many denizens of rural areas to seek work at manufacturing concerns and allowed for the mining of the plentiful coal deposits of Northern England. Standage makes a cleverly persuasive case that the composition and evolution of the Industrial Revolution (“a new phase in human existence”) were shaped by comestibles.

I confess to never having given any thought to ammonia before reading this book, but apparently it was feckless of me not to have done so: Standage maintains that its synthesis as a liquid from hydrogen and nitrogen in Germany in 1909 “marked the technological breakthrough that was to have arguably the greatest impact on mankind during the twentieth century.” Liquid ammonia became a superb fertilizer (its most valuable component, nitrogen, is an essential element of cereal grains) and, along with new types of crop seeds, served as the foundation, starting in the 1960s, of the so-called green revolution. This redoubtable enterprise “helped to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and underpinned the historic resurgence of the Asian economies and the rapid industrialization of China and India. . .”

Given food’s fundamental significance it’s understandable that it has played a consequential role in political and ideological crusades, sometimes to stupefyingly cruel effect. Evil despots like Stalin and Mao presided over horrid famines, famines that caused the starvation deaths of millions.

I have some probably nitpicking cavils about An Edible History of Humanity. I wish the author had discussed certain relevant subjects: food customs in religions like Judaism and Islam; how the benefits associated with combining strains of cereal seeds challenge the arguments of those who deplore food that is genetically “tampered” with; the issue of food-borne diseases (an April 20 New York Times article reported that in the United States, “food-related disease will remain among the most common source of illness. One-quarter of the nation’s population is sickened every year by contaminated food. . .”).

Overall, however, the book is engrossing, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. British literary journalism—lucid, elegant—is an excellent medium for exploring science and technology, and Tom Standage is a skilled practitioner. I greatly admire his ability to clarify recondite science concepts for the likes of me. Standage’s sense of playfulness, evinced in The Turk (about an eighteenth century chess-playing automaton), isn’t really on display in his latest book, but he is somewhat more overtly political in An Edible History than he was in The Victorian Internet (a chronicle of the telegraph) and The Turk. I enjoyed, for instance, An Edible History’s dismantling of the arguments of “locavores,” individuals who advocate strongly for buying foods produced as close to the consumer as possible. (Among Standage’s telling ripostes: a resolute locavore movement would deprive farmers in developing countries of significant benefits by denying them the possibility of provisioning wealthy nations.)

The paramount lesson taught by An Edible History of Humanity is that we must always remain attentive to and respectful toward food’s profound complexity and importance. The Aztecs understood: they called the people sacrificed in their ghastly religious rituals “tortillas for the gods.” The Aztecs didn’t do human relations well but they took food seriously.

Howard Schneider, a writer and editor in New York City, likes to eat out.