Book review: An Edible History of Humanity

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By Tom Standage Atlantic Books, £19.99 Review: Richard Bath

IN AN age where food poverty is a dim and distant memory in the developed world, Tom Standage's erudite and thoughtful examination of the role of food in history is a timely dose of context for many of the problems that the world faces. The role of agri-business, the "local" food movement, the role of organic food and what Standage calls "the paradox of plenty" are all tackled head-on.

The book's central theme involves a vast sweep through the history of humanity as the author talks about food as a tool of social transformation and industrial development, as the cause of wars and geopolitical competition. The building blocks of his forensically compiled case that food has been the main driver dictating man's evolution are a succession of factoids and anecdotes.

From the very first pages he challenges our assumptions about the nature of food production by using the genesis of the "natural" crop of corn. We think of corn as a naturally occurring plant which we have simply harnessed. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Ranging across a basket of disciplines that include genetics, archaeology, anthropology and ethno-biology, Standage demonstrates that the corn cob is the result of centuries of selective cultivation by man, showing that without our intervention the plant would simply cease to exist in its current form, almost certainly lapsing back to its original form of teosinte, a small cob that is roughly 5 per cent of the size of modern maize.

Thus Standage provides us with a concrete example of how man morphed from fiercely egalitarian hunter-gatherers to societies with complex hierarchies based around food and the means of producing food. In time, these various societies eventually began to interact in both a peaceful and warlike fashion in order to secure greater sources of food. Trade, in all its guises, especially the search for spices which led directly to the European colonisation of large parts of the New World, was driven by food.

The strength of Standage's history is in the detail and in the way in which he persuades the reader to look at historical events through an alternate prism. He argues convincingly that the defeat of Napoleon and of the British in the American War of Independence was largely down to food supply logistics, while also demonstrating how the ability to feed large numbers of troops has completely changed the nature of war.

Some of Standage's themes are very familiar, such as the role of food in the industrialisation of Britain. But others are fascinating excursions into little-known historical byways, such as the way dictators such as Mao and Stalin used famine as a political tool, starving whole populations into submission.

Standage also seeks clues throughout history to predict how the debate about food will develop in the future. Writing about the growth of the "local food" movement, he quotes Pliny the Elder talking about the burgeoning first century AD trade in importing pepper into Europe: "And for this we go all the way to India!" He also broaches environmental issues, demonstrating that producing a kilogram of lamb in New Zealand and shipping it to Britain produces a carbon footprint that is less than a third of the size of lamb produced here.

By the end of The Edible History Of Humanity, you not only feel qualified to take an informed stance on the development of future food policy, but apt to disagree with Hegel's assertion that national characteristics are caused by language because Standage's case for food as the root of all human development is difficult to refute.

Yet if Standage has made an important contribution to the debate on food with a book of real significance, it's also worth bearing in mind that at times this book, which can read like an endless succession of facts, is not always hugely entertaining. Yet if the author's concise, utilitarian prose occasionally comes across as a little uninspired, this is still a major work worthy of closer inspection.