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An edible history of humanity

an edible history of humanity

By Tom Standage
Published by Atlantic Books
Website: www.atlantic-books.co.uk
2009, 269pp, ISBN 978 1 84354 634 4(Hb), £19.99

"From the dawn of agriculture to the green revolution, food has been an essential ingredient in human history," writes Standage. He begins by discussing how food was the foundation of civilisation as farming overtook hunter-gathering and created settled communities; how agricultural fertility rituals developed into state religions; and how the production of food surpluses and the development of communal food storage and irrigation systems fostered political centralisation and urbanisation. "Throughout the ancient world, long before the invention of money, food was wealth - and control of food was power," he writes.

Other chapters explore how a growing taste for spices in Europe encouraged the growth of trade and the discovery of Asia and the Americas; how food has been used as a weapon of war, even in modern times; and how food enabled the industrial revolution to occur in Britain. He also makes the point that after thousands of years of selection and domestication, starting with the earliest cultivators, even before genetic engineering, most foods are human creations and almost none of the food we eat now can be called 'natural'. Just one example is the development of modern maize from its ancestors, proto-maize and teosinte: the earlier forms look puny and nutritionally inadequate compared with the familiar maize cob of today. However, modern maize, in common with several other seemingly 'natural' crops, would not survive without man's intervention.

Standage documents how, during the 20th century, the application of scientific and industrial methods to agriculture - fertilisers and pesticides together with irrigation - drove a dramatic expansion in food production. In 2008 nitrogen fertilisers were responsible for feeding almost half of the world's population. The green revolution has also given rise to a population boom, helped lift millions out of poverty and enabled China and India to industrialise. To help the millions who are still struggling to survive, Standage calls for a second green revolution. But in light of the environmental damage caused by the first, he suggests that conservation agriculture could be a more promising approach, and spells out what he means by the term.

So, what of the future? How will food shape human affairs and how will agriculture be shaped by political decisions and the personal expectations of the still increasing numbers of consumers? Will conservation agriculture be adopted soon enough? Will science provide the tools to implement it? "To ensure an adequate supply of food as the world population heads towards its peak and climate change shifts long-established patterns of agriculture, it will be necessary to assemble the largest possible toolbox of agricultural techniques," Standage asserts. Given food's potential to be used as a weapon, it is to be hoped that the toolbox does not become an armoury.

An edible history of humanity is a fascinating history of the role of food and how it has shaped human societies and continues to do so. Engaging and clear, this book will have a broad appeal to all who are interested in how food production, availability and trade have influenced the world, socially, economically and politically, and how food remains at the root of our future.

Date published: September 2009


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