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An Edible History of Humanity

An Edible History of Humanity

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An Edible History of Humanity

4/5 (27 valutazioni)
324 pagine
6 ore
Jul 1, 2009


The bestselling author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses charts an enlightening history of humanity through the foods we eat.

Throughout history, food has done more than simply provide sustenance. It has acted as a tool of social transformation, political organization, geopolitical competition, industrial development, military conflict and economic expansion. An Edible History of Humanity is an account of how food has helped to shape and transform societies around the world, from the emergence of farming in China by 7,500 BCE to today's use of sugar cane and corn to make ethanol.

Food has been a kind of technology, a tool that has changed the course of human progress. It helped to found, structure, and connect together civilizations worldwide, and to build empires and bring about a surge in economic development through industrialization. Food has been employed as a military and ideological weapon. And today, in the culmination of a process that has been going on for thousands of years, the foods we choose in the supermarket connect us to global debates about trade, development and the adoption of new technologies.

Drawing from many fields including genetics, archaeology, anthropology, ethno-botany and economics, the story of these food-driven transformations is a fully satisfying account of the whole of human history.
Jul 1, 2009

Informazioni sull'autore

Tom Standage is digital editor at the Economist and editor-in-chief of its website, He is the author of six history books, including An Edible History of Humanity, the New York Times bestseller A History of the World in Six Glasses and The Victorian Internet. His writing has also appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times and Wired. He lives in London. @tomstandage

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Anteprima del libro

An Edible History of Humanity - Tom Standage







To Kirstin, my partner in food—and everything else


Introduction: Ingredients of the Past

Part I

The Edible Foundations of Civilization

1 The Invention of Farming

2 The Roots of Modernity

Part II

Food and Social Structure

3 Food, Wealth, and Power

4 Follow the Food

Part III

Global Highways of Food

5 Splinters of Paradise

6 Seeds of Empire

Part IV

Food, Energy, and Industrialization

7 New World, New Foods

8 The Steam Engine and the Potato

Part V

Food as a Weapon

9 The Fuel of War

10 Food Fight

Part VI

Food, Population, and Development

11 Feeding the World

12 Paradoxes of Plenty

Epilogue: Ingredients of the Future




A Note on the Author

Also by Tom Standage


Ingredients of the Past

There is no history of mankind, there are only many histories of all kinds of aspects of human life.


The fate of nations hangs upon their choice of food.


There are many ways to look at the past: as a list of important dates, a conveyor belt of kings and queens, a series of rising and falling empires, or a narrative of political, philosophical, or technological progress. This book looks at history in another way entirely: as a series of transformations caused, enabled, or influenced by food. 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.

Food’s first transformative role was as a foundation for entire civilizations. The adoption of agriculture made possible new settled lifestyles and set mankind on the path to the modern world. But the staple crops that supported the first civilizations—barley and wheat in the Near East, millet and rice in Asia, and maize and potatoes in the Americas—were not simply discovered by chance. Instead, they emerged through a complex process of coevolution, as desirable traits were selected and propagated by early farmers. These staple crops are, in effect, inventions: deliberately cultivated technologies that only exist as a result of human intervention. The story of the adoption of agriculture is the tale of how ancient genetic engineers developed powerful new tools that made civilization itself possible. In the process, mankind changed plants, and those plants in turn transformed mankind.

Having provided the platform on which civilizations could be founded, food subsequently acted as a tool of social organization, helping to shape and structure the complex societies that emerged. The political, economic, and religious structures of ancient societies, from hunter-gatherers to the first civilizations, were based upon the systems of food production and distribution. The production of agricultural food surpluses and the development of communal food-storage and irrigation systems fostered political centralization; agricultural fertility rituals developed into state religions; food became a medium of payment and taxation; feasts were used to garner influence and demonstrate status; food handouts were used to define and reinforce power structures. Throughout the ancient world, long before the invention of money, food was wealth—and control of food was power.

Once civilizations had emerged in various parts of the world, food helped to connect them together. Food-trade routes acted as international communications networks that fostered not just commercial exchange, but cultural and religious exchange too. The spice routes that spanned the Old World led to cross-cultural fertilization in fields as diverse as architecture, science, and religion. Early geographers started to take an interest in the customs and peoples of distant lands and compiled the first attempts at world maps. By far the greatest transformation caused by food trade was a result of the European desire to circumvent the Arab spice monopoly. This led to the discovery of the New World, the opening of maritime trade routes between Europe, America, and Asia, and the establishment by European nations of their first colonial outposts. Along the way, it also revealed the true layout of the world.

As European nations vied to build global empires, food helped to bring about the next big shift in human history: a surge in economic development through industrialization. Sugar and potatoes, as much as the steam engine, underpinned the Industrial Revolution. The production of sugar on plantations in the West Indies was arguably the earliest prototype of an industrial process, reliant though it was on slave labor. Potatoes, meanwhile, overcame initial suspicion among Europeans to become a staple food that produced more calories than cereal crops could from a given area of land. Together, sugar and potatoes provided cheap sustenance for the workers in the new factories of the industrial age. In Britain, where this process first began, the vexed question of whether the country’s future lay in agriculture or in industry was unexpectedly and decisively resolved by the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

The use of food as a weapon of war is timeless, but the largescale military conflicts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries elevated it to a new level. Food played an important role in determining the outcome of the two wars that defined the United States of America: the Revolutionary War of the 1770s to 1780s and the Civil War of the 1860s. In Europe, meanwhile, Napoleon’s rise and fall was intimately connected with his ability to feed his vast armies. The mechanization of warfare in the twentieth century meant that for the first time in history, feeding machines with fuel and ammunition became a more important consideration than feeding soldiers. But food then took on a new role, as an ideological weapon, during the Cold War between capitalism and communism, and ultimately helped to determine the outcome of the conflict. And in modern times food has become a battlefield for other issues, including trade, development, and globalization.

During the twentieth century the application of scientific and industrial methods to agriculture led to a dramatic expansion in the food supply and a corresponding surge in the world population. The so-called green revolution caused environmental and social problems, but without it there would probably have been widespread famine in much of the developing world during the 1970s. And by enabling the food supply to grow more rapidly than the population, the green revolution paved the way for the astonishingly rapid industrialization of Asia as the century drew to a close. Since people in industrial societies tend to have fewer children than those in agricultural societies, the peak in the human population, toward the end of the twenty-first century, is now in sight.

The stories of many individual foodstuffs, of food-related customs and traditions, and of the development of particular national cuisines have already been told. Less attention has been paid to the question of food’s world-historical impact. This account does not claim that any single food holds the key to understanding history; nor does it attempt to summarize the entire history of food, or the entire history of the world. Instead, by drawing on a range of disciplines, including genetics, archaeology, anthropology, ethnobotany, and economics, it concentrates specifically on the intersections between food history and world history, to ask a simple question: which foods have done the most to shape the modern world, and how? Taking a long-term historical perspective also provides a new way to illuminate modern debates about food, such as the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms, the relationship between food and poverty, the rise of the local food movement, the use of crops to make biofuels, the effectiveness of food as a means of mobilizing political support for various causes, and the best way to reduce the environmental impact of modern agriculture.

In his book The Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776, Adam Smith famously likened the unseen influence of market forces, acting on participants who are all looking out for their own best interests, to an invisible hand. Food’s influence on history can similarly be likened to an invisible fork that has, at several crucial points in history, prodded humanity and altered its destiny, even though people were generally unaware of its influence at the time. Many food choices made in the past turn out to have had far-reaching consequences, and to have helped in unexpected ways to shape the world in which we now live. To the discerning eye, food’s historical influence can be seen all around us, and not just in the kitchen, at the dining table, or in the supermarket. That food has been such an important ingredient in human affairs might seem strange, but it would be far more surprising if it had not: after all, everything that every person has ever done, throughout history, has literally been fueled by food.

Part I

The Edible Foundations of Civilization


The Invention of Farming

I have seen great surprise expressed in horticultural works at the wonderful skill of gardeners, in having produced such splendid results from such poor materials; but the art has been simple, and as far as the final result is concerned, has been followed almost unconsciously. It has consisted in always cultivating the best-known variety, sowing its seeds, and, when a slightly better variety chanced to appear, selecting it, and so onwards.

—CHARLES DARWIN, The Origin of Species


What embodies the bounty of nature better than an ear of corn? With a twist of the wrist it is easily plucked from the stalk with no waste or fuss. It is packed with tasty, nutritious kernels that are larger and more numerous than those of other cereals. And it is surrounded by a leafy husk that shields it from pests and moisture. Maize appears to be a gift from nature; it even comes wrapped up. But appearances can be deceptive. A cultivated field of maize, or any other crop, is as man-made as a microchip, a magazine, or a missile. Much as we like to think of farming as natural, ten thousand years ago it was a new and alien development. Stone Age hunter-gatherers would have regarded neatly cultivated fields, stretching to the horizon, as a bizarre and unfamiliar sight. Farmed land is as much a technological landscape as a biological one. And in the grand scheme of human existence, the technologies in question—domesticated crops—are very recent inventions.

The ancestors of modern humans diverged from apes about four and a half million years ago, and anatomically modern humans emerged around 150,000 years ago. All of these early humans were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on plants and animals that were gathered and hunted in the wild. It is only within the past 11,000 years or so that humans began to cultivate food deliberately. Farming emerged independently in several different times and places, and had taken hold in the Near East by around 8500 B.C., in China by around 7500 B.C., and in Central and South America by around 3500 B.C. From these three main starting points, the technology of farming then spread throughout the world to become mankind’s chief means of food production.

This was a remarkable change for a species that had relied on a nomadic lifestyle based on hunting and gathering for its entire previous existence. If the 150,000 years since modern humans emerged are likened to one hour, it is only in the last four and a half minutes that humans began to adopt farming, and agriculture only became the dominant means of providing human subsistence in the last minute and a half. Humanity’s switch from foraging to farming, from a natural to a technological means of food production, was recent and sudden.

Though many animals gather and store seeds and other foodstuffs, humans are unique in deliberately cultivating specific crops and selecting and propagating particular desired characteristics. Like a weaver, a carpenter, or a blacksmith, a farmer creates useful things that do not occur in nature. This is done using plants and animals that have been modified, or domesticated, so that they better suit human purposes. They are human creations, carefully crafted tools that are used to produce food in novel forms, and in far greater quantities than would occur naturally. The significance of their development cannot be overstated, for they literally made possible the modern world. Three domesticated plants in particular—wheat, rice, and maize—proved to be most significant. They laid the foundations for civilization and continue to underpin human society to this day.


Maize, more commonly known as corn in America, provides the best illustration that domesticated crops are unquestionably human creations. The distinction between wild and domesticated plants is not a hard and fast one. Instead, plants occupy a continuum: from entirely wild plants, to domesticated ones that have had some characteristics modified to suit humans, to entirely domesticated plants, which can only reproduce with human assistance. Maize falls into the last of these categories. It is the result of human propagation of a series of random genetic mutations that transformed it from a simple grass into a bizarre, gigantic mutant that can no longer survive in the wild. Maize is descended from teosinte, a wild grass indigenous to modern-day Mexico. The two plants look very different. But just a few genetic mutations, it turns out, were sufficient to transform one into the other.

One obvious difference between teosinte and maize is that teosinte ears consist of two rows of kernels surrounded by tough casings, or glumes, which protect the edible kernels within. A single gene, called tga1 by modern geneticists, controls the size of these glumes, and a mutation in the gene results in exposed kernels. This means the kernels are less likely to survive the journey through the digestive tract of an animal, placing mutant plants at a reproductive disadvantage to non mutants, at least in the normal scheme of things. But the exposed kernels would also have made teosinte far more attractive to human foragers, since there would have been no need to remove the glumes before consumption. By gathering just the mutant plants with exposed kernels, and then sowing some of them as seeds, proto-farmers could increase the proportion of plants with exposed kernels. The tga1 mutation, in short, made teosinte plants less likely to survive in the wild, but also made them more attractive to humans, who propagated the mutation. (The glumes in maize are so reduced that you only notice them today when they get stuck between your teeth. They are the silky, transparent film that surrounds each kernel.)

Progression from teosinte to proto-maize

and modern maize.

Another obvious difference between teosinte and maize lies in the overall structure, or architecture, of the two plants, which determines the position and number of the male and female reproductive parts, or inflorescences. Teosinte has a highly branched architecture with multiple stalks, each of which has one male inflorescence (the tassel) and several female inflorescences (the ears). Maize, however, has a single stalk with no branches, a single tassel at the top, and far fewer but much larger ears halfway up the stalk, enclosed in a leafy husk. Usually there is just one ear, but in some varieties of maize there can be two or three. This change in architecture seems to be the result of a mutation in a gene known as tb1. From the plant’s point of view, this mutation is a bad thing: It makes fertilization, in which pollen from the tassel must make its way down to the ear, more difficult. But from the point of view of humans, it is a very helpful mutation, since a small number of large ears is easier to collect than a large number of small ones. Accordingly, proto-farmers would have been more likely to gather ears from plants with this mutation. By sowing their kernels as seeds, humans propagated another mutation that resulted in an inferior plant, but a superior food.

The ears, being closer to the ground, end up closer to the nutrient supply and can potentially grow much larger. Once again, human selection guided this process. As proto-farmers gathered ears of proto-maize, they would have given preference to plants with larger ears; and kernels from those ears would then have been used as seeds. In this way, mutations that resulted in larger ears with more kernels were propagated, so that the ears grew larger from one generation to the next and became corn cobs. This can clearly be seen in the archaeological record: At one cave in Mexico, a sequence of cobs has been found, increasing in length from a half inch to eight inches long. Again, the very trait that made maize attractive to humans made it less viable in the wild. A plant with a large ear cannot propagate itself from one year to the next, because when the ear falls to the ground and the kernels sprout, the close proximity of so many kernels competing for the nutrients in the soil prevents any of them from growing. For the plant to grow, the kernels must be manually separated from the cob and planted a sufficient distance apart—something only humans can do. As maize ears grew larger, in short, the plant ended up being entirely dependent on humans for its continued existence.

What started off as an unwitting process of selection eventually became deliberate, as early farmers began to propagate desirable traits on purpose. By transferring pollen from the tassel of one plant to the silks of another, it was possible to create new varieties that combined the attributes of their parents. These new varieties had to be kept away from other varieties to prevent the loss of desirable traits. Genetic analysis suggests that one particular type of teosinte, called Balsas teosinte, is most likely to have been the progenitor of maize. Further analysis of regional varieties of Balsas teosinte suggests that maize was originally domesticated in central Mexico, where the modern-day states of Guerrero, México, and Michoacán meet. From here, maize spread and became a staple food for peoples throughout the Americas: the Aztecs and Maya of Mexico, the Incas of Peru, and many other tribes and cultures throughout North, South, and Central America.

But maize could only become a dietary mainstay with the help of a further technological twist, since it is deficient in the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, and the vitamin niacin, which are essential elements of a healthy human diet. When maize was merely one foodstuff among many these deficiencies did not matter, since other foods, such as beans and squash, made up for them. But a maize-heavy diet results in pellagra, a nutritional disease characterized by nausea, rough skin, sensitivity to light, and dementia. (Light sensitivity due to pellagra is thought to account for the origin of European vampire myths, following the introduction of maize into European diets in the eighteenth century.) Fortunately, maize can be rendered safe by treating it with calcium hydroxide, in the form of ash from burnt wood or crushed shells, which is either added directly to the cooking pot, or mixed with water to create an alkaline solution in which the maize is left to soak overnight. This has the effect of softening the kernels and making them easier to prepare, which probably explains the origin of the practice. More importantly but less visibly, it also liberates amino acids and niacin, which exist in maize in an inaccessible or bound form called niacytin. The resulting processed kernels were called nixtamal by the Aztecs, so that the process is known today as nixtamalization. This practice seems to have been developed as early as 1500 B.C.; without it, the great maize-based cultures of the Americas could never have been established.

All of this demonstrates that maize is not a naturally occurring food at all. Its development has been described by one modern scientist as the most impressive feat of domestication and genetic modification ever undertaken. It is a complex technology, developed by humans over successive generations to the point where maize was ultimately incapable of surviving on its own in the wild, but could deliver enough food to sustain entire civilizations.


Maize is merely one of the most extreme examples. The world’s two other major staples, which went on to underpin civilization in the Near East and Asia respectively, are wheat and rice. They too are the results of human selective processes that propagated desirable mutations to create more convenient and abundant foodstuffs. Like maize, both wheat and rice are cereal grains, and the key difference between their wild and domesticated forms is that domesticated varieties are shatterproof. The grains are attached to a central axis known as the rachis. As the wild grains ripen the rachis becomes brittle, so that when touched or blown by the wind it shatters, scattering the grains as seeds. This makes sense from the plant’s perspective, since it ensures that the grains are only dispersed once they have ripened. But it is very inconvenient from the point of view of humans who wish to gather them.

In a small proportion of plants, however, a single genetic mutation means the rachis does not become brittle, even when the seeds ripen. This is called a tough rachis. This mutation is undesirable for the plants in question, since they are unable to disperse their seeds. But it is very helpful for humans gathering wild grains, who are likely to gather a disproportionate number of tough-rachis mutants as a result. If some of the grains are then planted to produce a crop the following year, the tough-rachis mutation will be propagated, and every year the proportion of tough-rachis mutants will increase. Archaeologists have demonstrated in field experiments with wheat that this is exactly what happens. They estimate that plants with tough, shatterproof rachises would become predominant within about two hundred years—which is roughly how long the domestication of wheat seems to have taken, according to the archaeological record. (In maize, the cob is in fact a gigantic shatterproof rachis.)

As with maize, proto-farmers selected for other desirable characteristics in wheat, rice, and other cereals during the process of domestication. A mutation in wheat causes the hard glumes that cover each grain to separate more easily, resulting in self-threshing varieties. The individual grains are less well protected as a result, so this mutation is bad news in the wild. But it is helpful to human farmers, since it makes it easier to separate the edible grains after beating sheaves of cut wheat on a stone threshing floor. When grains were being plucked from the floor, small grains and those with glumes still attached would have been passed over in favor of larger ones without glumes. This helped to propagate these helpful mutations.

Another trait common to many domesticated crops is the loss of seed dormancy, the natural timing mechanism that determines when a seed germinates. Many seeds require specific stimuli, such as cold or light, before they will start growing, to ensure that they only germinate under favorable circumstances. Seeds that remain dormant until after a cold spell, for example, will not germinate in the autumn, but will wait until after the winter has passed. Human farmers would often like seeds to start growing as soon as they are planted, however. Given a collection of seeds, some of which exhibit seed dormancy and some of which do not, it is clear that those that start growing right away stand a better chance of being gathered and thus forming the basis of the next crop. So any mutations that suppress seed dormancy will tend to be propagated.

Similarly, wild cereals germinate and ripen at different times. This ensures that whatever the pattern of rainfall, at least some of the grains will mature to provide seeds for the following year. Harvesting an entire field of grain on the same day, however, favors grains that are almost ripe at the time. Grains that are over-ripe or under-ripe will be less viable if sown as seeds the following year. The effect is to reduce the variation in ripening time from one year to the next, so that eventually the entire field ripens at the same time. This is bad from the plant’s point of view, since it means the entire crop can potentially fail. But it is far more convenient for human farmers.

In the case of rice,

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  • (5/5)
     This is the last book I received from my Secret Santa last year. I lost track of it and just finished it today. This is a really wonderful book. I learned so much about food and its importance throughout history. The impact of food production or lack thereof has had enormous consequences globally. I also learned about the Svalbard global seed storage facility, which Id heard of but didn't know much about. This book has impacted my worldview considerably in an unexpected way.
  • (3/5)
    The first half of the book engaged me much more than the second half, primarily because the first half really did focus on...well, food. Specifically the development of grain-based agriculture highlighting those three staples, wheat, rice and corn, which influenced, and perhaps allowed, modern civilization to develop and flourish. Standage followed this up with equally engaging history of spices, and eventually the foods that became dominant after the "discovery" of the New World. Had the book continued along this vein, it would have been a satisfying and exceptional read.However, instead Standage takes a "right" turn (metaphorically and politically) in which it becomes very clear that he's a spokesman for artificial agriculture--particularly the fertilizer industry. He remains blind to the problems of capitalism's brain-child agri-business as he rampages through all the harm communism caused on China and the Soviet Union--all while ignoring communal/collective farming successes in nations such as Israel, Cuba, parts of Mexico and South America, the Baltics, many former Soviet bloc nations, and India to name some. There are very clear problems faced in the developing world as a result of WTO, the World Bank and policies enacted by western powers that keep the third world from adequately feeding itself. It isn't just a matter of using more inorganic fertilizer to raise yields. It's a matter of political structures that have been erected to keep third world nations trapped in monocultures--much like the banana republics. His starry-eyed acceptance that western-oriented globalization-friendly institutions such as the WTO are simply trying to improve the lives of everyone is both naive and ignorant of the very real struggles many developing countries, particularly in Africa and SE Asia, have experienced as a result of un-democratically policies levied upon such nations. In addition to his plug for artificial fertilizers as somehow the magic bullet to solve the world's hunger needs, he seems convinced that the world is better off because of such inventions than it would have been otherwise--as "proof" he flagrantly ignores the fact that over half of the world's population does not have enough food to meet their daily caloric requirements. Indeed, he proffers that much of the world is well-fed as a result of higher yields in agriculture due to hybridization and artificial fertilizers. This is simply un-true. Standage by-passes yet another set of research indicating the inherit problems with using artificial fertilizers and pesticides in the long-term: More and more needs to be used to re-nutrient drained soils, pests adapt to the pesticides, and hybrids depend more on both in order to survive. This vicious cycle of co-dependency is already weakening the western world's ability to produce healthy crops and prevent soil damage, something only a brief amount of research reveals. In another political swipe, Standage takes a critical stance against the slow food and organic food movements as somehow suspect and regressive--all while ignoring the very real research that has demonstrated the disastrous effects his "pet" green revolution has had worldwide. [Sure he waves a reluctant arm at this toward the end of the book, but the tone is more apologetic than analysis.] The various health problems that are only now surfacing as a result of using pesticides and artificial fertilizers are causing many to re-think the cost of using them.Had Standage stuck with the food products themselves rather than wandering off into a socio-political landscape he seems ill-equipped to view clearly, this book would have been remarkable.
  • (4/5)
    This small but comprehensive book covers many topics that belong together but are often separated - history, botany, anthropology, politics, ginger, and more. Tom Standage is an editor at The Economist, and I hope that encourages many business and public leaders to read his words. Whether you agree with the author's point of view or his conclusions, he surely demonstrates the power of food policy to influence all our lives. There is much here worth knowing. It is an easy route into a complex and important topic.
  • (3/5)
    This is a very readable introduction to the history of agriculture and food. It is very broad, starting with hunter-gatherer societies and concluding with the present day trend towards local and organic foods. While there is not a great deal of depth in any topic, he does cover quite a bit of ground, and dispels a number of myths (like the early use of spices to cover spoiled meat). There is a very complete bibliography in the back, but they aren't cited in the text, so it's difficult to know where some of the arguments come from. Overall it's a quick and easy read.
  • (5/5)
    Standage takes the long history of human interaction with food and compiles it into an entertaining book. Just as he followed our human history through our beverage choices in A History of the World in 6 Glasses (another personal favorite), he takes major food trends like farming, the spice trade and industrialization, then weaves the history and results around it. He examines how we have co-evolved with the crops we have farmed, how globalization is thousands of years older than the net because of spices, and that the importance of food has made transportation and technology grow rapidly.This is an excellent book for those interested in human culture and evolution who may not have a strong background in anthropology or biology (and for those who do, it's an entertaining, easy read).
  • (3/5)
    This book is a hybrid between a food and history book, just like the title indicates. It gives a great introduction to especially pre-medieval and medieval times and how they affected crops, spices and agriculture in Europe, and later in America. The writing is clear, but sometimes the food gets lost among all the other history. I had wished to see more talk about agriculture, botany, and cooking cultures, and less about religious practices, policies and general history (in the past and today). To me it seemed the author was not really interested in food and spices in detail, only how they affected other things in history. I am interested in the actual plants as well, but there was very little details on this. There are also osom large misunderstandings on how evolution and artificial and natural selection works in some parts of the book. A plant that has been bread into a single inbred pure line cannot easily revert back to its wild state, even if the author thinks so. It can only do this if it can cross with other plants of the same species that have the original variation still in them. By making such a mistake the author shows that he has not understood basic biology, biodiversity, breeding, and also the problems with monocultures. It is not a book I would give to a real foodie or biologist, only to a historian or someone that want to have a first look at the subject of food in history (and for those it might be too shallow as well). I also agree with other reviewers that the authors political views and overoptimistic view on industrial revolutions, and coming famine due to overpopulation and global warming make me not trust his fact-checking in other areas.
  • (4/5)
    Very concise and well written account of how the cultivation of crops has guided the development of civilization. I had a passing knowledge of some of what is covered, but many details are new to me and several theses are intriguing. For example, the idea that the original development of crop cultivation was nutritionally bad for people hadn't occurred to me, but the arguments for this are well made and convince me. The chapter on the use of food as a weapon is most interesting. This will be a text in a college course; it is not light reading, but is well worth the effort.
  • (4/5)
    I love Tom Standage's books. He and Mark Kurlansky are my two favorite writers of food histories. In this book, Standage writes about food as a weapon, as a catalyst for cultural change, and as a turning point for global population. It's quite fascinating. I knew nothing about Soviet and Chinese collective farming experiments. I'd never heard of the Great Leap Forward. Jesus Christ that was horrible. Incomprehensibly horrible. The last part of the book is on the Green Revolution, and on current problems facing the world's food supply. The whole thing is wonderfully written. Definitely recommended.
  • (4/5)
    An interesting perspective on how food shaped history and how historical events shaped the world. Given the current (2014-2015) events in the Middle East, I found Chapter 5 on the spice trade fascinating.
  • (4/5)
    Standage looks at food from a geopolitical, anthropological and ethical point of view. The book is mainly about how food and agriculture have changed and keep changing history and development of humankind.I didn’t find absolutely everything of interest to me there- for example, I have read about spices and their role in the progress of mankind a countless number of times by now. But there was enough other information to make it for a worthwhile read.Here are some tidbits of what I found interesting.Standage stands on middle ground between organic fundamentalism and blind faith in biotechnology. He deftly overthrows a few myths about organic food unspoiled by civilization by pointing out that no crops are ‘unengineered’ or organic anymore and have not been since the beginnings of agriculture. The varieties of plants we eat today are very different and very remote from the plants they originated from. Almost none of the foods we eat today can really be described as natural. Carrots, for example, used to come in white or purple. The sweeter orange variety that we eat nowadays was created by Dutch horticulturalists in the 16th century. Grains we eat today were simple grasses with potential. By the same token, the varieties if rice and wheat we eat today differ significantly from the varieties people ate at the beginning of the last century.When fertilizers were introduced after the First World War, grains started to grow lanky and tall and kept folding over themselves. So new short stalk, big seadhead, disease resistant varieties were widely introduced. Nowadays, 100% rice harvested in China and 74% of it in Asia overall, and 90% of wheat in Latin America and 86% in Asia are of the new varieties, and cereal yields in those countries have grown faster than the population. There has been an effort to preserve the seeds of traditional varieties of plants around the world, and Norway built a global seed depository- Svalbard Global Seed Vault seven hundred miles from the North Pole to house them. The need for such a facility became pressing after various wars destroyed national seed banks in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and with them ancient varieties of fruits and cereals forever.An obscure maize grass and other grains we eat nowadays managed to ‘domesticate’ man by making him adopt a new sedentary lifestyle. Funnily enough, the hunter-gatherers were taller and healthier and agriculture initially made man malnutritioned, shorter and more prone to degenerative diseases like arthritis, but allowed him to reproduce much more. The hunter-gatherers were healthier but not so numerous. It’s agriculture that led to the population explosion, and it will be the global industrialization that most probably will put a stop to it. The main reason for that is that when a society makes a transition from an agricultural to an industrial state the average wealth of that society increases and the population growth declines. Standage also discusses the new trend of trying to produce everything locally and says that it only makes so much sense. The carbon footprint is actually smaller when crops are produced in conditions suitable for them climatically, so it’s cheaper and less exhaustive for the environment to grow oranges in Egypt and potatoes on Prince Edward Island, for example. In fact, lambs reared in England have a bigger carbon footprint than those imported to England from New Zealand, transportation included. The same goes for biofuel- even though it’s well intentioned, it’s a bad idea according to Standage. He also makes interesting observations about food used as a political weapon. Notably, he discusses Berlin blockade and food airdrops among others, and notices after Amartya Sen, an Indian economist who won a Nobel prize in Economics in 1998, that the combination of democracy and free press make famines much less likely to occur. The worst famines in history happened in communist and dictatorial states- China, the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Somalia, and many dictators have blackmailed their countries’ populations with food.
  • (4/5)
    Tom Standage’s AN EDIBLE HISTORY OF HUMANITY is exactly that--it is a digestible broad account of humanity through the scope of food. The book is broken up into sections that explain how time and again food changed the face of humanity. For example food is credited with civilization, exploration, and industrialization. Since humans have to eat, this book not only explores the evolution of food, but also how food helped evolve culture. Standage is particularly apt at explaining terms, and theories so the book is an informative introduction to beginning food historians. He’s also included some helpful illustrations, charts and photos. The writing tends toward academic, and the breadth of tens of thousands of years of human consumption leaves little room for detailing more than a few examples. He does take some under substantiated leaps in his theories, but the man managed to condense the known history of food into just over 270 pages. This book does compactly explain everything one should know about food history, so if you think Maize is a natural wonder or need to brush up on your facts about the effects of fertilization, definitely pick this up.
  • (3/5)
    Tom Standage is a good writer. His prose is easy to follow and fun to read. Unfortunately his book, An Edible History of Humanity, fails as a history of food. In fact it is more a collection of disconnected essays that ramble between the first chapters look at food through the Portuguese militarization of trade in the Indian Ocean to a hundred year overview of military logistics to technological advances in fertilizer and munitions manufacture. Anyone expecting to learn about the history of food, what foods were available to people in various times and places, will be very disappointed in this work. I cannot fault Mr. Standage’s history. I simply do not know anything about the Portuguese establishing trade with India of early twentieth century European technology. His facts generally agree with what I know about Sherman’s campaign in the American Civil War except for the normal Euro-centric assertions about who freed the African Americans where Sherman’s army passed. Historians see the past through their own eyes therefore some bias is to be expected. However early in the book, after explaining that hunter / gathers only spent a few hours each day in the work of gathering food, that they were healthier and lived longer than early farmers, and that their Neolithic socialism allowed them many hours for leisure activity he felt compelled to point out that this socialist lifestyle was bad. His statement would have carried more weight if he had provided reasons that it was bad. There are in fact several arguments that could be made to that effect but perhaps he felt that drawing a positive picture of a socialist society endangered his position as business editor at the Economist. I am not sure if the books worst failings are a result of this bias or just a failure to understand the subject he is writing about. Mr. Standage states that a sport, a spontaneous genetic mutation such as the one that resulted in some daylilies to have more petals in their flowers than other daylilies, is no different than genetic tampering, moving genetic material from bacteria into plants. He dismisses the organic farming movement as “rich people trying to emulate the lifestyles of the rural poor”. Later he praises the use of biological pest controls and the preservation of the genetic diversity of our food crops, ideas championed originally by the organic farming movement. If you are interested in learning the history of food pass this book by and keep looking. If you are interested in reading another sermon extolling the Gospel of Adam Smith this book is for you.
  • (4/5)
    Throughout history, food has had a huge impact on civilization as a catalyst of social change, political organization, military, and economic expansion. An Edible History of Humanity is a spectacular book of how a series of changes, caused by the influence of food, has helped to shape societies around the world today.Tom Standage is the business editor at the Economist and the author of 5 different books and many different newspaper and magazine articles. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of how food can literally change the minds of the world. Not explaining how food tastes, but how food really inspires and impacts the worlds mindset from hunter-gatherer to agriculture and farming.
  • (3/5)
    Summary: In An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage looks at how food - its acquisition, distribution, and use - has shaped the course of our civilization's history. On the one hand, food's role in history might seem obvious; because, of course, every action made by every person who fills every history book was fueled by food. But on the other hand, innovations in food technology - for instance, the adoption of agriculture, the desire for exotic spices from faraway lands, the process of preserving food by canning, or the invention of chemical fertilizers - have had far-reaching (and often surprising) effects on the path that our culture has traveled.Review: I suspected, when I requested this book, that it had about a 40% chance of annoying me. I feared, when I received it, checked the "Sources" list at the back, and saw nary a mention of Daniel Quinn, that it had a 95% chance of frustrating the heck out of me. And, when, after twenty five pages, I'd nearly filled the slip of paper that I was using as a bookmark with notes-to-self complete with multiple overly-emphatic exclamation points, I knew that it was probably going to continue to be problematic for the next 250 pages.(A side note about Daniel Quinn: Even though he's one of my absolute favorite authors, I don't talk much about his books, because when I do, I've noticed that people have a tendency to start looking at me like I just asked them to shave their eyebrows and join my nifty new cult. Suffice it to say, his novels - particularly The Story of B - are the books that have most influenced the way I think about humanity, and about our place in the world. They also have some very astute things to say about a) early history and the adoption of agriculture, and b) overpopulation, and it's impossible for me to read a book that deals as intimately with these topics as An Edible History of Humanity does and not compare the two.)Let me see if I can sum up my issues with this book. Tom Standage is clearly an intelligent and well-informed guy who did a lot of research for this book. My frustration comes from the fact that although he's got his facts right, his conclusions so frequently seem to be off base.To put it another way: Standage needs to spend less time hanging around with economists, and more time hanging around with ecologists. There is one glaring omission that bothered me throughout his book, and that is that he doesn't seem to get the fundamental connection between food production and population growth. To quote from Daniel Quinn's Ishmael (which is in turn quoting from Peter Farb's Humankind): "Intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a still greater increase in population." Or, to put it into an ecologist's terms, increasing the carrying capacity of an environment will lead to a proportional increase in population.I would bet that Tom Standage knows this. What he doesn't seem to believe, however, is that it applies to humans just as much as it applies to lynxes and snowshoe hares. If there is more food available, there will soon be more individuals around to eat it. Full stop. This is a law of ecology in the same way that gravity is a law of physics, and humans don't get an exemption to this law just because we're so darn clever - and that's the part of the equation that's missing from Standage's reasoning. To give a concrete example from the book:"With hindsight, of course, we can appreciate the irony that Malthus pointed out the biological constrains on population and economic growth [i.e. that population has the power to grow exponentially while food production can only grow arithmetically, leading a population to soon outstrip its power to feed itself] just at the moment when Britain was about to demonstrate, for the first time in human history, that they no longer applied....Yet Britain did not hit the ecological wall that Malthus anticipated. Instead, it vaulted over it and broke free of the constraints of the "biological old regime" in which everything was derived from the produce of the land. Rather than growing most of its own food, Britain concentrated on manufacturing industrial goods, notably cotton textiles, which could then be traded for food from overseas. During the nineteenth century the population more than tripled, but the economy grew faster still, so that the average standard of living increased - an outcome that would have astonished Malthus."See what I mean? Right facts, wrong conclusions, and humans somehow exempting themselves from the laws of biology. The nineteenth century British didn't defy the laws of ecology for the same reason that lining up a bunch of paperclips doesn't violate the second law of thermodynamics: neither is a closed system. By importing food, the British effectively increased the carrying capacity of their environment, and their population responded exactly as the laws of ecology predict.Similarly, Standage doesn't seem to believe that overpopulation is a problem. He believes that as industrialization occurs, food production can go up while the population simultaneously goes down. And maybe I am not well enough versed in the economic theory of demographic transition, but to me, this sounds fantastically implausible. Even if it's true, I think the human population is already over the global sustainable carrying capacity, and that there simply aren't enough natural resources to maintain seven billion of us indefinitely, especially at a rate of consumption equal to that of current industrialized nations.There are other, smaller problems I had with other parts of the book - a tendency towards over-generalization, for one. Most of his statements about the hunter-gatherer lifestyle seem based on a single ethnography (Richard Lee's seminal work on the !Kung), ignoring the broad diversity in social structuring that can be found in other tribal peoples. He also makes the occasional statement like "'s inherent tendencies toward hierarchical organization (clearly visible in apes and many other animal species)..." that are at best based on selective use of the evidence, and at worst totally wrong. And I could write a whole separate essay about his interpretations of the adoption of early agriculture and the beginnings of "civilization", but this is already getting long.To be fair, there were parts of the book that I quite enjoyed. Everything from about 400 BCE to about 1800 CE was fine - the section on how the spice trade drove exploration and shaped the modern world was a fascinating look at history, and was full of interesting facts. For instance, did you know that under the original definition of "spice" (etymologically related to "species", or "kinds"), tigers counted as a spice? (Spices were things on a list of luxury items that were subject to a heavy import tax in the Roman Empire.) Similarly, his look at how the problem of provisioning troops during wartime shaped the outcome of most major world conflicts was also interesting and well done.Ultimately, though, I have to look at this book from a biologist's point of view, and on that scale, it was a disappointment. It's an interesting (and relevant!) way to look at history, and there's plenty of good information here, but I don't agree with many of Standage's conclusions, and hate to think that his opinions will be taken as fact by many readers of this book. 2.5 out of 5 stars.Recommendation: Fans of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel or Michael Pollan's books will probably find this book interesting, as will anyone with a general interest in anthropology, economics, or history writ large. Just promise me you won't read this one until you've picked up Daniel Quinn's A Story of B first, okay?
  • (4/5)
    I'm a buy organic, eat local kind of person. I'm not the crazy kind, but I do make an effort. I liked this book because it examines those (and and lots of other) values within a global and historical context. Standage makes some interesting points about the value of chemical fertilizers, global food trade, and hybrid or even genetically modified crops. Agriculture is a complex issue, and he succeeds in making a case for open-mindedness about non-touchy-feely methods of production.The book examines human history in the context of food, journeying from our start as hunter-gathers to present day concerns. Standage pays particular attention to domestication of crops and animals, the spice trade, industrialization, and war. He makes some great points and I definitely learned some new things (the picture of wild maize next to domesticated maize blew my mind). My biggest complaint was the lack of citations within the text. I'm not sure if it's because I'm in grad school, because of my natural skepticism, or because I'm not a big non-fiction reader, but I felt like this was a huge flaw. It reminded me of being sucked into a late night debate with a particularly well-read friend. He is very persuasive, but his arguments are impossible to prove or disprove, because there is no source. There is a comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book, but it lacks specific textual tie-ins. And I'm not the sort of person who wants to go tracking all of those resources down.All in all, excellent food for thought, but not a new manifesto.
  • (4/5)
    This book traces the effect of food in history, emphasizing its importance and history-changing role. The book started a bit dull, talking about myths and primitive beliefs but soon became more informative and is filled with interesting facts about how food has influenced events. In its concluding chapter the author, business editor of The Economist, indicates that world population in 2075 will peak at 9.2 billion and will then go down--a less dire finding than some neo-Malthusians foresee. There are no footnotes, and source notes would have been better if they had been more specific so one could check the author's statements and conclusions more readily
  • (3/5)
    Indeholder "Introduction, Ingredients of the past", "Part I, The Edible Foundations of Civilization", "Part II, Food and Social Structure", "Part III, Global Highways of Food", "Part IV, Food, Energy and Industrialization", "Part V, Food as a Weapon", "Part VI, Food, Population and Development", "Epilog, Ingredients of the Future", "Acknowledgements", "Notes", "Sources", "Index".Part I dækker "I. The Invention of Farming", "2. The Roots of Modernity".Part II dækker "3. Food, Wealth, and Power", "4. Follow the Food".Part III dækker "5. Splinters of Paradise", "6. Seeds of Empire".Part IV dækker "7. New World, New Foods", "8. The Steam Engine and the Potato".Part V dækker "9. The Fuel of War", "10. Food Fight".Part VI dækker "11. Feeding the World", "12. Paradoxes of Plenty".Bogen fortæller hvordan vores fødevarer er højteknologi, der har været under udvikling i tusinder af år. Udvælgelse giver kornsorter, der kan gro flere steder, er nemmere at høste og modner samtidigt.Den første majsplante, teosint, havde måske 15 korn på hver "kolbe". Udvalgte mutationer har nu givet os en majs, hvor nogle færre, men meget store kolber indeholder meget mere næring, som også er meget nemmere at komme til.Udviklingen af landbrug var dyrt - fra en gennemsnitslevealder på 26 år til 19 år, men det kan brødføde mange flere. Specialisering betyder at fagfolk som bagere og tømrere er nødvendige. Småsamfund styret af "en stærk mand". Krydderier og handelen med dem. Den sorte død. Opdagelsesrejserne.Krydderier startede med at være sjældne og dyre, men endte med at blive almindelige og billige og så kunne indtægterne fra handelen ikke dække omkostningerne til militær undertrykkelse af de lokale dyrkere.Begrebet 'food miles' indføres, men fx kartofler bruger det meste af energien ved tilberedning og ikke ved transport. I kolonitiden blev planter udvekslet på kryds og tværs og fx sukkerrør blev eksporteret til Amerika og majs til Europa.Dette kaldes 'The Colombian Exchange' og det starter omgående dvs allerede i 1493. Trekanthandelen med sukker, tekstil og slaver går hurtigt i gang og en betydelig del af Englands næringsbehov dækkes af importeret sukker.I 1800 spekulerer Malthus over hvad en feslslagen kartoffelhøst vil betyde og i 1845 rammes Europa af kartoffelpest og over en million irere dør af sult og sygdom. En anden million tager til USA. Allerede i 1865 er der folk der spekulerer over hvor dumt det er at basere sig på billig kul.I krig bruger man en 4-dages regel: Man kan ikke ernære en hær ved at hente mad mere end 4 dage væk, for et lastdyr kan ikke bære foder til mere end fire dages egenforbrug. Alexander den Store havde styr på logistik og romerne lærte meget af dette og udbyggede vejnet og havne, så forsyninger pr skib var nemme at få frem. Sherman raserede sydstaternes spisekammer og tvang dem til overgivelse. Ammoniaksyntesen som svaret på Malthus. Den grønne revolution, fødevarekrisen, økologi, døde områder i havet.Tankevækkende, men uden noget særligt nyt.
  • (4/5)
    Well researched book that was easy to read but made you think about the food we eat and the influence it has had on our history.
  • (5/5)
    Both entertaining and enlightening. Explores how food affected culture, population growth and key events in history from hunter & gathers, till now. He does not pass judgment. After reading this book I see the reason for the fall of communism, Christopher Columbus, Napoleon Bonaparte, hunter and gathers vs. farmers and much more in a whole new way. He even sheds light on our current food situation.
  • (5/5)
    In this highly informative and interesting book, Tom Standage chronicles the evolution of food, explaining how humanity's first meals were hunted and gathered by people who literally lived off the land and how a shift towards farming and a development of agriculture prompted the first civilizations to be built. As people and cultures evolved, so did food's place in society, and as Standgae relates, food became, by turns, a power to exploit, a wealth to hoard, and a very special focus of politics. From the spice trade to the special cultivation of seeds that will miraculously survive disease and drought, Standage gives us the history of food as it relates to the history of people, societies, and governments in an engaging and interesting buffet that will delight and titillate even the most quaint appetite.The sheer amount of information in this book was very impressive. Standgae has a way of making all of these minute bits of information not only interesting, but important. Far from being a weighty and dry tome, this book had me involved and curious from the very first pages. The information provided is obscure yet relevant in today's society, where it seems that everything of consequence is minutely examined; after reading this book, I came to see that food is of much greater consequence then I had previously thought.I really enjoyed the sections that dealt with the propagation of special seeds that were basically engineered to maximize the growth and nutritional output of the various crops. Standage explains how just a small strip of a plant called teosinte was eventually bred into the corn that we now find in the supermarket, and how wheat was altered to be shorter, stronger and more easily harvested. Other chapters dealt with how transporting food across the ocean actually made great strides in spreading Islam beyond it's traditional boundaries, and how the rise of industrialization both in food production and in other sectors changed our history, particularly in Europe.I was constantly amazed by this book because the information was so varied and there was so much more than just food encapsulated within these pages. From the topic of food logistics during war to a special section called "Food As a Weapon," Standage imparts his wisdom like a particularly friendly and engaging professor. I found the book to be very conversational, and though the information presented was academic most of the time, I didn't feel that the author was making his explanations impenetrable with concepts or topics that the average reader could not understand. I don't even think that one needs to have a background in history to appreciate or understand this book because Standage does a great job of filling in the gaps about what was going on in the various sectors of the world during the time frames he is examining.This book doesn't really talk about food a a gustatory experience: you won't find recipes or tales of exotic meals. What you will find is the progression of food from an object of sustenance to an object of power, and onwards towards its scientific manipulation and use as a precursor of both population explosion and decline. You will find out why the Aztecs began to sacrifice food to their gods in favor of people, and why a small chemical reaction dramatically changed the way food was grown. You will find out how food was preserved throughout history (one of my favorite sections, I have to say), and how food had direct responsibility for the slave trade. This book provides the answers and explanations for many of the food questions that you may have never even thought about, and gives an accurate and flavorful account of just how and why things end up on our plate.I am not normally a reader of non-fiction, and although this book wasn't exactly what I expected, I found it totally absorbing. Once again, I followed my husband about the house reading quotes and passages to him, which is something I only do when a book has me completely hooked. I liked the fact that the author was very direct and didn't meander, and that all his facts were so relevant towards today's food-conscious mindset. I think that this would be a great read for anyone who has even a modicum of curiosity about food, or if you are fond of non-fiction that is extremely well written. An excellent book that I am sure will enable some excellent conversations. Highly recommended.
  • (4/5)
    A well-written history of mankind and agriculture and how each has influenced the other. This is not a scholarly account, but one written for the general reader, so is short on citations, although it does have a nice bibliography. Standage's account is most interesting when he discusses the pre-Columbian and immediately post-Columbian world, least interesting when he wades into modern day food policy. He clearly has little understanding of the local food movement (he seems to think the entire movement is comprised of people who won't eat ANYTHING from outside their immediate vicinity, when this is a minority of localvores). All in all, worth a read, but only if the topic is very new to you. If it interests you, dip into some of the works in his bibliography.
  • (4/5)
    A Edible History of Humanity looks at the impact of food on the history of mankind starting with the impact of agriculture, and continuing with how the search for spices changed the medieval world, how new world foods and improved yields fueled the industrial revolution, the role of food in war, and the impact of the green revolution. While some of this history may be common knowledge, there were many intriguing insights and I was particularly surprised that its prognosis for the future was much more positive than most sociological, anthropological books. I heartily recommend the book.
  • (4/5)
    At first I thought this would be a boring "history" book, one that just rehashes everything I learned in school. Much to my shock and enjoyment it was a pretty good book. This book goes back to the very first humans and shows how food has shaped our future. From being hunter-gathers to present day humans it's amazing, and obvious, how food allowed us to make those important changes. Standage even gives some ideas on how food may shape our future. There was so much information that while not necessarily useful, was at least interesting. I never really thought about the role that food had played in our history, but after reading this book I thought to myself, "How could I not have recognized that important link?" I think food isn't at the forefront of history because it is something that we take for granted. Even when learning of times when food was rationed by different countries throughout history I never realized the role that food played in the political and cultural climates. The writing style was also nice. It wasn't mundane to read, the information was presented with a very nice flow. It wasn't an exciting book, and it wasn't one that I became captivated by, but it was enjoyable. If nothing else the knowledge I gained was worth the read. It was very interesting and I would definitely recommend it.