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Gale Group
An Edible History of Humanity

An Edible History of Humanity

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

More than simply sustenance, food historically has been a kind of technology, changing the course of human progress by helping to build empires, promote industrialization, and decide the outcomes of wars. Tom Standage draws on archaeology, anthropology, and economics to reveal how food has helped shape and transform societies around the world, from the emergence of farming in China by 7500 b.c. to the use of sugar cane and corn to make ethanol today. An Edible History of Humanity is a fully satisfying account of human history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781410418500
Publisher: Gale Group
Publication date: 08/19/2009
Edition description: Large Print
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Tom Standage is business editor at The Economist magazine and the author of four works of history, including A History of the World in 6 Glasses and The Victorian Internet. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, Wired, and other publications. He is married and has two children.

Read an Excerpt



Walker & Company

Copyright © 2009 Tom Standage
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1588-3

Chapter One


* * *

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

Foods as Technologies

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 yearsago 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.

The Man-Made Nature of Maize

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 nonmutants, 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.)

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.

Cereal Innovation

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, human intervention helped to propagate desirable properties such as taller and larger plants to aid harvesting, and more secondary branches and larger grains to increase yield. But domestication also made wheat and rice more dependent on human intervention. Rice lost its natural ability to survive in flood waters, for example, as it was pampered by human farmers. And both wheat and rice were less able to reproduce by themselves because of the human-selected shatterproof rachis. The domestication of wheat, rice, and maize, the three main cereal grains, and of their lesser siblings barley, rye, oats, and millet, were all variations on the same familiar genetic theme: more convenient food, less resilient plant.

The same trade-off occurred as humans domesticated animals for the purpose of providing food, starting with sheep and goats in the Near East around 8000 B.C. and followed by cattle and pigs soon afterward. (Pigs were independently domesticated in China at roughly the same time, and the chicken was domesticated in southeast Asia around 6000 B.C.) Most domesticated animals have smaller brains and less acute eyesight and hearing than their wild ancestors. This reduces their ability to survive in the wild but makes them more docile, which suits human farmers.


Excerpted from An EDIBLE HISTORY of HUMANITY by TOM STANDAGE Copyright © 2009 by Tom Standage. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION Ingredients of the Past....................ix
PART I The Edible Foundations of Civilization 1 The Invention of Farming....................3
2 The Roots of Modernity....................16
PART II Food and Social Structure 3 Food, Wealth, and Power....................31
4 Follow the Food....................48
PART III Global Highways of Food 5 Splinters of Paradise....................63
6 Seeds of Empire....................85
PART IV Food, Energy, and Industrialization 7 New World, New Foods....................107
8 The Steam Engine and the Potato....................129
PART V Food as a Weapon 9 The Fuel of War....................145
10 Food Fight....................171
PART VI Food, Population, and Development 11 Feeding the World....................199
12 Paradoxes of Plenty....................221
EPILOGUE Ingredients of the Future....................238

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An Edible History of Humanity 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 56 reviews.
Jennmarie68 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have learned so much by reading this book, and others similar. This author does such a wonderful job of explaining the impact of how food, core crops in particular, has changed the whole history of mankind. Critical timely developments are presented from around the world, and are presented in easy to follow timelines. Not a recipe book by any means, but in some ways more important.
mryoda More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. Very topical and insightful. The beginning and the end of the book were especially relative to the positive and negative aspects of food. I agree with other reviewers and historians that there are other things besides diplomacy and war that shape history and, I believe, that Standage's thesis and ideas are very sound and relative to today.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AP World History Review: Brilliantly Unconventional This book begins with an unconventional view of "genetically modified" crops, and continues in kind for the duration of the book. Standage does a brilliant job analyzing the food we eat and how it affects the world. The book provides an escape from the realm of conventional history by analyzing one aspect of life, and showing it's development since the beginning of history.  I would recommend this book to those who desire a new way of thinking and who want to be challenged as it provides a very "outside-the-box" view of history.  His perspective of history, and style of writing provide keep this book unpredictable and intriguing through and through
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my second book from Tom Standage. After reading "A History of the World in 6 Glasses" I knew more or less what to expect. And indeed I was not disappointed. The book shows how human history was influenced by food (being anything from wheat to spices) and human race has changed the nature. And we're not talking about recent few hundred years, but a process that is taking place for last few millennia - see history of maize. The facts are well balanced, I got an impression author tries to show the process itself rather than judge it good or bad. If anything, this book shows the complexity of relationship between food, humans and the rest of the nature. As one of the reviewers said, the book makes you go "Oh... How come I did not realize that?". Very interesting reading and very well told.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book and its interesting take on how food affected history. I would have rated it higher, but the book had so many misspellings, words broken in strange and random places, unindented paragraphs and other errors that should have been taken care of before publication, that I can only conclude that the e-book edition had absolutely no proofreading done to it. It's a shame that an otherwise worthwile book is spoiled by shoddy publishing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You'll never look at corn the same; interesting fact book about the food in your kitchem
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fun look at historical events from the perspective man's pursuit of food and how it played a role in shaping the world today.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Although I was unsure of how food would relate to history, Tom Standage does a good job of connecting food to a thorough telling of world history. Right from the beginning he connects developments in food to developments in world history and completes the goal of the book, by giving a condensed version of world history using food to tell it. Standage uses many examples and specific themes and ideas to show the relationship between what he is talking about at that point in time and world history. The book manages to intertwine history and food while being fairly interesting at the same time, something that I was not sure the author would be able to accomplish. His writing style is also nice, making the book fairly easy to read so that it does not read like a textbook, yet is still informative of the information he is trying to put across to the reader. The book was more interesting than I expected because it presents the influence of food in an interesting way, and addresses both the positive and negative aspects of it. It also provided more insight to the impact that food has and allowed for me to see past what you would initially think. It added more depth to my knowledge of world history because by focusing on a specific thing such as food, it shifted the perspective from which I was viewing the topic and allowed for expansion of the context of what I was reading. The book a good read and I would recommend it to other students who are looking for a condensed version of world history, but something slightly more interesting than just a textbook. The only negative of the book is that it is not entirely in chronological order and it can sometimes be hard to pinpoint where you are on a timeline in relation to what is being told.
Anonymous 7 months ago
I loved the style in which he wrote this book. It gave me new insight into world history from a different perspective, and it wasn’t repetitive or boring. It was actually very captivating and a wonderful book to read. I would highly recommend this book! It not only makes learning about our history more interesting, but it shows continuities through every piece of history. Standage's amazing writing style keeps you captivated, and with the use of food to connect it all it adds a new depth on our human history. It truly brings a whole new thought process to the table and is extraordinary. He uses such a great voice to captivate his readers. If it were not for the way he writes then this book would most likely have been boring just listing facts. However, he presents the information in a way that is almost storylike. Using food as a way to connect everything also made the book more interesting. It added something that everyone had to connect to. Being able to truly see just how interconnected all of our past is because of something as simple as wheat made the story. Just simply giving a new perspective and voice to history standage brought history to life.
Anonymous 7 months ago
i would recommend this book to students in apwh or anyone who is interested in world history. it really focuses on how food transformed humanity throughout world history. i enjoyed it because it gave me another perspective on what i learned throughout ap world. it allowed me to understand certain aspects of apwh that i wouldn't have focused on if i hadnt read the book. tom standage, the author, really does a good job supporting his claim with valid and interesting evidence. he really dives in the specifics of how food affected every aspect of history. this included how it shaped an transformed societies. it also includes how food acted as a tool in social transformation, political organization, and economic expansion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AP WORLD HISTORY BOOK REVIEW An edible history of humanity is an incredible book that really does show the importance of food throughout history. Standard really does a good job of showing just how much we really rely on food as humans in ways beside just eating it. He shows how it built and destroyed empires and caused all sorts of conflict. The different unique food facts throughout the book are really interesting and it keeps you wanting to read more. Despite the subject being something a little silly like food. Standard really does do a good job of being factual and illustrating how important and interesting the role food played was . The fact that food was such a big influencer in history is amazing. He does a very good job supporting what he says and making sure the reader understands what's happening. The book really helped clear up some sections of history and it expanded areas I already knew about too.
waitingtoderail on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
snash on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
mykl-s on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
klockrike on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
tangborn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
TLCrawford on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
flemmily on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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 S
housecarl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
Justjenniferreading on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
zibilee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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
kaelirenee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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).
GShuk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.