An Edible History of Humanity

Cover of "An Edible History of Humanity"

Cover of An Edible History of Humanity

As macro studies of agriculture throughout history go, An Edible History of Humanity is engaging and accessible. The author, Tom Standage, does a very good job of showing the numerous connections between agricultural advance, economic shifts, cultural exchange, and populations. The history of various crops- spices, corn, wheat, rice, potatoes- is very informative and, I think, very important.

The problem that I had was that it was ONLY a macro study of food throughout history. Standage chooses to glance over the actual lives of the people within the system he is looking at, which puts him at a great disadvantage when talking about what these systems really mean to humanity and our way forward. In the latter part of the book, he spends a lot of time talking about how the agricultural advances of the “green revolution” freed up the labor force to move into industry, ushering in the Industrial Revolution.

What he ignores, however, is that many, if not most, of those who moved to cities and began factory work did not go willingly and gleefully. They were forced from their land because of falling crop prices, torn from their communities and families, and forced into the factories as their only option of making money. While this did serve to drive industrial economies forward, we cannot ignore the problems that it created as well. Problems such as: increased occupancy in low rent areas leading to desperately unsanitary conditions and a rise in pestilence; increased urban crime; loss of cultural and familial traditions; rise of unsafe and abusive working conditions; not to mention the environmental damages caused by industrialization.

Standage discusses the recent resurgence of Asia in the global economy, attributing it to their more recent “green revolutions,” but he ignores the human impact that this shift has caused, namely the massive waves of “country peasant girls” who are being forced to move to the cities to work in the sex trade or extremely low paying industrial jobs. One of my favorite food documentary shows was Blood, Sweat & Takeaways from the BBC. It looked at the real cost of cheap food, food only made possible by the drive towards industrialization that Standage so admires. Six young British food consumers spent time working alongside Asian farmers, planting and harvesting crops, as well as workers in the industrial food sector, processing tuna and chicken. They had to live off a typical salary and share the homes of the workers. The clip below is from the time they spent in Bangkok, working in the chicken processing plant.

The most glaring problem, for me, is that Standage makes very little effort to conceal his personal point-of-view on the local/organic vs industrial agricultural debate. He seems to be genuinely mistrusting of people who believe that the world CAN survive on a more locally centered food supply. Standage’s arguments about the necessary success of the current industrial model seem very similar to classical social evolution, a social theory that Anthropologists have discarded as reductionist and Western-centric.

Still, I gave it 3 stars, which probably seems strange since I had such problems with the last few chapters. I think it was because the title, to me, suggested more of a look at the people involved when Standage is really talking about the economies involved. I would recommend the first 1/2 of this book as a great overview of the “how” and the “when” of agriculture, but if you are looking for something about the people in the system, perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

Note: I highly, highly recommend watching all of Blood, Sweat & Takeaways as well as it’s companion show, Blood, Sweat & T-Shirts.