Book Summary: “An Edible History of Humanity” by Tom Standage


Title: An Edible History of Humanity
Author: Tom Standage
Scope: 4.5 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Standage examines how transformations in human history have been caused, enabled, or influenced by food.

My Comments

One the most important things that I have learned in my readings of human history is the importance of the production and distribution of food. While other books summarized on this site cover the topic more thoroughly (see list at bottom), Standage’s book is great place to start reading about the topic.

Key Take-aways

  • Every complex society is based upon a very small number of staple crops: barley and wheat in the Near East, millet and rice in Asia, and maize and potatoes in the Americas.
  • The distribution of language groups and population densities are largely determined by where agriculture was invented.
  • All domesticated plants and animals are man-made technologies. What is more, almost all of the domesticated plants and animals on which we now rely date back to ancient times. Most of them had been domesticated by 2000 B.C.
  • In the ancient world it is food that reveals power structures. To illuminate the organization of the first civilizations, you must follow the food.
  • Control of the food supply is the most devastating weapon in history.
  • Food, including fodder for animals, was in effect both ammunition and fuel. Maintaining the supply of food was therefore critical to military success.
  • Increased agricultural productivity is a key first step towards industrialization.

Important Quotes from Book

“This book looks at history in another way entirely: as a series of transformations caused, enabled, or influenced by food.”

“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”

“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 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 distribution of language families in Europe, East Asia, and Austronesia is broadly consistent with the archaeological evidence for the diffusion of agriculture. Today, nearly 90 percent of the world’s population speaks a language belonging to one of seven language families that had their origins in two agricultural homelands: the Fertile Crescent and parts of China. The languages we speak today, like the foods we eat, are descended from those used by the first farmers.”

“It suggests that farming spread as a result of a hybrid process in which a migrant farming population spread into Europe from the east and was gradually diluted by intermarriage, so that the resulting population ended up being descended from both groups. The same thing probably happened in other parts of the world, too.”

“The vast majority of the remaining calories are derived from domesticated plants and animals. Only a small proportion of the food consumed by humans today comes from wild food sources: fish, shellfish, and a sprinkling of wild berries, nuts, mushrooms, and so on.

Accordingly, almost none of the food we eat today can truly be described as natural. Nearly all of it is the result of selective breeding”

“All domesticated plants and animals are man-made technologies. What is more, almost all of the domesticated plants and animals on which we now rely date back to ancient times. Most of them had been domesticated by 2000 B.C., and very few have been added since. Of the fourteen large animals to have been domesticated only one, the reindeer, was domesticated in the past thousand years; and it is of marginal value (tasty though it is). The same goes for plants: Blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, kiwis, macadamia nuts, pecans, and cashews have all been domesticated relatively recently, but none is a significant foodstuff.

Only aquatic species have been domesticated in significant quantities in the past century.”

“The simple truth is that farming is profoundly unnatural. It has done more to change the world, and has had a greater impact on the environment, than any other human activity.”

“So a store of surplus food conferred upon its owner the power to do all kinds of new things: wage wars, build temples and pyramids, and support the production of elaborate craft items by specialist, sculptors, weavers, and metalworkers.”

“An important step along the road from an egalitarian village to a stratified city seems to be the emergence of “big men” who win control of the flow of surplus food and other goods and so amass a group of dependents or followers.”

“All of this actually serves a useful purpose within the group or village: The big man acts as a clearing house for surplus food and other goods and can determine how best to distribute them. If a family produces extra food, it can give the surplus to a big man with the expectation of being able to call in the favor at a later date—when a tool needs replacing, perhaps, or food runs short. A successful big man thus integrates and coordinates the economy of the community, and he emerges as its leader. But he has no power to coerce his followers.”

“the big man is still far more of a manager than a king”

“In the modern world, you follow the money to determine where power lies. In the ancient world it is food that reveals power structures. To illuminate the organization of the first civilizations, you must follow the food.”

“Food was used within early civilizations as a form of currency, in barter transactions, and to pay wages and taxes. Food was passed upward from the farmers to the ruling elite in various ways and then redistributed as wages and rations to support the elite’s activities: building, administration, warfare, and so on. The principle that some or all of the agricultural surplus had to be handed over is common to all early civilizations, since the appropriation of the surplus had been central to their emergence in the first place. ”

“By paying tax, the farmers in effect exchanged food for earthly order and stability, as the elite managed irrigation systems, organized military defenses, and so on. And by providing sacrifices to the gods, the elite in effect exchanged spiritual food for cosmic order, as the gods maintained the stability of the universe and the fertility of the soil.”

“In the modern world, the direct equation of food with wealth and power no longer holds.”

“But in modern urban societies, money performs these roles instead. Money is a more flexible form of wealth, easily stored and transferred, “and it can be readily converted into food at a supermarket, corner shop, café, or restaurant. Food is only equivalent to wealth and power when it is scarce or expensive, as it was for most of recorded history.”

“The pursuit of spices is the third way in which food remade the world, both by helping to illuminate its full extent and geography, and by motivating European explorers to seek direct access to the Indies, in the course of which they established rival trading empires”

“The “Columbian Exchange” of food crops between the Old and New worlds, in which wheat, sugar, rice, and bananas moved west and maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and chocolate moved east (to list just a handful of examples in each direction), was a big part of the story, but not the only part; Europeans also moved crops around within the Old and New worlds, transplanting Arabian coffee and Indian pepper to Indonesia, for example, and South American potatoes to North America. Of course, crops had always migrated from one place to another, but never with such speed, on such a scale, or over such large distances. The post-Columbian stirring of the global food pot amounted to the most significant reordering of the natural environment by mankind since the adoption of agriculture.”

“It is no exaggeration to suggest that the Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of a new phase in human existence, just as the Neolithic revolution associated with the adoption of farming had done some ten thousand years earlier. Both were energy revolutions: Deliberate farming of domesticated crops made a greater proportion of the solar radiation that reaches Earth available to mankind, and the Industrial Revolution went a step farther, exploiting solar radiation from the past, too. Both caused massive social changes: a switch from hunting and gathering to farming in the former case, and from agriculture to industry in the latter. Both took a long time to play out:”

“What is the most devastating and effective weapon in the history of warfare? … “ It is something so obvious that it is easy to overlook: food, or more precisely, control of the food supply. Food’s power as a weapon has been acknowledged since ancient times.”

“For most of human history, food was literally the fuel of war. In the era before firearms, when armies consisted of soldiers carrying swords, spears, and shields, food sustained them on the march and gave them the energy to wield their weapons in battle. Food, including fodder for animals, was in effect both ammunition and fuel. Maintaining the supply of food was therefore critical to military success; a lack of food, or its denial by the enemy, would lead swiftly to defeat. Before the advent of mechanized transport, keeping an army supplied with food and fodder often imposed significant constraints on where and when it could fight, and on how fast it could move. Although other aspects of warfare changed dramatically from ancient times to the Napoleonic era, the constraints imposed by food persisted. Soldiers could only carry a few days’ worth of supplies on their backs; using pack animals or carts allowed an army to carry more supplies and equipment, but fodder for the animals was then needed, and the army’s speed and mobility suffered.

“This was recognized in the fourth century B.C. by Philip II of Macedonia, who introduced a number of reforms that were extended by his son, Alexander, to create the fastest, lightest, and most agile force of its day. Families, servants, and other followers, who sometimes equalled the soldiers in number, were restricted to an absolute minimum, allowing the army to throw off its immense tail of slow-moving people and carts. Soldiers were also required to carry much of their own equipment and supplies, with pack animals rather than carts carrying the rest. With fewer animals there was less need to find fodder, and the army became more mobile, particularly over difficult terrain. All this gave Alexander’s army a clear advantage,”

“Alexander’s rule of thumb, which was still valid centuries later, was that an army could only forage within a four-day radius of its camp, because a pack animal devours its own load within eight days.”

“the Romans took his logistic prowess a stage further. They established a network of roads and supply depots throughout their territory to ensure that supplies could be moved quickly and in quantity when needed. Their depots were resupplied by ship, which made it difficult for Roman armies to operate more than seventy-five miles from a coast or a large river. This helps to explain why Rome conquered the lands around the Mediterranean, and why the northern boundaries of its territory were defined by rivers. ”

“one of the main things that distinguished Napoleon from other generals of his day, and shaped the course of his career, was the readoption of Alexander’s minimalist approach to logistics.”

“All this made French armies extremely agile; they needed around one eighth of the number of wagons used by other armies of the time, and were capable of marching fifty miles per day, at least for a day or two. Greater mobility dovetailed neatly with Napoleon’s military strategy, encapsulated in the maxim “divide for foraging, concentrate for fighting.” His preferred approach was to split up his forces, spreading them out over a wide front to ensure each fast-moving corps had its own area in which to forage, and then suddenly concentrating his troops to force the enemy into a decisive battle”

“Canned food was one of two inventions that transformed military logistics during the nineteenth century. The second was mechanized transport, in the form of the railway and the steam locomotive, which could move troops, food, and ammunition from one place to another at unprecedented speed. This meant an army could be resupplied easily—provided it did not stray far from a railway line.”

“The emergence of trench warfare was a consequence of improvements in the range, power, and accuracy of firearms and artillery that were not matched by corresponding improvements in mobility. Armies had unprecedented firepower at their disposal—provided they did not move. For most of history, an army that stayed still risked starvation, unless it could be supplied by sea. But the advent of canned food and railways meant that soldiers could be fed all year round, and for as long as necessary, as they stayed put in their trenches.”

“What caused the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991? According to Yegor Gaidar, a senior Russian politician who served in Boris Yeltsin’s government in the era after the fall of the Soviet Union, the regime disintegrated in large part because it could not feed its people.”

“A turning point came in 1963, when the Soviet Union stopped exporting food and grain to its satellite states in Eastern Europe”

“by the early 1980s the Soviet Union had become dependent on food imports, and by the mid-1980s it had become the world’s largest grain importer by a considerable margin—despite having been the world’s largest exporter at the beginning of the twentieth century.”

“High oil prices from the mid-1970s helped to pay for food imports, and for military spending to keep up with the United States.”

“[Haber Bosch] it marked the technological breakthrough that was to have arguably the greatest impact on mankind during the twentieth century.”

“Humans depend on the ingestion of ten amino acids, each built around a nitrogen atom, to synthesize the body proteins needed for tissue growth and maintenance. The vast majority of these essential amino acids comes from agricultural crops, or from products derived from animals fed on those crops.”

“Nitrogen, in short, is a limiting factor in the availability of mankind’s staple foods, and in human nutrition overall.”

“The green revolution has had far-reaching consequences. As well as causing a population boom, it helped to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and underpinned the historic resurgence of the Asian economies and the rapid industrialization of China and India—developments that are transforming geopolitics.”

“Borlaug released his new seeds in 1962. The following year, 95 percent of Mexico’s wheat was based on one of Borlaug’s new varieties, and the wheat harvest was six times larger than it had been nineteen years earlier when he had first arrived in the country. Instead of importing 200,000 to 300,000 tons of wheat a year, as it had done in the 1940s, Mexico exported 63,000 tons of wheat in 1963.”

“So why does industrialization start at different times and proceed at different rates? It is one of the most fundamental questions in developmental economics.

The answer has a lot to do with agricultural productivity. Poor countries cannot embark on economic development until they can meet their subsistence needs. They find themselves trapped in what economists have called a state of “high food drain” in which most of the population is tied down in inefficient agricultural production. Normally, when a particular activity is inefficient, people switch to other things. But agriculture is a special case: Food is vital, so people have no choice but to stick with farming, even when productivity is low. Indeed, low productivity means that more resources must be devoted to agriculture in order to maintain production. This is sometimes called the “food problem.” To escape from this trap, a country must experience an improvement in agricultural productivity, so that the food supply expands more quickly than the population. This then allows some of the population to switch to higher-value industrial activities without worrying about where their food is going to come from”

“surge in agricultural productivity is essential to kick-start the process; no country has been able to industrialize without one. (The two exceptions are Singapore and Hong Kong, city-states that did not have significant agricultural sectors in the first place.)”

“The resurgence of Asia has many causes, but it would not have been possible without the dramatic increase in agricultural productivity triggered by the green revolution. Between 1970 and 1995, cereal production in Asia doubled, the number of available calories per person increased by 30 percent, and the prices of wheat and rice fell. The immediate impact of agricultural progress is to reduce poverty, for the simple reason that the poor are most likely to work in agriculture, and food accounts for the majority of their household spending.”

“For growth in agricultural productivity to translate into broader economic growth and industrialization, however, several other things need to happen. Farmers must have incentives to increase production; there must be infrastructure in place to transport seeds and chemicals onto farms, and food off them; and there must be adequate access to credit to enable farmers to purchase seeds, fertilizer, tractors, and so forth. Agricultural progress can trigger sudden economic growth, but how quickly it happens depends crucially on non-agricultural reforms being introduced at the same time.”

“History clearly shows that in cases where the greater availability of food enables a country to industrialize, there is a population boom, followed by a fall in the population-growth rate as people become wealthier—a phenomenon called “demographic transition.”

“So there is scope to switch some food production to less chemically intensive methods, such as organic farming. The situation in the developing world is very different, however. In rich countries, chemical fertilizer supplies only about 45 percent of the nitrogen applied to fields. But in poorer countries it supplies as much as 80 percent.”

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