A slew of publications examines our changing attitudes to the things we eat, so what lies behind our need for mutant maize or locally grown organic food, asks Jascha Hoffman?
An Edible History of Humanity
- Tom Standage
Fresh: A Perishable History
- Susanne Freidberg
Film directed by Robert Kenner Opened on 12 June 2009. See http://www.foodincmovie.com
“What's in the fridge?” may not seem a weighty question. But food is one of our oldest and most advanced technologies. And, as two new books and a documentary film show, we all have a stake in what we eat.
Over the centuries, armies and empires have stood and fallen on the strength of their provisions. In An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage, business editor of The Economist, does an admirable job of showing the “invisible fork” behind the fate of nations. Attributing “social transformation ... geopolitical competition ... military conflict and economic expansion” to the cultivation of a handful of grains and meats, he explains how farming allowed bands of humans to settle and grow into societies. Early civilizations bloomed after the domestication of key plants: wheat and barley in the Near East, rice and millet in Asia, and maize and potatoes in the Americas. Later, the promise of spices lured European explorers around the globe, where they made their fortunes on transplanted crops such as sugar cane.
Standage is no cheerleader for agricultural innovation. He suggests that maize (corn), which was bred “from a simple grass into a bizarre, gigantic mutant that can no longer survive in the wild”, may have exploited us as much as we did it. The invention of farming might even have been “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” as it meant more work and a more restricted diet than was available from hunting and gathering. Yet Standage is bullish on recent efforts to master our crops, praising the pioneers of nitrate fertilizer and high-yield grains that caused a sharp spike in food production. He claims not to place blind faith in biotechnology, but believes that our best chance of meeting the global food crisis is to engineer hardier soya beans.
After growing food, we must get it to the table before it goes bad. In Fresh, Susanne Freidberg, a historian at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, chronicles how expectations about beef, fish, milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables have shifted over the past century. Freshness means more than the absence of biochemical decay. It is bound up with our notions of purity, nutrition and beauty. And these ideas have adapted to the rise of a technology that most of us now take for granted — refrigeration.
For most of human history, the only way to keep unpreserved meat from spoiling was to haul in ice from a nearby mountain range. After 1876, when the first refrigerated steamship brought tonnes of fresh beef across the Atlantic, refrigeration caught on quickly in the United States. Small-town butchers were ruined by the chilled railcars of the early Chicago meat packers. By the 1920s, when housewives were clamouring to replace their iceboxes with Kelvinators and Frigidaires, cold food had become a mark of prestige. Consumers stopped expecting 'fresh' to mean just picked, caught or killed. Coldness became a sign of freshness.
Freidberg is perceptive about how consumer attitudes responded to these mechanical advances and the marketing campaigns that surrounded them. But she gives only a small sample of the innovations that are redefining freshness today — from NatureSeal, a calcium-citrate formula that can keep a cut apple looking good for a month, to the “tamper proof, laser-coded, traceable egg” promised by a company called Eggfusion. She keeps admirably cool when discussing the global trade in baby vegetables in which some of the most perishable crops — haricots verts from Burkina Faso, mini courgettes from Guatemala, baby sweetcorn from Zambia — travel halfway around the world to market. But her culinary sense of betrayal is unmistakable when she laments that the supermarket doctrine of “permanent global summertime ... has largely destroyed the seasonality of fresh produce and with it, many would argue, its taste.”
Journalists Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, who star in a documentary by Robert Kenner titled Food, Inc., broaden the attack on 'Big Food' on the basis of health, labour and the environment. After conceding the efficiency of the enormous slaughterhouses that churn out hundreds of thousands of identical pork chops each day, the film brings a litany of complaints against factory farming. It shows how US grain subsidies have led to the overconsumption of corn syrup and grain-fed meat; and how a 'revolving door' between agribusiness and the US Food and Drug Administration has led to a sharp decline in livestock inspections despite persistent bacterial scares. The film depicts how big companies can ruin small farmers by suing them for replanting their patented seeds, and tracks the growing backlash among a handful of agricultural rebels, including a rancher from North Carolina who prefers to slaughter his own grass-fed animals and a dairy tycoon who believes he can “save the world” by selling more high-end yogurt to Wal-Mart shops. If there were any doubt about the film-makers' sympathies, the closing credits counsel viewers to buy healthy, organic and local products.
One expects a nod of agreement from Freidberg, who approves of 'locavores' — proponents of locally sourced foods, such as Pollan and restaurateur Alice Waters (see Q&A) — because “less transport and storage of fresh foods saves vitamins as well as energy”. But Standage, poring over the numbers, believes that the current obsession with calculating 'food miles' is misguided. Transporting food may take less energy than growing or cooking it. So the carbon footprint of an English lamb chop, raised on energy-intensive maize feed, can be larger than that of a grass-fed one imported to Britain from New Zealand. If consumers want to save energy, he suggests, they should consider leaving the lid on the pan.
Arguments over food will continue as long as humans survive to eat it. As Standage contends, “every thing that every person has ever done ... has literally been fueled by food”. That fact of history is unlikely to change.
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Hoffman, J. A fresh take on food. Nature 459, 912–913 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/459912a