A Book Report on Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity Standage, Tom. An Edible History of Humanity. (Ed) New York: Walker and Company, 2010, Print. In the text, An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage provides his take on how the past was so deeply affected by food throughout the generations. The book approaches history in a different way altogether: as a sequence of changes caused, influenced or enabled by food.
Standage explains that throughout history, food has not only provided sustenance but has also acted as the catalyst of societal organization, social change, economic expansion, military conflict, geopolitical competition and industrial development.
As Tom Standage explains, since the time of prehistory to present, the facts surrounding these changes form a documentary that encompasses the entire human history. The food’s first transformative role was the basis for the formation of entire civilizations. As Standage points out, the taking in of agriculture enabled new settled lifestyle and put mankind on the path to the modern world.
However, he then is quick to mention that although the staple crops aided the formation of the early civilizations, barley and the wheat in the east, rice and millet in Russia, potatoes and maize in America, they were not simply revealed by chance. Instead, they came out through a multifaceted process of co-evolution because preferred traits were chosen and propagated by the early farmers. Adoption of agriculture as a story is the narration of how early genetic engineers came up with both powerful and new tools that made progress itself possible.
In the process man changed plants and eventually the same plants, in turn, transformed people. By offering the platform through which civilizations could be founded, food then acted as a social organization tool, helping to structure and shape complex societies that came up later. Standage does elaborate on this, explaining further that the religious, political and economic structures of the early society, right from hunter/gatherers to the very first actual civilizations were based on systems of food production and allocation.
The production of agricultural food, the rise of the irrigation systems, and the communal food storage fostered political centralization with agricultural fertility rituals developing into state religions and food becoming a medium of taxation and payment; feasts were used in garnering influence and to show status. Food handouts were used in defining and refining power structures. As Tom Standage is thorough in pointing out, before money was invented in the earlier world ,food was the main symbol of wealth. The ability to control food was power.
With the ever emerging civilizations in numerous parts of the world, food aided in linking them together. Food-trade routes acted as inter-boundary communication networks that improved not just commercial exchange but religious and cultural exchange as well. Spice routes that spanned the ancient world resulted in cross cultural fertilization in fields which were very diverse, similar then to the fields of architecture, religion and science. The first geographers began to take interest in people and customs from far away places and put together the first efforts at world maps.
But by far the biggest change caused by food trade was as a result of the European need to avoid the Arab spice domination. The result of this was the revelation of a new world, the establishment of first colonial outposts by the European nations and the opening of maritime trade routes between Asia, Europe and America. As European nations tried to build global empires, the next big shift in human history was aided by food, a flow in economic development during industrialization.
Standage explains that potatoes and sugar served as the the steam engine in the process of industrial revolution. Sugar production on plantation in the West Indies was considered the first prototype of the industrial process that mainly relied on slave labor. Meanwhile, potatoes served as the first staple food among the Europeans that yielded more calories than cereals from their given area of land. Together, as Tom Standage mentions, potatoes and sugar offered cheap sustenance for the workers in the new factories in the industrial era.
In Britain, for instance, where the process first started, the question of whether the future of the country lies in industry or in agriculture was decisively and unexpectedly answered by the Irish potato famine of the mid 19th century. The use of food as a war weapon was unfair to say the least, however, the massive military wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries increased this atrocity to a totally different level. As the author informs us,the reader, food played a vital role in determining the consequences of the two conflicts that defined the USA, the revolutionary war of the 18th and the 19th centuries.
The 20th century mechanization of war gave the impression that it was the first time in history that feeding machines with ammunition and fuel became more of an importance than feeding food to the soldiers. As Tom Standage points out, food took a new twist, as an ideological weapon during the era of the cold war between communism and capitalism, and in that role helped to determine the result of the conflict. Standage argues that during the twentieth century the application of industrial and scientific methods to agriculture brought about a dramatic increase in food supply and the corresponding increase in the world’s population.
By making sure that food supply grows quicker than the population, the green revolution opened the way for the amazingly rapid industrialization in Asia as the century came to an end. There are now many people in the modern industrial societies that consider having a smaller number of children than those in the modern agricultural societies, Standage justifies that due to this, the peak of the human population near the end of the 21st century is now in sight.
Many tales of personal traditions, food related customs and the coming up of a particular nations cuisine, have already been narrated. Less focus has been given to the question of food’s world-historical significance. Tom Standage has been successful in broadening the understanding of his readers on this worldly topic. This text does not assert that any single strategy has the key to understanding history; nor does it try to give a brief account of the whole history of food or the whole world’s history regarding food.
It rather draws on a range of disciplines that include societal organization, social change, economic expansion, military conflict, geopolitical competition and industrial development. It focuses especially on interactions between the history of the world the influence of food. Tom Standage has taken the details regarding these interactions and combined them to form a lovely work that both acknowledges the individual information as well as ties up all loose ends.
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