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Posts tagged ‘Green Revolution’

Eating Like Horses

I spent most of January in the UK, accidentally timing a rather unexpected visit to coincide with the scandal over the presence of horsemeat in some meat products sold in British and Irish supermarkets. For most of my stay I lived near The People’s Supermarket – a co-operative supermarket run on strictly ethical lines – in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Its response to the hysteria that the news seemed to provoke was to write on the sandwich board which stands outside the entrance: ‘Come in! Our meat is completely horse-free.’

Although much of the recent fuss has focussed on the presence of horse meat in some Burger King meals, and in budget burger patties and ready meals at Tesco, Iceland, and a few other supermarkets, as several reports have made the point, Irish and British inspectors also found traces of pork in the same products:

A total of 27 burger products were analysed, with 10 of them containing traces of horse DNA and 23 containing pig DNA.

In addition, 31 beef meal products, including cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne, were analysed, of which 21 tested positive for pig DNA.

I’ve been interested in the fact that the furore which followed the announcement of the discovery has focussed on the fact it was horse – and not pork – found in these meat products. Considering that some religions actually ban the consumption of pork, and that, as Tesco and others have made the point, eating horsemeat poses no threat to human health, this hysteria about horse struck me as misplaced.

I know that a lot has been – and is being – written about the horse meat saga, but I’d like to draw attention to a few trends in this coverage which suggest a few interesting things about our attitudes towards what we deem to be acceptable – socially, morally, ethically – to eat, and how we judge others whose habits differ from ours.

Unsurprisingly, a number of columnists pointed out the hypocrisy of happily eating dead cows, sheep, and pigs, but of being too squeamish to eat horses. Not only was horsemeat available in Britain until the 1930s, but it is eaten in France and other parts of the world. Lisa Markwell wrote in the Independent:

If you eat meat (and my lifelong-vegetarian colleagues are feeling pretty smug right about now), why is horse less palatable than cow or sheep or pig? It’s no good hiding behind ludicrous ideas that horses are in some way cuter or more intelligent. Or that we have a special relationship with them because we ride them. If horses weren’t herbivores, I can imagine a few that would have no problem biting a lump out of their rider.

I agree: there is something fundamentally illogical about agreeing to eat one kind of animal, but being disgusted by the thought of eating another. But our ideas around what is – and what is not – acceptable to eat are socially and culturally determined. They change over time, and differ from place to place. Whereas swan and heron were considered to be delicacies during the medieval period, we now understand these as birds to be conserved and protected. Even in France, people have fairly mixed feelings about eating horse.

In other words, our definition of what is ‘disgusting’ is flexible. It’s for this reason that I’m relatively sympathetic to those who are appalled by the prospect of horsemeat. Despite having learned to ride as a child, I think I could probably bring myself to eat horse or donkey, but I know that I could never try dog, for instance. In the same way, I wouldn’t try to feed rabbit to my bunny-loving friend Isabelle.

The more important issue is that we should be able to trust the businesses that sell us our food. As Felicity Lawrence commented in the Guardian, the presence of horsemeat and pork in beef products is simply one in a long line of food safety scandals:

The scandal exposed by the Guardian in 2002 and 2003, when imported pig and beef proteins were detected in UK retail and catering chicken, started with similar attempts to reassure shoppers that there were no safety issues, that amounts detected were by and large ‘minute’, and a reluctance to admit that a large part of the food chain was probably affected. History repeated itself with the Sudan 1 food crisis, when illegal dye was found in a huge proportion of supermarket ready meals.

The reason for this failure of food regulation is both complex and devastatingly simple. On the one hand, the food chain has become increasingly difficult to regulate. It is now controlled by a handful of big supermarkets and food companies interested in cutting costs during a period of sky-high food prices. It becomes inevitable, then, that the quality of meat and other produce will be compromised:

Because supply chains are so long and processors use subcontractors to supply meat when the volume of orders changes dramatically at short notice, it is all too easy for mislabelled, poorer quality, or downright fraudulent meat to be substituted for what is specified in big abattoirs and processing plants.

And on the other hand, regulators themselves are less efficient:

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was stripped of its role as the body with sole responsibility for food composition and safety in the government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos‘; shortly after the coalition was elected in 2010.

Since then responsibility for food labelling and composition has been handed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while food safety has remained the responsibility of the FSA.

There are also – justified – concerns about the FSA’s closeness to business, which has been lobbying hard for looser regulation. After all, the previous chief executive of the FSA, Tim Smith, is now Tesco’s technical director.

Unsurprisingly, this combination of unscrupulous, cost-cutting business and dysfunctional and light-touch regulation has allowed food safety to be compromised. When the first attempts to prevent food adulteration were introduced in Britain and in the United States – Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) – these were in response to concerns raised by campaigners, most of them middle-class women, about the safety of food produced by the relatively new, industrialised food producers. As we have seen over the past century or so, any loosening of those regulations has resulted in a decline in the quality of food.

And this brings me to my final point. One of the most striking features of the coverage of the horsemeat scandal has been the number of commentators who’ve asked their readers: ‘what else do you expect?’ Giles Coren was particularly withering in his scorn for consumers of cheap food:

What on earth did you think they put in them? Prime cuts of delicious free-range, organic, rare breed, heritage beef, grass-fed, Eton-educated, humanely slaughtered, dry-aged and hand-ground by fairies…?

The food products contaminated with horse and pork were in the ‘value’ ranges of cheap supermarkets. As the BBC reported, these contain considerably less meat than more expensive products:

An eight-pack of Tesco Everyday Value Beefburgers, one of the products cited as potentially containing horse flesh, contains 63% beef, 10% onion and unlisted percentages of wheat flour, water, beef fat, soya protein isolate, salt, onion powder, yeast, sugar, barley malt extract, garlic powder, white pepper extract, celery extract and onion extract.

Asda‘s Smartprice Economy Beefburgers – not among those identified by the Irish testers as containing horse or pig DNA – contain 59% beef along with other ingredients such as rusk, water, stabilisers (diphosphates and triphosphates) and beef fat.

Both products cost just £1 a box, as do similar frozen burgers sold by Iceland. The Oakhurst 100% Beef Quarter Pounders, sold by Aldi and implicated in the scandal, cost £1.39 for a box of eight.

Like Coren, other columnists and food writers argue that ordinary British people have become ‘disconnected’ from the food chain, having little knowledge of how their food travels from farm to supermarket. More interest on behalf of the public, they seem to imply, would in some way prevent these kind of scandals from occurring.

I disagree. Not only does this display an astonishingly naïve understanding of how big food businesses work, but it fails to take into account the fact that the people who tend to be most at risk of consuming adulterated food are those who are poor: those who buy cheap food – the value products – from big supermarkets. There is a vein of snobbery running through much of the argument that consumers of cheap food only have themselves to blame if they end up inadvertently eating horse, or other potentially harmful additives.

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What this debate reveals, I think, is an odd attitude towards food, particularly meat, and class. Over the past century, and particularly since the 1950s, the eating of animal protein has been democratised. Whereas before the 1900, more or less, only the middle and upper classes could afford to eat meat on any regular basis, from around the end of the Second World War, it has become increasingly the norm for all people to be able to buy cheap protein.

But the technologies – the hormone supplements, factory farming, selective breeding, the Green Revolution – which have allowed us all to eat more meat, have also proven to be unsustainable, and particularly in ecological terms. As a recent report published by the World Wildlife Foundation, Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat we Eat, argues, it’s not simply the case that everyone – all over the world – should eat less meat for the sake of the environment, human health, animal welfare, biodiversity and other reasons, but that we should eat better meat: meat from animals reared sustainably.

If we are committed to the idea that everybody, regardless of wealth, should be able to eat a reasonable amount of meat – and it is true that definitions of sustainable diets do vary – then we should not ask why people are surprised to find that cheap meat is adulterated or contaminated, but, rather, why so many people can’t afford to buy better quality meat.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Green Revolutions

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate generated by a study done by a research team at the University of Caen in France. Last month, they published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, in which they alleged that rats fed Monsanto’s genetically modified maize and exposed to the herbicide Roundup – also produced by Monsanto – over the course of a lifetime, developed tumours and suffered multiple organ damage.

Terrible photographs of some alarmingly lumpy rats circulated around the internet, and it seemed that the green movement’s vociferous opposition to GM crops was vindicated. But almost as soon as the study’s findings were announced, doubts – around the validity of the research itself and the way it had been communicated – began to emerge.

Not only have similar, more rigorous tests, demonstrated that GM crops had no impact on health, but, as the New Scientist reported:

the strain of rat the French team used gets breast tumours easily, especially when given unlimited food, or maize contaminated by a common fungus that causes hormone imbalance, or just allowed to age.

Moreover:

Five of the 20 control rats – 25 per cent – got tumours and died, while 60 per cent in ‘some test groups’ that ate GM maize died. Some other test groups, however, were healthier than the controls.

…the team claims to see the same toxic effects both with actual Roundup, and with the GM maize – whether or not the maize contained any actual herbicide. It is hard to imagine any way in which a herbicide could have identical toxic effects to a gene tweak that gives the maize a gene for an enzyme that actually destroys the herbicide.

This research isn’t entirely without value: it could suggest that even the smallest dose of weed killer or GM maize has the potential to cause physiological harm.

But even this conclusion is undermined by the circumstances in which the study was produced. The research team at Caen is open about its opposition to GM crops; and the anti-GM organisation which orchestrated the publicity around the release of the report, refused to allow journalists to consult other scientists about the paper.

As we’re right to be suspicious of studies undertaken by scientists affiliated to industry – the implications of which Ben Goldacre explores in his latest book on Big Pharma – so we must question the motives, however noble they may be, of this research team funded by anti-GM groups.

What I found so interesting about the response to the study was the vehemence of the anti-GM crop lobby. Like the debates around nuclear energy and, even, animal testing, it seems to me that the strength of feeling – on both sides – has a tendency to shut down all reasonable discussion. I was appalled when, earlier this year, a group of anti-GM activists threatened to destroy a field of GM wheat planted by scientists at the publicly-funded Rothamsted Research. Their work aimed partly to reduce pesticides sprayed on crops.

On the other hand, though, pro-GM scientists, economists, and others seem to be too quick to label those with – legitimate – concerns about the genetic modification of plants and animals as ‘anti-science.’ In an article from 2000, Norman Borlaug argued:

Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations and/or the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. It is sad that some scientists, many of whom should or do know better, have also jumped on the extremist environmental bandwagon in search of research funds. …

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement that has taken place over the past 40 years. This movement has led to legislation to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal of toxic wastes, protect the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity. It is ironic, therefore, that the platform of the antibiotechnology extremists, if it were to be adopted, would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity.

His point is that GM crops have the potential to end world hunger. As the Nobel Peace Prize winner credited with originating the Green Revolution during the 1950s and 1960s, Borlaug was in a position to argue– with some validity – that selective plant breeding had helped to feed a world of, now, seven billion people.

In 1943, concerned about the link between food shortages and political upheaval – particularly as the Cold War loomed – the Rockefeller Foundation began sponsoring research into the development of new drought-resistant and higher yielding plant species in Mexico.

Focussing on wheat, maize, and rice, Borlaug and other scientists affiliated with the programme cross-bred higher-yielding species. These new seeds were distributed at first in Mexico, India, and the Philippines. It’s difficult to underestimate the impact of this research, as Gordon Conway explains:

Cereal yields, total cereal production and total food production in the developing countries all more than doubled between 1960 and 1985. Over the same period their population grew by about 75 per cent. As a result, the average daily calorie supply in the developing countries increased by a quarter, from under 2,000 calories per person in the early 1960s to about 2,500 in the mid-80s, of which 1,500 was provided by cereals.

The Green Revolution has made it possible to feed a population of seven billion people. But it had substantial drawbacks. Conway writes that the ‘potential’ of the Green Revolution crops

could only be realised if they were supplied with high quantities of fertiliser and provided with optimal supplies of water. As was soon apparent, the new varieties yielded better than the traditional at any level of fertiliser application, although without fertiliser they sometimes did worse on poor soils. Not surprisingly, average rates of application of nitrogen fertilisers, mostly ammonium sulphate and urea, doubled and redoubled over a very short period.

We know now that we need a new Green Revolution – one which is not as heavily reliant on water, and which does not poison and destroy ecosystems. There’s a certain logic, then, to many activists’ arguments that it’s ‘science’ which is to blame for present food insecurity: that a return to small-scale peasant farming offers the best means of supplying food to an ever-growing population.

This suspicion of ‘science’ – whatever we may mean by this – is nothing new. During the 1970s, for instance, the green movement emerged partly in response to concerns about the implications of the Green Revolution for human health, biodiversity, and water supplies. Much of this early environmentalism advocated a return to nature, and a rejection of technology.

I haven’t made up my mind about the usefulness or otherwise of GM crops, but I hesitate over the whole-hearted embrace of ‘traditional’ methods of farming. It’s worth remembering that pre-industrial agriculture required the majority of the world’s population to be involved in food production in order to stave off hunger. Now, in developed nations, this number has plummeted to only a couple of per cent. In sub-Saharan Africa, seventy per cent of the population remains in engaged in agriculture, although this is also likely to decline.

Better technology and higher-yielding plant varieties have freed up the majority of the world’s population to do other forms of work. The world has changed a great deal since the eighteenth century.

What concerns me more, though, are the businesses which push GM crops – those which are at the receiving end of European and African bans on the planting of genetically modified wheat, maize, and other plants. Monsanto and Cargill are currently the target of a campaign to end the patenting of seeds – making them cheaper and more freely available to small farmers in the developing world.

These two companies, in particular, have a growing control over the world’s food supply. Not only do they own seed patents, but they provide pesticides and fertilisers. Cargill produces meat and grows grain – in fact, no one knows how much grain it has stored in its silos. Given that Cargill and the commodities trader Glencore have both admitted that their profits have increased as a result of the drought in the US and the resultant rise in food prices around the world, it’s exceptionally worrying that these organisations have so much control over our food chain.

What the GM debate reveals is a set of complex and shifting attitudes around the relationship between food, farming, and science – and around how we define what is ‘natural’. Instead of rejecting the potential benefits of GM crops out of hand, I think it would be wise to encourage more research into their implications both for human health, and for the environment. Moreover, I think we need to scrutinise and hold to account big businesses like Monsanto, Glencore, and Cargill. They represent a far greater threat to our ability to feed ourselves.

Further Reading

Norman Borlaug, ‘Ending World Hunger: The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry,’ Plant Physiology, vol. 124 (Oct. 2000), pp. 487-490.

Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution (London: Penguin, 1997).

Joseph Cotter, Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002 (New York: Praeger, 2003).

John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Himmat Singh, Green Revolutions Reconsidered: The Rural World of Contemporary Punjab (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Brave New Food

The TV series which I most want to watch at the moment is Portlandia. Set in Portland, Oregon, it satirises and celebrates the city which originated the ur-hipster. It includes a scene in a restaurant – which I’ve watched only on youtube, alas – in which a couple questions their waitress about the provenance of the chicken on the menu. Assured that it’s free range, local, and organic – partly because their waitress provides them with its papers and name – they leave the restaurant to have a look at it:

This is hilarious because it so closely mimics reality: the menus which list the provenance of all the produce used in the restaurant; the farmers’ market stalls with photographs of happy animals pre-slaughter; the recipes which insist upon free-range, organic ingredients.

I laugh, but I’m as implicated in this hyper-sensitivity about where my food comes from, and how it was treated before it arrived on my plate. I don’t want to eat animals that suffered so that I can continue being an omnivore. I eat relatively little meat and am prepared to pay for free-range chicken, pork, and beef. (I’m not terribly fussed about it being ‘organic’ – whatever we may mean by that.)

It is a scandal how animals are treated in factory farms, and increasing demand for red meat is environmentally unsustainable. So how should we eat meat, without causing harm? If vegetarianism is as implicated in the meat economy – veal is a by-product of the dairy industry, for example – and veganism seems far too difficult, then one way out of this impasse is to consider synthetic alternatives.

I’ve been amused by the overwhelming response to reports about the apparent viability of lab-grown meat. ‘Eeew’ and ‘yuk’ seem to sum up how people feel about it. But lab-grown meat is only the most recent panacea to the world’s crisis produced by scientists – and our views on it say a great deal about our changing feelings about the relationship between food and technology.

The meat in question is being grown by Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University. He’s being funded by an anonymous donor who’s concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions produced by cattle farming. Using stem cells from cows, Post’s team have grown sheets of muscle between pieces of Velcro, which are shocked with an electric current to develop their texture and density:

Post said he could theoretically increase the number of burgers made from a single cow from 100 to 100m. ‘That means we could reduce the number of livestock we use by 1m,’ he said.

Meat grown in the laboratory could have several advantages, because its manufacture is controlled at each step. The tissue could be grown to produce high levels of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, or to have a particular texture.

He believes it will be a relatively simple matter to scale up the operation, since most of the technical obstacles have already been overcome. ‘I’d estimate that we could see mass production in another 10 to 20 years,’ he said.

Post hopes to produce a burger by October.

When I read the earliest reports about Post’s work, I thought immediately of a scene in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where the protagonist visits a lab which grows chicken breasts out of stem cells. This is a dystopian novel which plays on our suspicion of food grown in laboratories. It seems strange, now, for us to consider synthetic, artificial, man-made food to be superior to all that is ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’. But this is a relatively new way of thinking about food.

During the 1950s, a decade when science seemed to offer the possibility of a cleaner, healthier, and better organised world, there was a brief, but intense enthusiasm for Chlorella pyrenoidosa, a high-protein algae which grew rapidly and abundantly and was fed by sunlight and carbon dioxide.

The post-war baby boom gave rise to anxieties in the 1950s that the world would be unable to feed its growing population. Of course, we now know that innovations in agriculture during this period – including the wholesale mechanisation of farming, the increased use of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, and breeding high-yielding livestock – and the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s produced the crops and farming methods which, at enormous environmental cost, still feed seven billion of us. But at the time, politicians worried that hungry nations would create a politically unstable world.

Algae looked like a sensible solution to the problem. Easy and cheap to grow, and apparently highly nutritious, this seemed to be the Brave New World of food production. Warren Belasco writes:

The alluring news came from pilot projects sponsored by the Carnegie Institution and conducted by the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park and by Arthur D. Little, Inc. in Cambridge. Initial results suggested that chlorella algae was an astounding photosynthetic superstar. When grown in optimal conditions – sunny, warm, shallow ponds fed by simple carbon dioxide – chlorella converted upwards of 20 per cent of solar energy…into a plant containing 50 per cent protein when dried. Unlike most plants, chlorella’s protein was ‘complete’, for it had the ten amino acids then considered essential, and it was also packed with calories, fat, and vitamins.

In today’s terms, chlorella was a superfood. Scientists fell over themselves in excitement: Scientific American and Science reported on it in glowing terms; the Rockefeller Foundation funded research into it; and some calculated that a plantation the size of Rhode Island was would be able to supply half the world’s daily protein requirements.

In the context of a mid-century enthusiasm for all that was efficient, systematic, and man-made, algae’s appeal was immediate: it was entirely usable and produced little or no waste; its farming was not dependent on variable weather and rainfall; it was clean and could be transformed into something that was optimally nutritious.

So why didn’t I have a chlorella burrito for supper?

Unfortunately, chlorella didn’t live up to the hype. Not only did the production of grains and soybeans increase exponentially during the 1950s, meaning that farmers were loath to switch to a new and untested crop, but further research revealed that chlorella production would be more complicated and expensive than initially envisaged. Growing chlorella in the quantities needed to be financially viable required expensive equipment, and it proved to be susceptible to changes in temperature. Harvesting and drying it was even more of headache.

On top of this, chlorella tasted terrible. There were some hopes that the American food industry might be able to transform bitter green chlorella into an enticing foodstuff – in much the same way they used additives and preservatives to manufacture the range of processed foods which bedecked the groaning supermarket shelves of 1950s America. Edible chlorella was not a world away from primula cheese.

Those who were less impressed by the food industry suggested that chlorella could be used to fortify bread and pasta – or even transformed into animal feed. But research demonstrated that heating chlorella destroyed most of its nutrients. Even one of its supporters called it ‘a nasty little green vegetable.’ By the 1960s, it was obvious that at $1,000 a ton, and inedible, chlorella was not going to be the food of the future.

All was not lost for chlorella, though. It proved to be surprisingly popular in Japan, where it is still sold as a nutritional supplement. The West’s enthusiasm for algae also hasn’t dimmed:

The discovery in the 1960s of the blue-green algae spirulina in the Saharan Lake Chad and in Mexico’s Lake Texcoco gave another boost to the health food uses of algae. Spirulina has a high-nutrient profile similar to chlorella’s but without…production problems….

Ironically, the food that was supposed to feed the world is now the preserve of the wealthy, health-conscious middle classes – those who suffer most from the diseases of affluence – who can afford to buy small jars of powdered algae.

I hope that Post’s project manages to create a viable product which can be used to supplement people’s diets. I’m not particularly revolted by the idea of lab-grown meat, and if means that it reduces the numbers of factory farms, then that can only be a good thing.

What concerns me more are the potential motives of the businesses which would produce lab-grown meat. If it is taken up by the global food industry – which has patchy records on environmental sustainability and social responsibility – will we be able to trust them to provide us with meat which is healthy for us, and ethically produced?

Source

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

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The Empire Bites Back

Well, HELLO there! Dear readers, I have missed you dreadfully. I return to normal service as the madness of the past few weeks simmers down. Also, I have a re-enamelled bath, which is useful.

This veeeery long post is a paper I presented a few weeks ago at the ‘Breaking the Boundaries‘ seminar series organised by the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. I’m hoping that this will form the basis of a new research project, so all comments, criticism, and feedback (ho ho) are particularly welcome. It’s very draft-y, so please excuse the wonkiness of the writing and the inevitable inaccuracies and omissions. If you’d like a properly referenced version with all the academic bells and whistles – although I have listed the sources I’ve cited, below – please let me know (sarahemilyduff [at] gmail [dot] com) and I’ll email you a copy.

Introduction

In the preface to her eponymous recipe book, Alice B. Toklas noted:

Though born in America, I have lived so long in France that both countries seem to be mine, and knowing, loving both, I took to pondering on the differences in eating habits and general attitude to food and the kitchen in the United States and here. I fell to considering how every nation…has its idiosyncrasies in food and drink conditioned by climate, soil and temperament. And I thought about wars and conquests and how invading or occupying troops carry their habits with them and so in time perhaps the national kitchen or table.

Toklas’s point that national cuisines are produced as much by local circumstances as they are by war and conquest – by global forces, in other words – is worth considering. The study of food, and particularly of food in history, requires us to think beyond boundaries and borders: ingredients travel around the world, and, at least since the seventeenth century, we have become accustomed to eating things – plants and animals – alien to our natural environments; regional patterns of cookery are shaped by migration and occupation by foreign forces; local customs, techniques, and flavours are exported around the world. The way we produce, distribute, prepare, and consume food is determined by a range of factors, many of which operate on a global scale. The study of food also exceeds disciplinary boundaries: it opens a window on to the linkages between political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. By its nature, this study is universal: all people eat and experience hunger. Food history has an immediacy which links the personal with the historical.

Despite the growing popularity of the field of food history, little has been written about the place of food within the British Empire, one of the most important global networks of trade, administration, and communication in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. The purpose of this paper is twofold: firstly, to provide an introduction to the origins, development, and nature of the field of food history, and, secondly, to suggest ways in which food can be inserted into histories of British Imperialism. I conclude with the outline of a project which I hope to pursue in the future.

We are what we eat: food histories

‘The history of food’, writes Raymond Grew, ‘can be thought of as beginning with biology and the hard realities of climate, soil, property, and labour; but it continues through social structure, economic exchange, and technology to embrace culture and include a history of collective and individual preferences.’ In other words, food history seems to offer a way of studying change over time which takes into account nearly every sphere of human activity. It bridges the gap between the cultural and the material. Food provides nourishment, but it also carries with it a range of assumptions, symbols, and signs which are occasionally as important as its primary function. When Spanish missionaries in sixteenth-century Mexico refused to celebrate communion using maize, instead of wheat, wafers, they did so purely on the grounds that wheat, an imported crop, represented Europe and, thus, civilisation. Similarly, when well-meaning lady food reformers attempted to ‘Americanise’ the cuisine of recent immigrants to the United States during the 1920s, they did so because the cooking of Italy, Poland, and Ireland was seen as less ‘civilised’ than that prepared by white, Protestant Americans.

Given their aim to write total history, it seems inevitable that the first examples of food history were published in the journal of the Annales school in France in the 1960s. Beginning with a series of articles which examined the diets of a group of former European servicemen during the Second World War, Annales ESC regularly featured writing on food history. An edited volume of the best scholarship on the topic, Food and Drink in History, appeared in 1979. The Oxford Symposium for Food and Cookery was founded by Theodore Zeldin and Alan Davidson, the editor of the Oxford Companion to Food (1999), in 1981. Beyond Annales and the papers read at the Symposium, the first significant work in the field was Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972). Crosby’s achievement was to write about the implications of the conquest of Latin America for human bodies and for landscapes – both Latin American and European. By writing about disease (specifically syphilis), plants, animals, and other foodstuffs, he demonstrated the extent to which political conquest altered the environment, demographics, and social and cultural life of Latin America and Europe. This study, along with Bridget Ann Henisch’s Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society (1977), and Savouring the Past: The French Table from 1300 to 1789 (1983) by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, heralded the beginning of a flood of histories of national and migrant cuisines, recipes, particular ingredients, hunger and famine, gender and food, and food and imperialism.

This historical research was complimented by a range of anthropological and, to a lesser extent, sociological studies published at around the same time: Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked (1965), Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), and Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (1982) by Jack Goody being some of the most influential texts. It was the publication of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz in 1985 which blurred disciplinary boundaries between history and anthropology. Indeed, more recently, the field has as frequently been called ‘food studies’ as ‘food history’ to indicate its interdisciplinary nature.

It is no coincidence that food history emerged as a field in its own right during the 1970s. The effects of Green Revolution, which used technology to increase wheat, maize, and rice yields all over the world, but most spectacularly in Mexico, India, and Vietnam, became particularly evident in this decade – and these, along with the oil crisis and a spike in global food prices between 1972 and 1974, were partly responsible for the emergence of a more vocal green movement. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, and in 1972 the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth argued that humanity must learn to live within the earth’s natural limits. One of the important streams within the movement was the food counterculture – sometimes dubbed the ‘counter-cuisine’ and exemplified by the cooking of Alice Waters at her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse –  which had particularly strong support in California in the 1960s and 1970s. Food activists argued for a rejection of industrialised food production and encouraged consumers not only to buy ‘natural’, locally sourced food, but also to grow their own. In Diet for a Small Planet (1971), the book which summed up much of the thinking of the counter-cuisine, Frances Moore Lappé wrote that the meat-centred diet favoured by most Americans threatened the ability of future generations to feed themselves. Later, she argued that meat-centred diets were not only unhealthy, but also as socially and ecologically unfair.

It is not surprising, then, that historians should turn to food history as a way of accounting for contemporary diets and explaining how tastes and food preferences change over time. Like environmental and women’s history, then, the origins of food history overlap to some extent with a kind of activism. This is particularly evident in the body of work which has been produced since the 1990s. There are few more potent indicators of global inequalities than the over-abundance and waste of food in the West, and the scarcity of food and famine in the third world. With concerns about food supplies, food security, changing eating patterns, obesity, and the industrialisation of food production escalating, it is unsurprising that the history of food has emerged as a popular field over the past decade. Food history is now as frequently styled food studies – even when written by historians – and the best known food historian is a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, Michael Pollan, author of the wildly popular The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006).

If there is anything unusual about the field of food history, other than its plurality of focus, it is its popularity among lay audiences. Indeed, Gastronomica, one of the three main journals for food history (the others being Food and Foodways and Food, Culture, and Society) is a popular periodical sold in upmarket American supermarkets. The discipline is largely based in the United States. Its professional organisation, the Association for the Study of Food and Society, is located there, and the most prominent food historians are American: Jeffrey Pilcher has written extensively about histories of food, identity, and nationalism in Mexico – his study ¡Que vivan las tamales: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (1998) is considered by many to be the founding text for the new generation of food historians; and Harvey Levenstein and Warren Belasco both focus on the nature and history of the American food industry since the beginning of the nineteenth century – the oldest, most extensive, and most influential such industry in the world. There is a strong streak of activism in Levenstein and Belasco’s writing. In Meals to Come: The History of the Future of Food (2006) by Belasco and Levenstein’s The Paradox of Plenty (2003), the authors argue that their purpose is to account for, and offer solutions to, the pervasiveness of bad American eating habits. Similarly, Italian food historians – who constitute the second biggest grouping within the field – have allied themselves closely to the Slow Food Movement.

But like the heavily interdisciplinary, largely US-based history of childhood (or, increasingly, childhood studies), the ascendancy of food history is due also to the ‘cultural turn’ in the humanities during the early nineties which drew attention to the interconnectedness between the discursive and the material. And it is related to the growing popularity of the field of global history. Interest in global or world history is linked as much to contemporary concerns about the implications of globalisation as it is to efforts within the discipline to write from less ‘West-centric’ points of view. Food history is particularly suited to understanding history in global or transnational terms. As Raymond Grew notes, the ‘universality of food gives it enormous potential as an indicator of cultural differences and historical change’. He adds: ‘food can be used as a kind of trace element, tracking the direction of change, revealing the complex intersections of old and new that demark the global and the local but belong to both.’

All societies produce, distribute, prepare, and consume food, and all societies construct rules around the preparation and consumption of food. The study of food is a useful means of gauging economic progress: it links labour systems with technological innovation, transport, social organisation, environmental factors, and nutrition. Since the sixteenth century, at least, the distribution of food has occurred on a global scale. As Grew notes, food history provides ‘particularly satisfying evidence of how ordinary, daily activities are related to larger, historical trends’. The study of food encourages the comparison of different societies on equal terms, and avoids imposing western models on non-western societies. The tracing of the diffusion of ingredients across the globe allows for the comparison of different responses to the same product, showing up the ways in which groups of people define themselves against others. Food history examines how food is used in the definition and demarcation of social and national identities, and how these change over time. It draws attention to how power is implicated in the distribution and consumption of food. Grew explains: ‘the study of food demonstrates how deeply processes of political and social change can reach into society. No wonder then that commentary on contemporary cuisine is often also a comment on politics, commercialisation, the ecology, and cultural decline.’ Food opens up ways of understanding how power operates within societies.

It is unsurprising that the field of food history is extraordinarily varied, and although generally politically left leaning, it is not dominated by any particular dogmas or controversies. This may be related to the fact that food historians do frequently write for lay audiences. One of the strongest and most popular trends within the field is the fashion for writing histories of single dishes, ingredients, or foodstuffs: like tea, salt, or milk. These are useful in showing how societies give ‘new’ cultural and social meanings, how these ingredients are integrated into existing social structures to reinforce or undermine identities and boundaries. Histories of chocolate and coffee, for example, trace how two beverages became quickly associated with elite status during the sixteenth after having been introduced to Europe, and then slid down the social scale as free trade policies, the development of the plantation system, and industrialisation caused prices to drop.

There is also a growing literature on the industrialisation of food production, and on the construction of national and immigrant identities. But possibly the most significant trend within recent food history has been its focus on addressing contemporary food-related problems – such as obesity, famine, unsustainable agriculture, and the apparently unstoppable power of the largely American, yet increasingly globalised, food industry – through food history. Grew notes that ‘commentary on contemporary cuisine is often also a comment on politics, commercialisation, ecology, and cultural decline’ and I think that this is true of food history as well. Indeed, this may be the cause of one of the field’s greatest weaknesses: historians’ present-mindedness often produces a rose-tinted view of the past, and a desire to return to a way of cooking and eating that never really existed. In fact, one of the most sustained criticisms of the field is that it is academically lightweight. Much of what passes under the name of food history can best be described as pedantic antiquarianism. And for all the field’s claims to being truly global in focus, it has largely ignored Africa and large swathes of Asia.

There is some scholarship on African food history, although much of it has been produced by anthropologists and archaeologists. Southern Africa has a kind of inadvertent food history: Diana Wylie’s Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa (2001), Beer, Sociability, and Masculinity in South Africa (2010) by Anne Mager, and Lance van Sittert’s research on the South African fishing industry, and William Beinart’s writing on large-scale livestock farming, and especially sheep in South Africa, constitute, among others, a significant body of work. Elias Mandala’s The End of Chidyerano: A History of Food and Everyday Life in Malawi, 1860-2004 (2005) and Igor Cusack’s writing on recipe books and the construction of new, national identities in sub-Saharan Africa, engage with the field of food history to the greatest extent.

One way of addressing this lacuna is to consider the role of food within histories of imperialism, and especially of British imperialism.

Food and Empire

Histories of national cuisines are, inevitably, transnational histories too. In Britain, for example, the national dish of chicken tikka masala does not exist as such in south Asia, but was invented in ‘Indian’ restaurants staffed mainly by Bengalis in centres like London and Birmingham to invent a meal that would appeal to British palates while simultaneously appearing to be exotic and, at least at first, sophisticated. A history of twentieth-century cooking in Britain is as much a history of the British Empire, the Commonwealth, India, and Bangladesh. Indeed, the history of imperial conquest since the sixteenth century cannot be disentangled from histories of food. Sidney Mintz argues:

Sugar did more than revolutionise the tastes of the British people. It put into place a major economic and strategic system which lasted for more than two centuries and saw the lines of British trade and production directed along routes and towards destinations which were to dominate British global interests long after.

Although Mintz overstates his case, his point that imperialism, and particularly in its early stages in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was driven by demand for luxury goods – such as spices, tea, and coffee – is an important one. Even if there is no acknowledged subdiscipline on imperial food histories, there is a large body of work which understands the complex workings of power within the British Empire through food. So much so, in fact, that some commentators have noted the absence of food in the recent Oxford History of the British Empire (2002). As in the case of the larger field of food history, there is no single approach or focus which distinguishes this historiography on food history in the British Empire. Some of the most popular works have been on single foodstuffs, like tea, curry, and, most recently, opium. These studies attempt to bridge cultural, social, and economic history by demonstrating how the meanings attached to particular ingredients or commodities change over both time and space – and the implications of these shifts for imperial networks of trade and finance.

Perhaps the best place to begin looking for such a history is the large scholarship on nineteenth-century domesticity. In an article about curry and cookbooks in Victorian households, Susan Zlotnick concludes:

As figures of domesticity, British women helped incorporate Indian food into the national diet and India into the British empire; and this process of incorporation remains etched on the pages of the domestic cookery books written by middle-class women like Eliza Acton and Isabella Beeton. If a later, more aggressively masculinist imperial discourse tries to erase them from the annals of empire …early Victorian cookery books attest to the important ideological function women performed in the construction of Victorian imperialism. At both the symbolic and the practical level, Victorian women domesticated imperialism.

As middle-class notions of domesticity were evoked in missionaries’ attempts to ‘civilise’ African subjects, so food, its preparation, and its consumption became increasingly significant in defining who was, and who was not, civilised. Nancy Rose Hunt demonstrates this in her study of the role of missionaries in educating young Congolese men and women during the early twentieth century, pointing out the number of ‘evolutionary theme[s]’ evoked by the missionaries to emphasise the progress of their protégés, from ‘darkness to lightness, savagery to civilisation, heathens to Christians, monkey stew to roast beef.’ ‘Civilisation’ is achieved when a traditional European meal replaces that originating from Africa.

Histories of food are, then, particularly useful in explaining the cultural and social implications of British Imperialism for both men and women. To my mind, the most interesting work on food history within the British Empire is being done in a relatively new sub-field which focuses on imperial trade, commodities, and consumerism during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Commodities of Empire research project run jointly by the Open University, the British Academy, the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, and London Metropolitan University, ‘explores the networks through which such commodities circulated within, and in the spaces between, empires’ as a means of understanding how ‘local processes…significantly influenced the encounter between the world economy and regional societies.’ Arguing that imperial expansion, the trade in commodities, and the industrial revolution should be understood in relation to one another, the project considers how the ‘expanded production and global movements’ of commodities ‘brought vast spatial, social, economic, and cultural changes to both metropoles and colonies.’ It is telling that of the seventeen working papers produced by the project so far, nine are on food, and half of the articles in the Journal of Global History’s special edition on commodities, empires, and global history are on food. Alan Pryor explains how the study of Indian ‘pale ale’ provides new ways of understanding the construction of imperial identities and the workings of imperial free trade:

The story of the development of Indian pale ale is one of cultural invention. This was a new product that was neither British nor Indian, occupying the space in between those two cultures in British India. In the late eighteenth century, George Hodgson developed a new beer for India in an obscure brewery on the eastern periphery of London. Hodgson’s pale ale was a light beer with a refreshing bitter taste, which was to become a signifier of Anglo-Indian identity in numerous accounts of life in India. Eighteenth-century beer was a relatively low-value product, and its export to India was only made possible by the Byzantine economics of the East India Company. The growing demand for pale ale in India brought competition from other brewers, particularly from Burton-on-Trent. …the difficult trading conditions of India were instrumental in the development of new marketing techniques, were subsequently employed to introduce a new genre of beer into Britain, Indian pale ale.

…there was an unofficial agenda to commodify the British Empire, particularly India, which is epitomised with the development of Indian pale ale. Heroic accounts of colonial adventures were often peppered with references to its restorative qualities. The sub-text was that India was Britain’s challenge, particularly the climate, but the superiority of her manufacturing ability was able to produce a beer that was able to meet it. This fitted with an idealised version of empire, where the metropole imported the raw materials for its manufacture, rewarding the colony with manufactured goods, education, governance and progress. By following the marketing and development of this product it becomes possible to gain greater understanding of the emerging debate over protectionism and free trade as it affected Britain’s relationship with its empire.

Frank Trentmann has shown how the development of the Empire Marketing Board during the early twentieth century to protect and encourage imperial trade in food was connected to the development of early consumerism: the ‘imperial consumers’ – rather than customers – of the 1920s who could afford to choose between a new range of branded food, bought foodstuffs promoted by the Empire Marketing Board for the good of the Empire. In a study of the Empire Marketing Board’s promotion of the King’s Christmas Pudding in the late 1920s, Kaori O’Connor concludes:

The incorporation of specifically empire ingredients in a symbolic dish made especially for the king, and the partaking of the royal pudding in households throughout the kingdom, the dominions, and the colonies that Christmas Day of 1927, was an act of secular communion, the enacting of empire through consumption. It emerged as a unifying force during a time of social dissent and division at home and abroad, and it appealed to the public on many levels and across social classes. To begin, the King’s Christmas pudding was highly popular with the new breed of women consumers. It validated the social activism of women previously engaged in the empire and related movement; it was a gift to all the women to whom Christmas dinner in general, and the pudding in particular, were the ultimate test of their skills and taste as cook or hostess; it empowered women by giving them the opportunity to practise critical consumption. Retailers and wholesalers welcomed the promotion of the King’s Christmas pudding and empire ingredients as an additional spur to trade. After EMB initiatives, Sainsbury, for example, actively promoted ‘Empire’ goods across their product range and the firm’s Christmas advertisements began to specify the origins of dried fruit: ‘Australian sultanas’; ‘Special Offer for your Christmas Pudding and Mincemeat – try our Empire Raisins’. Origins had always been important in the luxury trade, and now they acquired a more general political significance. Above all, as a recipe the King’s Christmas pudding provided the vital link between production and consumption, becoming an instrument of social action.

By focussing on the production and reception of one commodity or product – be it Christmas pudding, pale ale, cassava, or tobacco – historians are able to construct an understanding of how the effects of imperial trade were felt and shaped by a range of people: housewives in Britain, businessmen in the City of London, producers in the colonies, and traders in imperial cities like Cape Town, Delhi, and Melbourne.

I would like to sketch briefly a project which addresses a lacuna in this imperial history of food commodities.

Meaty Questions

In a country where Heritage Day is renamed National Braai Day (or barbeque day), it seems that historians should not have to work very hard to justify the study of the historical significance of meat eating in South Africa. I became interested in tracing attitudes towards eating meat – and examining how these attitudes influenced and were shaped by the introduction of livestock farming and the growth of a meat industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – when thinking about why it is that no meal is seen as complete unless it contains meat of some kind. As Pollan writes about vegetarianism, meat is not only convenient and quick to cook, but most of our cultural and religious celebrations are based around the consumption of some form of meat. In a time of growing anxiety about the ever-increasing amounts of meat which the world’s population appears to be demanding – although there is some reason to believe that this concern is not based on any firm evidence – as well as mounting evidence to demonstrate the ecological unsustainablility of the meat and dairy industries, it seems reasonable to ask why meat is associated with prosperity and with eating well.

It also seems logical to base this study on a series of examples drawn from the southern hemisphere. Southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Brazil all have prosperous meat industries which supply both local and international markets with beef and lamb. This is a transnational history of meat-eating. All of these countries and regions are also all former colonies and dominions, and an understanding of how meat industries developed in these regions must be understood within imperial contexts. There is a small body of work on meat-eating, the best known of which is Roger Horowitz’s history of the American meat industry, Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation (2006). And research into livestock and cattle- and sheep farming in southern Africa, Australia, and other places constitute a foundation for such a study. But equally importantly, all of these nations constitute national and gendered identities around the consumption of meat – and particularly red meat.

I would like to trace not only the origins of the meat industries in these regions, but also consider how the origins of these businesses were linked to the complicated ways in which meat was used to define social, national, or gendered identities. Preliminary research on South Africa positions food, and particularly meat, as being central to the early colonial encounter, and I’ll end with a tentative discussion of how attitudes towards meat can be used to illustrate the first interactions between white settlers and the indigenous inhabitants of the Cape in the seventeenth century.

In a history of cassava production in Brazil, Kaori O’Connor notes:

It is a curious feature of colonial and imperial studies that food security and details of food production, preparation and consumption, which contemporary documents show was the overriding concern of settlers’ daily lives and the motivation for many of their relations with Amerindians and slaves, has been consistently overlooked or minimised in academic and economic histories of the period. A preoccupation with food and the dread of scarcity and famine runs through all the early European accounts of New World colonisation generally….

Indeed, Jan van Riebeeck’s journal of his time as Commander of the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) settlement at the Cape is preoccupied with food. This was overwhelmingly the result of the fact that the settlement’s primarily – indeed only – goal was to produce and, where possible, procure fruit, vegetables, and meat for passing Company ships. Failure of the settlement’s gardens meant a failure of the scheme altogether. But Van Riebeeck and the other employees of the DEIC spent their first few years at the Cape with very little to eat: feeding themselves was considerably more difficult than they had anticipated it to be. Additionally, the consumption of particular foodstuffs was a marker of identity, and food became a means of facilitating contact between indigenous peoples and European settlers. The first communication between the employees of the DEIC and the Khoikhoi centred around food: two representatives of a Khoikhoi group were invited on board a DEIC ship and the Dutch ‘generously filled their bellies with food and drink’ in exchange for information about Khoikhoi willingness to barter cattle for DEIC goods. Later, a skipper who had gone ashore to find fresh provisions was presented with ‘4 bags of beautiful mustard leaves and sorrel and also a catch of about 750 lovely steenbras’.

There is evidence of some exchange of culinary traditions – the Khoikhoi developed a taste for bread and the Dutch took to penguins’ eggs – but this was no example of happy multiculturalism: exchanges occurred because these foodstuffs tasted good and did not fundamentally alter the ways in which identities were forged through food. One of the most constant refrains in the journals is Van Riebeeck’s relief that the edible plants and animals at the Cape were similar to those ‘at home’. He wrote that the fish at the Cape were ‘quite as good and tasty’ as ‘any fish in the Fatherland’. Even hippopotamus meat tasted ‘like calf’. This meant that the Cape was a viable place for the cultivation of fruit and vegetables grown from European seeds for European ships, and that European settlement was possible in this part of Africa. It also meant that this landscape could allow Europeans to be ‘civilised’ in it.

For instance, in October 1652, nearly six months after landing in Table Bay, DEIC employees held a farewell dinner for a group of visiting Company officials. Van Riebeeck described the menu: ‘Everything on the table was produced at the Cape: the fowls were reared here, new green peas, spinach, chervil, pot-herbs, asparagus (a finger’s thickness) and lettuce as hard as cabbage and weighing at least 1¼ lbs each.’ It is reasonable to assume that his cook did his best to replicate the cooking of the Netherlands. This was European cuisine prepared using vegetables grown from seeds imported from Europe, but produced in the Cape. This feast was more than a meal: its purpose exceeded simply providing a group of DEIC employees with dinner. The inclusion of local ingredients or aspects of Khoikhoi cuisine would have been seen to undermine the authority of European settlement in the Cape.

Food did facilitate contact with indigenous people: the Khoikhoi were as willing to accept bread, tobacco, and alcohol in barter as they were copper wire or beads. Yet the Khoikhoi did not willingly relinquish the one possession which the Dutch desired above all: their cattle. After an initial exchange of a cow and her calf for ‘3 small plates of copper and 3 pieces of ½ fathom copper wire’, the Khoikoi were considerably less forthcoming. Cattle were not only a source of protein for the Khoikhoi, but represented wealth and status. There is some evidence to suggest that the Khoikhoi actually ate very little red meat, keeping it – like many societies all over the world – for times of celebration and, even then, only slaughtering as few animals as possible. Bags of copper wire could not compensate for the loss of such valuable beasts.

It is, thus, telling that one of the few recorded Khoikhoi outbursts against the Dutch centres around food. The diarist and DEIC official JG van Grevenbroek spent much of his time at the Cape – which spanned between c.1685 and his death in c.1726 – compiling a study of a group of people whom he dubbed ‘Hottentots’, based on a series of interviews which he conducted with them. By 1705, Grevenbroek had written an account of various Khoikhoi groups in the western Cape. He paid a great deal of attention to their eating habits, and recorded one Khoikhoi man: ‘You eaters of grass and lettuce. Feed it to your oxen: personally we would rather fast. Your habits disgust and sicken us: we never belch or fart. With your foolish values, you treasure a woman’s necklace of tiny beads above sheep.’ Here, the Khoikhoi – accused by white settlers of being dirty, smelly, and uncouth – turn the tables on the Dutch colonists, describing them as uncivilised, and partly for their enthusiasm for ‘grass and lettuce’ – foodstuffs considered by the Khoikhoi to be cattle feed.

But Grevenbroek notes that Khoikhoi tastes did change:

Our lettuces also and other vegetables they have at length learned to eat greedily, thought at first, mocking the indiscriminate taste of Europeans, they would say that they were only fit to be eaten by cattle along with the grass of field. Then, if asked to lunch or dinner, they would retort, make the oxen your guests, pile up the grass, boasting that they could endure fasting and had learned to bear poverty from childhood.

Ironically, travellers to the Cape during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries echoed the Khoikhoi outburst against Dutch settlers, describing the farmers of the rural interior as uncouth and uncivilised for their almost exclusively meat-based diets. James Ewart, a British officer stationed at the Cape between 1811 and 1814 described the ‘Boer’ – who was also, significantly, a stock farmer – with whose family he lodged on the eastern frontier:

At his meals that is dinner and supper the only which are regular, he eats an enormous quantity of beef or mutton swimming in the fat of the sheep’s tail, with a proportionate allowance of coarse bread or vegetables; this he washes down with liberal potations of common brandy, being excessively fond of ardent spirits, seldom using wine which he could easily procure. Having sufficiently gorged himself during dinner, he takes a sleep for two or three hours, and on rising again, resumes his pipe which is seldom out of his mouth.

These few examples demonstrate how food, and meat in particular, mediated the colonial encounter – and from both sides. I think that they are suggestive of a wider history which needs to be written about histories of meat, and especially red meat, in transnational perspective.

Conclusion

As histories of childhood tend to be about adults’ views of children rather than of children themselves – and the same could possibly said of animal history – so the history of food is not so much about food, but rather the complex interactions around it. Indeed, some of the worst examples of food history tend to focus on food itself, producing painfully nitpicking histories of ingredients and recipes. Nevertheless, a history of the ways in which we have used food to construct identities, to forge and break relationships, to fund and found empires, and to sustain economies provides us with new ways of understanding the functioning of imperialism, and of connecting global trends and changes with local, and even individual, experience.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Ken Albala, ‘History on the Plate: The Current State of Food History,’ Historically Speaking, vol. 10, no. 5 (Nov. 2009), pp. 6-8.

‘An Elegant and Accurate Account of the African Race Living Round the Cape of Good Hope Commonly Called Hottentots, from a Letter Written by J.G. van Grevenbroek in the Year 1695,’ trans. B. Farrington, in The Early Cape Hottentots, ed. I. Schapera (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1933).

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (London: Vintage [2005] 2006).

Donna R. Gabaccia, We are what we eat: Ethnic food and the making of Americans (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Raymond Grew, ‘Food and Global History,’ in Food in Global History, ed. Raymond Grew (Newton Centre: New Global History Press, [1999] 2004).

Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner, ‘Hidden in Plain View: The History of Children (and Childhood) in the Twenty-First Century,’ JHCY, vol. 1, no. 1 (2008), pp. 43-49.

Nancy Rose Hunt, ‘Colonial Fairy Tales and the Knife and Fork Doctrine in the Heart of Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

James Ewart’s Journal Covering his Stay at the Cape of Good Hope (1811-1814) and his Part in the Expedition to Florida and New Orleans (1814-1815), ed. A. Gordon-Brown (Cape Town: Struik: 1970).

Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, vol. 1 1651-1655, ed. H.B. Thom (Cape Town and Amsterdam: AA Balkema, 1952).

Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Anne MacClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

Sidney W. Mintz and Christine M. du Bois, ‘The Anthropology of Food and Eating,’ Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 31 (2002), pp. 99-119.

Peter Novick, That Noble Dream:  The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Kaori O’Connor, ‘Beyond “Exotic Groceries”: Tapioca-Cassava, a Hidden Commodity of Empire,’ Commodities of Empire, Working Paper no. 10 (January 2009), pp. 1-32.

Kaori O’Connor, ‘The King’s Christmas Pudding: Globalisation, Recipes, and the Commodities of Empire,’ Journal of Global History, vol. 4, no. 1 (2009), pp. 127-155.

Douglas M. Peers, ‘Review: Is Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again?: The Revival of Imperial History and the Oxford History of the British Empire,’ Journal of World History, vol. 13, no. 2 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 455-456.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (London: Penguin [2006] 2007).

Alan Pryor, ‘Indian Pale Ale: An Icon of Empire,’ Commodities of Empire, Working Paper no. 13 (November 2009), pp. 1-22.

E.C. Spary, ‘Review: Ways with Food,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 40, no. 4 (Oct., 2005), pp. 763-771.

John Styles, ‘Product Innovation in Early Modern London’, Past and Present, no. 168 (2000), pp. 124-169.

John C. Super, ‘Food and History,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 36, no. 1 (Autumn 2002), pp. 165-178.

Alice B. Toklas, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (New York: Harper & Row, [1954] 1984).

Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Susan Zlotnick, ‘Domesticating Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England,’ Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 16, no. 2/3, Gender, Nations, and Nationalisms (1996), pp. 51-68.

Other sources:

K.T. Achaya, The Food Industries of British India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).

William Beinart, The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment 1770-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 1-27.

Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, [1993] 2007).

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

David Burton, French Colonial Cookery (London: Faber and Faber, 2000).

Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Yong Chen, ‘Food as World History: Broadening the Horizon and Reach of Historical Research,’ Journal of World History, vol. 21, no. 2 (June 2010), pp. 297-304.

Sophie and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003).

E.M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c.1800-1947 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).

Philip Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2001).

Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution (London: Penguin, 1997).

Joseph Cotter, Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002 (New York: Praeger, 2003).

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Igor Cusack, ‘“Equatorial Guinea’s National Cuisine Is Simple and Tasty”: Cuisine and the Making of National Culture,’ Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, vol. 8 (2004), pp. 131-148.

Igor Cusack, ‘African Cuisines: Recipes for Nation-Building?’ Journal of African Cultural Studies, vol. 13, no. 2 (Dec., 2000), pp. 207-225.

Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Gary S. Dunbar, ‘African Ranches Ltd., 1914-1931: An Ill-Fated Stockraising Enterprise in Northern Nigeria,’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 60, no. 1 (Mar., 1970), pp.102-123.

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1999).

Kevin Grant, Philippa Levine, and Frank Trentmann (eds.), Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, Empire and Transnationalism, c.1880-1950 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (eds.), Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998).

Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Carol Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Politics and Food in Italy (London: Berg, 2004).

Roger Horowitz, Jeffrey M. Pilcher, and Sydney Watts, ‘Meat for the Multitudes: Market Culture in Paris, New York City, and Mexico City over the Long Nineteenth Century,’ The American Historical Review, vol. 109, no. 4 (October 2004), pp. 1055-1083.

M. Hubbard, ‘Desperate Games: Bongola Smith, the Imperial Cold Storage Company and Bechuanaland’s Beef,1931,’ Botswana Notes and Records, vol. 13 (1981), pp. 19-24.

Eno Blankson Ikpe, Food and Society in Nigeria: A History of Food Customs, Food Economy and Cultural Change, 1900-1989 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1994).

Naomichi Ishige, The History and Culture of Japanese Food (London: Kegan Paul, 2001).

John Keay, The Spice Route: A History (London: John Murray, 2005).

Kenneth K. Kiple and Virginia Himmelsteib King, Another Dimension to the Black Diaspora: Diet, Disease, and Racism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (London: Penguin [1997] 1998).

Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002).

Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of China (London: Picador, 2011).

Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh, The True History of Tea (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009).

James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

S. Milton, ‘To Make the Crooked Straight: Settler Colonialism, Imperial Decline and the South African Beef Industry, 1902-1942’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 1996).

Robert Morrell, ‘Farmers, Randlords and the South African State: Confrontation in the Witwatersrand Beef Markets, c. 1920-1923,’ The Journal of African History, vol. 27, no. 3 (1986), pp. 513-532.

Alexander Nutzendal and Frank Trentmann (eds.), Food and Globalisation: Consumption, Markets, and Politics in the Modern World (Oxford: Berg, 2008).

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Richard Perren, Taste, Trade, and Technology: The Development of the International Meat Industry Since 1840 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

I.R. Phimister, ‘Meat and Monopolies: Beef Cattle in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1938,’ The Journal of African History, vol. 19, no. 3 (1978), pp. 391-414.

J.A.G. Roberts, From China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West (London: Reaktion Books, 2002).

Sarah Rose, For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire, and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favourite Drink (London: Hutchinson, 2009).

Nhamo Samasuwo, ‘Food Production and War Supplies: Rhodesia’s Beef Industry during the Second World War, 1939-1945,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 29, no. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 487-502.

Nhamo Samasuwo, ‘“There Is Something About Cattle”: Towards an Economic History of the Beef Industry in Colonial Zimbabwe with Special Reference to the Role of the State’ (PhD thesis, University of Cape Town, 2000).

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (July, 2004), pp. 373-401.

Frank Trentmann, ‘Political Culture and Political Economy: Interest, Ideology and Free Trade,’ Review of International Political Economy, vol. 5, no. 2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 217-251.

Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (London: HarperCollins, 2004).

Deborah Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

Lance van Sittert, ‘“Making Like America”: The Industrialisation of the St Helena Bay Fisheries c.1936-c.1956,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 19, no. 3 (Sep., 1993), pp. 422-446.

Lance van Sittert, ‘“More in the Breach than in the Observance”: Crayfish, Conservation & Capitalism c.1890-c.1939,’ Environmental History Review, vol. 17, no. 4 (Winter, 1993), pp. 20-46.

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

David Y.H. Wu and Tan Chee-beng (eds.), Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2001).

James L. Watson (ed.), Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 31.08.2011

On Spanish pigs.

What to drink with your meal if you’re teetotal.

Where are the undernourished?

This infographic demonstrates beautifully that healthy food tends to be more expensive than sugary, salty snack food.

Chocolate is good for your heart.

Tom Philpott reviews Nick Cullather‘s The Hungry World, a new history of the Green Revolution.

The dangers of ‘detox’.

On the famine in Somali: It’s the Politics…Stupid.

Transforming fridges into cinemas.

The rise of street food in Britain.

Are vegetables losing their nutrients?

Mark Bittman discusses US legislation around salmonella.

A Swedish man splits atoms in his kitchen. I think this is glorious. And this is his blog which is named, of course, Richard’s Reactor.

On the rise of the ‘super insects’ which are resistant to the pesticides which the evil empire Monsanto markets alongside its seeds.

The tricks of food photography (thanks Isabel!).

How far would you travel for amazing food?

Is eating well and healthily always expensive?

No Famine is Inevitable

Last week there was a flurry of excitement as commentators compared the R1 million pledged by the South African government to aid the victims of the famine in the Horn of Africa, and the potential billion rand loan which it is currently considering for Swaziland. Not only could Africa’s economic powerhouse donate considerably more than a million rand (about £90,000 or US$150,000) to Somalia, but granting a conditions-free loan to King Mswati III’s dysfunctional kingdom would serve only to prop up the continent’s last absolute monarch.

Although I was as outraged by my government’s apparent indifference to the plight of Somalis, I did begin to wonder if that money could be used more wisely. Of course, South Africa must – and can – contribute to the international effort to distribute food in Somalia. Given the scrutiny of aid agencies working in the region, as well as the awareness of how aid money has been channelled to elites over the past few decades, it’s likely that South Africa’s donation will go to those who need it. But giving money to alleviate the famine is a short-term fix.

Possibly because of the way it echoes Africa’s other best-known famine, the Live Aid-engendering Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985, the famine in the Horn of Africa has generated an enormous amount of coverage in the international press. More information and analysis can only ever be a good thing, but much of the discussion around the famine suggests that it’s a crisis which emerged suddenly and without any warning. As the Guardian’s John Vidal put it, ‘A massive drought, as if out of nowhere, has settled over the Horn of Africa’. Moreover, some commentators, like Vidal, have blamed the famine on only one or two factors, usually climate change or Western indifference to African suffering.

The causes of famines are complex, but they are never entirely unpredictable. Counterintuitively, they are not necessarily caused by a lack of food, but are, rather, the result of long-term systemic failure: in agriculture, trade, and, most importantly, in government. By suggesting that South Africa’s paltry million rand donation would be better spent, my point is that South Africa’s involvement in the Somali crisis should go beyond giving money for food. It needs to stop famines from happening in the first place, and that is not impossible.

We have managed largely to eradicate famine in the twentieth century. Before then, food shortages and famines were part of the rhythms of everyday life. In societies where food production was inefficient both in terms of labour and technology – and until the eighteenth century, eighty per cent of the population of Europe was engaged in agriculture – frequent crop failures meant that famine occurred often. But during the 1700s, an agricultural revolution allowed greater, more regular, and, crucially, more reliable yields to be produced by smaller numbers of people. International trade also meant that countries could buy food to supplement local shortfalls. For example, during the 1870s, the failure of the European grain crop boosted Canadian and American wheat exports, as these two countries fed Europe for almost a decade.

Although initially developed in the Netherlands and Britain (and there is a strong link between the development of capitalist economies and efficient food systems), the methods pioneered during this green revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spread around the globe. By the early 1900s, famine was caused increasingly by people, rather than only by nature. That said, the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1852) was certainly the product of the potato blight, but it also occurred at a time when Ireland was an exporter of wheat: there was enough food to go around, it was just that those who were starving couldn’t afford to buy bread. The Cattle Killing Movement in South Africa (1856-1857) caused widespread famine among the Xhosa. Around 40,000 people died of starvation, 33,000 moved away from the eastern Cape to seek work, and the authority of the Xhosa polity was fatally undermined. But this was caused by a decision to slaughter cattle and destroy crops on a mass scale.

Equally, some twentieth-century famines were caused partly by crop failure, but were also the product of bad governance and ineffective systems of food distribution. As Cormac Ó Gráda explains:

Wars, blockades, poor governance, and civil unrest can also lead to famines; panics about the food supply and poorly performing markets can exacerbate them. In such cases…factors other than crop shortfalls reduce the purchasing power or ‘entitlements’ of vulnerable sections of the population: the size of the loaf matters less than its distribution.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argued in Poverty and Famines (1981) that – contra Thomas Malthus who suggested that exponential population growth would result inevitably in famine – famines can occur in times of peak food production. Why? I think it’s worth quoting Sen in full:

In every society that exists, the amount of food that a person or a family can command is governed by one set of rules or another, combined with the contingent circumstances in which that person or that family happens to be placed vis-à-vis those rules. For example, in a private ownership market economy, how much food a person can command will depend on (1) what he owns, and (2) what he can get in exchange for what he owns either through trade, or through production, or some combination of the two. Obviously, in such an economy a person may suddenly face starvation either because his ownership bundle collapses (e.g., through alienation of land to the money lenders), or because the ‘exchange entitlement’ of his ownership (i.e., the command of what he owns) collapses (e.g., through his becoming unemployed and not being able to sell his labour power, or through a decline in his terms of trade vis-à-vis food).

In other words, people starve when they can’t buy food – either because they no longer have the money to exchange for food (as a result of unemployment, for example) or because food prices become prohibitively high. Peaks in food prices could be due to droughts and other ecological factors, conflict, and speculation.

The crisis in Somalia demonstrates particularly well how state intervention can prevent or cause famine. In 1960, British Somaliland and Italian Somalia became the independent Republic of Somalia. Nine years later, Major-General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a bloodless coup and ruled Somalia through a military dictatorship until the collapse of his government in 1991. Somalia’s experience of food shortages and famine must be understood in this context of Barre’s government (or lack thereof) and economic policies. In 1970, he announced the implementation of ‘scientific socialism’, introduced strict central planning, and viciously stamped out all forms of opposition. Peter T. Leeson writes:

The government slaughtered civilians who posed threats to the government’s plans or political power, used coercive intimidation to create artificial support for its activities, and forcibly relocated others to further the political or economic ends of Barre and his cronies. ‘Both the urban population and nomads living in the countryside [were] subjected to summary killings, arbitrary arrest, detention in squalid conditions, torture, rape, crippling constraints on freedom of movement and expression and a pattern of psychological intimidation’. The state ruthlessly suppressed free speech and controlled all forms of information reaching Somalis. Newspapers (only one was officially permitted by the government), radio, and television were fully censored and dissent in any form squelched with force. Under Somalia’s National Security Law No. 54, ‘gossip’ became a capital offense. Twenty other basic civil freedoms involving speech, association and organisation also carried the death penalty.

Funds were diverted from public works, education, healthcare, and infrastructure to the military, on whose support and ability to terrify and brutalise the Somali population Barre depended. The nationalisation of land and industry in 1975 was, predictably, a disaster. The abandonment of socialism at the end of the 1970s in order to attract assistance from the International Monetary Fund made very little difference either. Somalia was heavily dependent on international food aid during the 1970s and 1980s. The Horn of Africa is prone to drought, but it’s worth noting that despite catastrophic droughts in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, Somalia managed to avoid famine – unlike its war-torn neighbour, Ethiopia, whose government ignored the plight of its population.

As Abdi Ismail Samatar notes,

Somalia’s last major famine was in 1992 and was not caused by drought. Nearly 300,000 innocent people starved to death because of sectarian politics. The epicentre of that famine was in Bay, one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions, and starvation was induced by warlords who used food as a weapon against farmers and pastoralists.

Barre’s government collapsed in 1991, plunging Somalia into civil war and a chaos from which it has yet to emerge. It’s telling that a country which had managed to avoid famine for over half a century, despite drought, food shortages, and incredible food insecurity, saw widespread famine only after food supplies were disrupted by war.

So why famine now? Over the course of sixteen years, Somalia has been the subject of fourteen reconciliation conferences, none of which managed to produce a stable government. In 2004, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), an anti-Islamist, pro-Ethiopian political grouping, was put into power in Somalia under the leadership of Abdullahi Yusuf and with the support of the United Nations. However, the TGF was neither popular nor effective as a government. In the absence of effective leadership, a number of attempts were made by Islamic groups, war lords, civil society organisations, and others to create some sort of order in Somalia, and particularly in Mogadishu. One of these, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, was formed by a group of war lords in February 2006. They were backed by the United States who saw them as allies against Islamic groups in the region.

Armed clashes between the Alliance and Islamist groups soon broke out and developed into a war which the Islamists won decisively. By the middle of 2006, they had taken control of Mogadishu as well as central and southern Somalia. Not only was this an embarrassment to the United States and its ally Ethiopia, but for the first time it seemed that Somalia was offered the possibility of a relatively popular and effective government in the hands of the Islamists, who quickly organised themselves into the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC). However, an invasion by Ethiopia at the end of 2006 caused the collapse of the CIC, the reinstallment of the almost entirely ineffective TFG, and the beginning of a new civil war between the Government and opposition groups. The most successful of these was Al-Shabab. Originally the CIC’s youth wing and affiliated with al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab is an Islamist group which now controls most of southern Somalia.

Years of political uncertainty, conflict, and chaos (best exemplified by the way piracy has flourished along the Somali coast) have left Somalis particularly vulnerable to drought and the less predictable effects of climate change. A combination of a US- and UN-backed blockade of the parts of Somalia controlled by Al-Shabab, as well as this organisation’s unwillingness to allow the World Food Programme to deliver food to southern Somalis has caused the famine. Samatar explains:

Normally, societies have three lines of defence against mass starvation: local capacity, national government and the international community. When a disaster hits a region, the first help comes from local administrations and the communities themselves. If events overwhelm the first responders, then the national government takes charge of operations; and when the crisis exceeds the wherewithal of the nation, international actors come to the rescue.

It is clear that all three levels of livelihood protections have failed in Somalia. Al-Shabab has prohibited the local population from organising their municipal governments and charities to fend off the disaster. Similarly, Somalia’s national government, which is beholden to sectarian leadership and international patrons, has been oblivious to the emerging calamity, and has thwarted the international community from coming to its aid

This was a famine which could have been avoided had order been established in Somalia. Here, Somali politicians and war lords are as much to blame as the international community, East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the UN, and, crucially in my view, the African Union. This famine is not the result solely of dastardly foreign countries plundering Africa, nor can blame be laid entirely on Somalis themselves. But after the effort to feed Somalis has ended, reconstruction needs to begin. And it’s here where South Africa must – and I think is obliged to – take a leading role.

Somalia also demonstrates the extent to which food security is linked to strong, functioning governments. Countries which are badly run, have weak economies, and, most importantly, are authoritarian, are the most strongly disposed towards famine. Last year’s narrowly-avoided famine in West Africa was due largely to the incompetence of Niger and Chad’s malfunctioning, undemocratic political dispensations. Only the spread of democratic and open government, with, crucially, a free flow of information, will prevent famines from happening in Africa. As Sen remarked, ‘There is, indeed, no such thing as an apolitical food problem.’

Note: I try to use sources which are easily available, but for this post I’ve relied on articles from academic journals. Unfortunately, these are securely behind paywalls. If you’d like copies of them, let me know.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York and London: W.W. Norton, [2010] 2011).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Making Famine History,’ Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

Amartya Sen, ‘The Food Problem: Theory and Policy,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 447-459.

Other sources:

L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943-4,’ History Ireland, vol. 18, no. 4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India (July/August 2010), pp. 36-39.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The Ripple that Drowns? Twentieth-Century Famines in China and India as Economic History,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, (2008), pp. 5-37.

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

Anne M. Thompson, ‘Somalia: Food Aid in a Long-Term Emergency,’ Food Policy (Aug. 1983), pp. 209-219.

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Christian Webersik, ‘Mogadishu: An Economy without a State,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 8 (2006), pp. 1463-1480.

S.G. Wheatcroft, ‘Famine and Food Consumption Records in Early Soviet History, 1917-25,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 151-174.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Is the Future of Food Medieval?

Public service announcement: if you’re in Cape Town and would like to know more about the Protection of Information Bill and what YOU can do about it, come to Right2Know‘s public meeting on Tuesday, 7 June, at 18:00 at Idasa, 6 Spin Street. Judith February will be joined by Pregs Govender, Zapiro, Pierre de Vos, and others.

This week Oxfam published a report on the state of the world’s food systems. Titled ‘Growing a Better Future,’ the study argues that by 2030 the world will be in a state of permanent food crisis. Staples will cost twice as much in twenty years time, with the price of maize increasing by as much as 180%. The world’s poorest will be the worst affected by the crisis. As demand for food outstrips supply and places pressure on existing food distribution systems, more than a billion people will go hungry every day.

Already, the average growth rate in agricultural yields has halved since 1990, and this is set to decline even further. A combination of factors have converged to produce this crisis. Climate change, increasingly limited natural resources, commodity speculation, the demand for biofuels, population growth, and changing, more meat- and dairy-heavy diets are working to destabilise our food system.

The result of the food crisis is not only hunger, but poverty and increasing political upheaval:

we have entered an age of growing crisis, of shock piled upon shock: vertiginous food price spikes and oil price hikes, devastating weather events, financial meltdowns, and global contagion. Behind each of these, slow-burn crises continue to smoulder: creeping and insidious climate change, growing inequality, chronic hunger and vulnerability, the erosion of our natural resources. The broken food system is at once a driver of this fragility and highly vulnerable to it.

Alongside this report, Oxfam has launched a campaign, ‘Grow’, to publicise its set of solutions to the food crisis. It’s attempting to mobilise opposition to land grabs and commodity speculation, to promote small-scale agriculture, and also to highlight awareness of the links between climate change and food prices.

In his analysis of the report, Mark Lynas makes the point that one of its most interesting features is its pragmaticism. The report notes (rightly):

The romanticisation of ‘the peasant’ and rejection of new technologies and trade have the potential to lock farmers into poverty. International trade and new technologies are not magic bullets, but each has a major contribution to make, one which can be increased massively if governments direct them towards delivering public goods.

It even adds:

Large-scale agriculture also has a role to play in meeting the sustainable production challenge. It is better able to meet the exacting standards that have come to characterize the food supply chains that feed burgeoning cities. Moreover, as economic development takes place, and labour costs rise relative to capital costs, larger, more mechanized modes of production become more viable, in turn providing an exit from agriculture for poor rural people as long as sufficient jobs are created in industry.

Has Oxfam lost its marbles? Of course not. This report is a tacit rejection of the idea that industrialisation is itself the cause of the instability of the food system. It makes the point that while technology may have caused incredible damage to ecosystems and even reduced yields, it has the potential to get us out of this crisis as well. The issue isn’t the technology itself, but, rather, the way in which it is used.

I am concerned that Oxfam will have an uphill battle over this point. So many organisations seem to have swallowed whole the concept that we need to return to the farming, cooking, and eating of the past in order to eat better in the present, and future. The Oxfam report demonstrates that our food crisis is so complex that this simplistic way of thinking about food simply won’t do.

As I wrote last week, the Slow Food Movement has long described itself as offering an alternative way of thinking about food. I think that despite the good that Slow Food has done in the world, its views on food and the past are not only deeply troubling, but actively harmful. Its Manifesto on the Future of Food argues for a wholesale rejection of all forms of technology and a ‘transition to a more decentralized, democratic and cooperative, non-corporate, small-scale organic farming as practiced by traditional farming communities, agroecologists, and indigenous peoples for millennia.’

The Slow Food Manifesto (and Slow Food seems to like nothing more than a manifesto) states:

Our defence should begin at the table with Slow Food.  Let us rediscover the flavours and savours of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food. In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer. … Slow Food guarantees a better future.

It is partly this enthusiasm for the regional, the local, the ‘indigenous’, and the ‘traditional’ which makes me question that Slow Food does guarantee a ‘better future’. To which ‘tradition’ do we return?

It’s particularly interesting that Slow Food originated in Italy. This is a country with a heavily invented notion of its own food traditions, and a suitably bad memory of what Italians really did eat in the recent past.

Up until the end of the First World War, Italian diets were very poor – which, given Italy’s climate, terrain, and precarious political situation throughout the nineteenth century, isn’t terribly surprising. Most main meals consisted either of bread or polenta with onions, oil, and whatever cheap fish and vegetables were available. The components of what we now believe to be the age-old Italian or Mediterranean diet – pasta, tomatoes, wine, dairy products, and other fresh produce – were eaten only during festivals. Carol Helstosky writes in Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy:

Although few people starved or fell seriously ill from malnutrition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the majority of the Italian population did not consume a nutritionally adequate diet because of economic and political constraints on their behaviour as consumers and eaters. Subsistence farming and local markets characterized Italian agriculture while a weak national economy limited consumer options, even for urban workers and members of the middle class. … Italian consumers remained trapped in a post-subsistence economy for multiple reasons, unable to make the transition to a more varied and nutritious diet.

The change came in 1919. During the Great War, state control over food distribution systems meant that the diets of ordinary Italians actually improved. (Something similar happened in Britain during the Second World War.) Diets were increasingly more homogenous, and wheat flour began to replace maize and other carbohydrates.

In addition to this, Italian immigrants in the United States began to shape a new kind of national cuisine. Even relatively poor, newly-arrived Italians could afford a greater variety of food in America than they could at home. They were able to buy the tomatoes, pasta, and olive oil which they couldn’t afford in Italy. Helstosky adds:

as Italians began to leave the peninsula for greater economic opportunities in the Americas and elsewhere, they sought to recreate familiar dishes. This led to a growing body of consumers for Italian products (dried pasta, canned tomatoes, and olive oil), which in turn greatly aided the development of certain food industries within Italy. Only after substantial numbers of Italians abroad began consuming these foods did domestic production furnish more products for Italians at home. Ironically, it was because of the ‘imagined communities’ outside Italy that the food industry inside Italy produced the goods that became the foundations of Italian cuisine.

In America, this invented ‘traditional’ cuisine was used to construct and delineate new immigrant Italian identities. Overseas demand for the products of ‘home’ stimulated the Italian food industry – and the mass production of tinned tomatoes and other products made them more easily available in Italy. This American connection of Italian identity with a particular kind of Italian cooking was also exported back to Italy.

In a sense, ‘Italian cuisine’ was created in a dialogue between poor, badly nourished Italians in Italy and their wealthier, better-fed cousins in the United States. During the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, Italians began to eat the same food as Italian immigrants, supplementing their diets to a greater extent with meat and dairy products. They also began to link this invented notion of Italian food with being Italian.

The Italian cuisine promoted by the Slow Food Movement was created in the United States and in Italy during the second half of the twentieth century. The ‘traditional’ food to which Slow Food harks back is not the chestnut flour and woody vegetables of inadequate nineteenth-century peasant diets, but, rather, the invented ‘traditional’ Italian food of artisanal olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red peppers, prosciutto, and ricotta.

This is only one example of how a rose-tinted, faulty understanding of history hides the fact that peasant diets – both in the past and those in the present – are produced by backbreaking labour and are usually nutritionally inadequate. We are taller, healthier, and live longer today because our diets are more varied and contain more protein than those of our ancestors.  To suggest to peasants that their diets are somehow better than those in the West is patronising and ignorant.

But the technologies of the twentieth century which revolutionised our food systems are not sustainable. The Green Revolution’s enthusiasm for pesticides and large-scale irrigation, the neglect of small farmers, industrial agriculture, and the increasing concentration of the world’s food supply in the hands of a small collection of supermarkets, agricultural businesses, and food companies, have helped to land us in the situation we’re in now. Clearly, things need to change. Tim Lang writes:

An entire 20th-century approach to food modernity is under threat. Consumer expectations, not least that we can eat whatever we like whenever we like, are at stake. The 20th century squandered scientific possibilities. It created the fiction that ever more food can be produced by tapping oil, throwing fertiliser at seeds, spraying endless water and treating the soil as blotting paper, a neutral medium. We now know how fragile that mix is, and how fragile the Earth’s crust and biology are too.

The future of food is not in the past. Even the Slow Food Movement celebrates a peasant diet which was invented partly in twentieth-century North America. I believe very strongly that we can learn from history to improve our eating and attitudes towards food today, but an unthinking return to ‘tradition’ is both impossible and undesirable.

Update: for more on the general dodginess of Slow Food, see Luca Simonetti’s excellent analysis of the moment’s political and ideological leanings.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Robert Bailey, Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource-Constrained World (Oxfam, 2011).

Carol Helstosky, Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy (Oxford and New York: Berg, [2004] 2006).

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Jerry Mander (ed.), Manifesto on the Future of Food (The International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, 2006).

Other sources:

Julia Csergo, ‘The Emergence of Regional Cuisines,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 500-515.

John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2007).

Donna R. Gabaccia, ‘As American as Budweiser and Pickles? Nation Building in American Food Industries,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 175-193.

Kolleen M. Guy, ‘Rituals of Pleasure in the Land of Treasures: Wine Consumption and the Making of French Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 34-47.

Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, ‘Rice in the Discourse of Selves and Others,’ in Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 99-113.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘The Tortilla Discourse: Nutrition and Nation Building,’ in iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), pp. 77-97.

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