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on 26 August 2011
An Edible History of Humanity is a jog through the ways in which the technologies of food production have influenced history. Examples from many periods are covered: the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture; the spice trade; the influence of food on military history (from Napoleon to the Cold War); the green revolution of the sixties and seventies; the great famines of Stalin and Mao.

It was something of a disappointment after Standage's outstanding earlier books The Neptune File (on planetary discovery) and The Victorian Internet (the history of the telegraph). Part of the problem is that, unlike these earlier works, there is no real narrative - just a sequence of examples. So the book lacks a sense of overall organisation or structure.

Also the material just seems on average duller than the earlier books. There are some interesting details (for example the discovery of synthetic nitrogen by Haber) but also a good deal of fairly pedestrian stuff about the various episodes in the spice trade.

There is a tendency towards the statement of the obvious. As the Times review pointed out, the book's conclusion that "food is certain to be a vital ingredient of humanity's future" is banal. Also, when Standage points out that tin cans are "still in use today" I wondered to whom exactly this might come as news.
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on 11 July 2009
This is not a thematic history of humanity - it is twelve vignettes about food production spanning the period from the emergence of `settled agriculture' until today. The content is fairly standard and superficial - no more than entry level history. No surprises, original facts, or insights. The runner under this pleasantly written text is obvious: if only human societies would embrace democracy and espouse the market economy they'd live in Panglossian bliss.

This kind of approach goes under the heading of `affirmation' - plausible evidence conjured in support of a conjecture in the hope that people will believe it to be `true'. Another term for this kind of exercise could be marshalling of `common sense'. Its effect is to `feel good' about it, not to `prove' the point. As Karl Popper has told us, in an inductive world we can only disprove a conjecture. Such truth is beyond our powers.

Turning freak chance into a stately chain of progress - retrospective rationalising - is a key ingredient. What would have happened if geniuses like Haber and Borlaugh had not appeared in the nick of time, before the world declined into famines? One dare not even speak of Marxist `historical inevitabilities' for even these do not determine the timing of the historical contingencies.

Sharp-eyed selectivity helps - a lot. The author fondly quotes Amartya Sen to the effect that famines and democracy don't mix - the Irish potato famine being the regretful imbroglio that defeated Lord Peel's good (and timely) intentions. So 5% of the book's content is devoted to Communist famines. The eyes are pudibondly averted from all the Imperial famines that accompanied the forced entry of India (and China) into the international markets - individually and collectively just and bad as the Great Leap Forward. Sen is forgotten when he points out that in 1948 India and China had the same levels of life expectancy. Now China is ahead by ten years - which translates into roughly ten million unnecessary Indian deaths each year. Negligence is no crime...

Parochialism is de rigeur. Standage's history is plainly the history of the West. It starts out with ignoring great centres of food domestication (southern India - coconut and banana; Papua New Guinea; taro and other foodstuffs; Sudan, cattle) and then sails serenely across centuries of `world history' where Africa hardly warrants more than a deprecative footnote - there is no history there, said Trevor-Roper - and India and China, well they just had more people; they did not really contribute to the world's technological development, did they? The West did it all by its clever self: numbers, gunpowder, print, and compass.

Modesty behoves the historian - Tacitus opined - particularly when confronted with embarrassing questions, one is tempted to add. The author professes ignorance of the causes of `Great Divergence' that brought backwater Europe to preponderance in the world. Not for him crude issues like plundering of the Americas, industrial-scale slavery, destruction of Western India that so incensed conservative-minded Burke, or the forced descent of China into opium addiction. Like a boat, Standage's imperialism leaves no wake.

Ignorance is no bar. According to the author, the original civilisational transition is from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture. Sorry; and where does this leave nomadic civilisations, which domesticated animals (horses, cattle, sheep and goats) without settlement? Ever heard of Genghis Khan? The Eurasian continent today is still divided roughly in accordance with his geopolitical views. Admittedly, this flaw is widespread among historians and anthropologists: Eric Gellner does the same mistake.

Finally a few omissions: if one speaks of food - well salt is food, right? History, in particular Western history, cannot be understood without a thorough knowledge of the link between salt and power. Salary and salt after all share the same root. Power coalesced around salt in the European Middle Ages, and lack of salt helped defeat the Confederacy. Incidentally I'm missing a text on the civilisational role of hay: for Northern Europe was properly settled only after the invention of hay (the Romans did not have this technology).

The book is Whiggish history at its best. In the final chapter agricultural productivity inaugurates the demographic transition, and genetic tinkering plus wise Arctix burying of genetic plant material (no room for livestock in this glacial Arch) will get us any conceivable future difficulty. On page 229 Malthus ghost is `finally put to rest'. Tom Standage has missed Jared Diamond's `consumption factor'. True, we may produce enough calories for everyone today. But the solution of the quantity problem has been purchased at the cost of a delayed quality problem: were we to provide the whole mankind with the food lifesyle of the West, this would be roughly equivalent to increasing population to a trifling 72 billion.
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on 6 September 2013
This book gains my highest recommendation. You can apply its 'knowledge' to your everyday existence and it is a real eye-opener for everyone interested in nutrition, environment and agriculture (not necessarily in that order).
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on 30 July 2009
This book gives a fascinating account of the key role food has played in our history. As well as the more obvious changes like the move from hunter gatherer to farmer, the description of, for example, how the spice trade encouraged exploration of the new world, is covered in great depth. It is extremely well written - if like me you were turned off history at school because it seemed very dry, this is an excellent take on the subject with masses of human interest stories to keep you turning the pages. Highly recommended.
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on 21 January 2015
Best book in the world bar none.
Try going hungry for a week and see how the production and supply of food starts to interest you.
A completely different way of looking at the world.
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on 18 August 2009
Recently read this while on Holiday. A very balenced book which I would recomend to anyone
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