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Book summary and review 'An Edible History of Humanity'

February 12, 2018

 

Standage, Tom. An Edible History of Humanity. New York: Walker & Co, 2009. Tom Standage in his book ‘An Edible History of Humanity’ has defined human history by connecting it with food. According to the author food and agriculture have always directly influenced human culture, economic, political and social systems throughout the history. In this book, Tom Standage discussed the origin of agriculture, shift of human living from hunter-gatherer to smaller villages, relation of food-power-war and politics, trading of agricultural produce, industrialization of nations, colonization, famines, current status of agriculture, green revolution in a very detailed and interesting way. The content of this book is summarized into subsections underneath.

 

Agriculture and its relation to early human settlements

 

According to the author advent of agriculture led to the initial settlement and village formation- as it provided assured supply of food with little effort compared to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. These villages also provided the foundation for the development of early political and social systems. Food was considered as a major currency. Its abundance divided the population into different classes such as poor and rich. Eventually, further evolution of political and socio-economic system replaced food with paper money.

 

Spice trade, new world discovery and colonization

 

Standage wrote that spices trade of the world led to the discovery of the America and the initial spread of Islamic religion. Historically most spices have been produced in the Indian subcontinent and Arabs played the role of the middle man to trade it to the Europe. The higher price of spices encouraged the Europeans to undertake the exploration of the Indian subcontinent by themselves which eventually led to the discovery of the America. Initial expeditions were carried out by the Spain followed by the England, France, and Dutch. It also started an era of colonization in the human history.

 

Agricultural productivity and its relation to nations industrialization

According to Tom modern agriculture needs fewer people to produce the large amount of food compared to the earlier farming. This freed large population of the nations to pursue other sectors and led to industrialization. This is how industrialization started in Britain and followed by other countries.

 

Food, war and political conflicts

 

Moral of an army depends on the availability of food. Historically shorter armies proved to be much successful because of their lower food requirement and lower food availability. Smaller armies did not depend on traditional ration system as they forage on locally available food. They were also much swifter and speedier then larger armies.

 

Great famines of the modern world & why we need democracy?

 

The author talked about the famines of the modern world later in the book. Stalin and Mow’s policy of centralizing the farmers land led to the extremely low production of food grain in China and USSR, killing over 7-8 and 30-40 million people respectively. According to the author food production is very sensitively linked with political policies and any drastic change of policy without proper study can have a catastrophic effect. The author explains that democracy is essential for stable agriculture as opposition political parties keep elected under check.

 

Agriculture and innovation

 

The author pointed that evolution of agriculture has been always linked with many major inventions such as the production of ammonia from the air by German scientist Fritz Harber, breeding of extremely dwarf wheat varieties by Norman Borlaug. The author believes that these inventions fed billions of more people and led to the green revolution in the Asia. Analysis's shows that revival of the Asian economy in mid 19th century was not possible without it. But to sustain growing economy and population there is the need for another green revolution. However, previous green revolution had replaced most of the indigenous varieties. This has lead to poor genetic diversity in crops, which is essential for future breeding projects. Thus in present days most of the germplasm is being saved in seed banks, gene bank and Svalbard Global Seed Vault is an elite example.

 

Discussion and review

 

The author has structured book in a coherent, logical and understandable form. Standage has used a good sum of resources/references while writing this book. This book showed strong ties between evolution of human history and food. This book also provides a broader picture of human history. Although Standage has presented human history more from the European point of view in most part of book but he did discuss about Asia in later part of book. Very less has been talked about other parts of the world. Standage has effectively linked various transformations throughout the history. Reading this books is like reading a story which keeps reader engaged and interested throughout the book. This might be the reason it is one of the bestseller book. This Book is a recommended for those persons who want to know about agriculture- food and its influence on shaping human history ranging from cultures, wars, politics, trading and much more.

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