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Food is the collective noun we use to describe the vast range of animal and vegetable products that we human beings consume for nutrition and survival. At its most basic biological level, food is the fuel that is required by the body for biological functioning, and it is extracted from other organic matter in the form of energy. In order to live, we must eat food. Food also has a fundamental role in the formation of culture.
The act of exchanging food connects human beings with other species, with other human beings across diverse geographical regions, and with a notion of a divine being. Food is an integral part of world history on biological, social, and cultural levels because it is fundamental to networks of ecological and human exchange.
Food connects humans with the plant and animal kingdoms within a complex web of interconnections, commonly called an “ecosystem,” thus bringing human existence into close symbiosis with the natural environment through processes of adaptation. Rock paintings in Europe, Africa, and Asia from more than twelve thousand years ago depict the collection of honey, one of humankind’s most ancient and durable foods, and represent the symbiotic relationship between flowers, bees, and human beings. From the Cheyenne people of the U.S. western plains to the Jews, from the Greeks to the Amazonians, honey has also been an enduring motif in the creation myths and legends of world cultures.
The act of exchanging food is central to social organization, to cultural identity and to religious practice. The great Hindu epic, the Bhagavad Gita, states that all beings come into existence from food. The ancient Greeks worshipped Demeter (goddess of agriculture), and the Romans paid homage to their agricultural god Ceres (from whom we get the word cereal) in order to secure good harvests of wheat and barley. For the Aztecs, Chicomecoatl was the provider of maize from the heavens. The cultural importance of bread in both Christian and Jewish religious ceremonies is a further example of the cultural significance of food, and the Arabic term halal (sanctioned by Islamic law) and the Yiddish term kosher (sanctioned by Jewish law) remind us that rules of preparation and social interaction are guided by the sacred place of food in the human imagination. Moreover, the prohibition or reverence of certain foodstuffs in world religions (the taboo on eating beef for Hindus and the taboo on pork in Islam and Judaism, for example) speak of the symbolic role of “purity” and “pollution” in maintaining social rules of group inclusion and exclusion. In Hinduism, caste rules are maintained through complex and intricate food regulations designed to maintain social order.
Food Surplus and Emergence of Agrarian Civilizations
Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest hominids (erect bipedal primate mammals comprising recent humans and extinct ancestral and related forms) in east Africa, Australiopethicus afarensis, probably ate roots, leaves, berries, and fruit as well as fish and insects that were caught by hand but that they did not consciously manipulate the natural environment. But not until the evolution of the direct ancestors of modern humans (Homo erectus) do we see changes in the varieties of food gathered and the manner in which food procurement formed the basic structure of societal organization. In particular, in the hunter-gatherer groups of 100,000 years ago we see a way of life that was socially organized around the search for nutrition. Anthropologists have used their studies of hunter-gatherer groups such as the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, the Hadza of Tanzania, and Australian aboriginal peoples to provide a window into the world of preagricultural human communities. Sometimes called “foragers,” these groups had a mobile way of life with few possessions, moving from food source to food source and eating a wide variety of nutritious vegetables, seeds, berries, and nuts as well as hunting the occasional animal or catching fish. Food was shared equally throughout the social group. Depending on the availability of food in a given area, subsistence changed, and the group moved to exploit new areas for nutritional purposes. In terms of labor and energy usage, hunter-gatherer groups have a relatively large amount of time to rest, sleep, and spend with each other in comparison with agricultural communities. For more than 90 percent of human history, the principal mode of food procurement was foraging.
The phenomenon of domesticating plants and animals with the intention of preserving food supply and the result of producing a surplus to horde or exchange marks a fundamental shift in human history known commonly as “agriculture.” In simplest terms agriculture is the shift from food collection to food production involving what the historian David Christian calls “a shift from extensive to intensive technologies” (Christian 2004, 207). Due to the change in energy usage, the expenditure of labor power, and the fact that communities now tended to stay in permanent settlements, these practices gave rise to the emergence of the first agrarian civilizations. From the third to the middle of the first millennium BCE, these civilizations were found only in Afro-Eurasia, first clustered around the fertile banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Mesopotamia and the Nile River in Egypt but later emerging in the Indus River valley of Asia and northern China. The cultivation of cereal crops and the subsequent domestication of animals in separate regions gave rise to a surplus of food that was used for hording, internal exchange, or external trade.
Food and Trading Networks
Foodstuffs were an important part of the trading networks of agrarian civilizations. Although staples such as wheat and millet in western Asia and rice in India and China always dominated internal trade, highly prized exotic and luxury food items were integral commodities of exchange along the ancient trade routes that linked civilizations. More than two thousand years ago Indian spices and coconuts were traded with the Romans in ancient Egypt via the seafaring route. During the time of trade along the Silk Roads from the Roman Empire to Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) China, for example, foods such as anise seeds, dried dates, apricots, cherries, and pomegranates were exchanged. By far the most lucrative and profitable trade was in spices from the Malabar Coast of India, which was monopolized by Arab and Indian traders for centuries, pouring great wealth into the Indian Ocean area. Europeans in particular sought black pepper. In the heyday of the overland spice trade, the European demand for pepper meant that it was worth more in weight than gold, bringing social prestige to traders and bestowing wealth and opulence to cities such as Venice, which prospered during the Middle Ages to become a leading center of culture and commerce. The monopoly of the trade, however, and increasing demand for broader consumption pushed the quest to find an alternative route to the Islamic-Eurasian spice networks through European sea exploration. As an exchange good from ancient times to the fifteenth century CE, pepper typifies the manner in which specialized foodstuffs became commodities of high value in emerging commercial networks, creating great profits for middle traders in particular. The trade in pepper ushered in the era of exploration as Europeans sought direct access to the market for lucrative spices.
The Columbian Exchange
The exploration of Christopher Columbus in 1492 did not find Indian spices but instead forged a new system of ecological exchange by which the trade in new foodstuffs would radically change global nutritional flows for the rest of human history. The opening of the sea route between Afro-Eurasia and the Americas brought together three world systems for the first time, and the European encounter with indigenous civilizations in the Americas would at once have a devastating effect on those civilizations as it also benefited the European quest for new lands, new markets, and new sources for better nutrition. The European encounter with the Americas was also a confrontation with species of plants and animals that were unknown in Europe and that had evolved in isolation due to unique patterns of evolutionary development. The subsequent transatlantic swapping of peoples, plants, animals, and diseases that culturally transformed both sides of the Atlantic is commonly known as the “Columbian Exchange.”
The discovery of new indigenous food sources in the Americas brought the emergence of new webs of commercial exchange that profoundly affected the European diet. New plant varieties, integral to the diets of indigenous Americans, Aztecs, and Mayans—such as kidney beans, peanuts, squash, peppers, pumpkins, pineapples, and avocados—were introduced to the European diet, whereas rice, wheat, barley, oats, coffee, sugarcane, bananas, melons, and olives came to the Americas from Afro-Eurasia. Of particular significance for the increase in trade to Europe was the introduction of the potato, which radically changed net yields of crops per acre, was higher in calories than any European grain, and provided a new source of carbohydrates that was to eventually become a staple food for the northern and western European working class during the Industrial Revolution. Indigenous peoples in the Andes of Bolivia were cultivating potatoes and other tubers ten thousand years ago. Maize was domesticated seven thousand years ago in the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico and produces almost double the yield of wheat. Maize was introduced to Afro-Eurasia for both human food and livestock feed, providing a new source of protein.
Sugar also was a lucrative food commodity whose production and trade were intimately entwined with the slave trade as a result of this new network of exchange among Europe, the Americas, and Africa. An expensive and highly prized commodity, sugar had reached both the ancient and medieval European worlds via Arab traders, but its production shifted to the Mediterranean by the fourteenth century. By the fifteenth century sugar production flourished in the Portuguese plantations in Algarve and Madeira due largely to the free labor of slaves who were transported from the west coast of Africa.
The opening up of the New World provided traders with an opportunity to satisfy the increasing demand for sugar as production moved to the Caribbean, where it began to thrive during the early sixteenth century. The expansion of the plantation system was a direct result of the increasing demand for sugar in Europe. The demand increased as beverages such as coffee and tea became lower in price, lost their luxury status, and became popular with the masses. Cargo ships left Europe loaded with manufactured goods such as textiles, glass, tobacco, and gunpowder and headed for the West African coast, where these goods were bartered for slaves who were taken to the Caribbean and then to America to work on the sugar plantations. Sugar was the first major “cash” or export crop cultivated in the Americas to satisfy market demand in Europe, and its production using slave labor exemplified the exploitive nature of new global networks of food exchange that operated not to provide nutrition but rather to serve the interests of European capital and demand in a new global market.
Industrialization and Imperialism
Hence, Europeans colonized foreign lands and used slave labor to increase their supplies of food. Yet this was not a new political phenomenon. In ancient world societies with rising population growth, such as Greece and Rome, an adequate domestic surplus was not sufficient to feed their own people. Through political conquest and military invasion, such empires secured plentiful food supplies from external sources. Hence, Greeks and Romans secured their wheat from Egypt and exotic fruits, such as cherries and peaches, and spices from the Mediterranean and Persia. During the modern era, however, as the population of Europe rose substantially during the nineteenth century, demand was even greater for an external food supply. That demand was created by quite different circumstances. The twin processes of overpopulation and industrialization caused mass emigrations from Europe across the Atlantic and to Australasia and a corresponding need to import large quantities of food from the rest of the world. This need created a global trade in foodstuffs on a scale never seen before in world history. In 1850 world exports of food were less than 3.6 million metric tons but by the 1880s had increased to 16 million metric tons and to 36 million metric tons by 1914.
The conversion of new lands for cultivation in places such as Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand during the nineteenth century and the appropriation of colonial food sources from Asia enabled people to import food items to Europe from overseas markets and to move bulk food items over long distances in parallel with advances in shipping technology. Countries such as Britain shifted the focus of their food imports from exotic or luxury food items to the bulk staples that formed the basis of their diet, such as cereals, dairy products, and meat. By the early 1880s the use of refrigerated cargo ships enabled frozen animal carcasses to be exported from Australasia to Europe, allowing the export of bulk meat products. In sum this export was a movement of mass foodstuffs to feed millions of people. Moreover, the shrinking of the domestic agricultural sector in Britain in particular occurred in tandem with the consolidation of an overseas empire, creating a market for the export of manufactured goods to be traded for primary produce.
Entitlement and Deprivation
While food is an integral part of world history on biological, social, and cultural levels, it is also integral to the development of political movements, actions, and sensibilities. While the lack of basic foodstuffs due to poor harvests can lead to starvation, a natural shortage of food is not always the cause of a breakdown in food distribution mechanisms. On the contrary, food riots in world history have occurred when a breakdown in the entitlement to basic foodstuffs such as bread affected subsistence levels as a result of rising prices. What the sociologist E. P. Thompson calls a “moral economy” amongst the poor develops to galvanize resistance to this deprivation, leading to a demand that prices be lowered so that subsistence levels are maintained. Protests about bread prices provided the political impetus for the events leading to the French Revolution of 1789 but they have also been a standard feature of revolutionary activity worldwide. The emphasis on the mechanisms of food distribution and exchange has also changed our understanding of famines. A widespread shortage of food leading to mass starvation has been a persistent phenomenon in world history. Famines occurred throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and the early modern period, especially in England and France, causing significant population decreases. Crop failures also caused widespread famine in China, India and parts of Africa. Nineteenth and twentieth century famines were characterized by their scale, devastating effect and the implications of political neglect. The Great Irish Famine of 1845–1849 emphasized the extent of that country’s dependence on the potato, a Peruvian tuber, but also on the pressing need for government assistance and support. The famines of the modern era have been located mainly in Africa and Asia where unequal distribution of resources and the impact of colonial rule have underscored nutritional vulnerabilities. While harvest failures and inclement weather conditions provide the precipitating conditions for mass starvation, it is often breakdowns in the distribution of available food that often leads to the inability of the poor to afford basic foodstuffs. Causes of starvation are often inflated prices for the available food and not a decrease in the overall food supply that underscores the politics of famine. The economist Amartya Sen’s famous analysis (1983) of the Bengal famine of 1943 provided an explanation of how the rural poor were deprived of the entitlement to food in a manner that the urban middle-class were not. As food prices become intimately enmeshed in the vagaries of global capitalism, food becomes a commodity to be sold and bought in a market where human need has become less important than profit.
Globalization and Crisis
These changes in the manner in which food is distributed and exchanged on the world market have meant that the need to fulfill nutritional requirements has been replaced by the needs of global capital. Food has changed from being a source of nutrition exchanged for the purposes of survival to being a commodity traded for profit in a global system of trade, a phenomenon that has benefited the West. Processes of economic and cultural globalization leading to the rise of an affluent middle-class in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America has seen “fast food” culture transform urban eating habits across the world. The rise of the global “fast food” outlet has been perceived as a process of rampant Westernization where the erasure of cultural differences and the transformation of local eating habits have mirrored the homogenizing effects of global capital.
The difference between global “fast food” culture and the nutritional struggle of the world’s poor could not be starker. With food prices indexed to inflation and currency exchange rates, fluctuation in value often means that the poorest communities in developing countries cannot afford it. The division between “developed” and “developing” nations and the continued prevalence of famine in parts of Africa and Asia are the legacies of this unequal distribution by which networks of commercial food exchange have favored both the appetite and the economic growth of the West. The global financial crisis was in many respects precipitated by a world food price crisis bringing economic uncertainly and social unrest to many parts of the developing world. The price of basic staples has risen beyond the reach of the poor. The specter of the bread riot has re-emerged in recent years in places such as Egypt and Mexico as a timely reminder that access to basic nutrition is a social entitlement rather than an economic privilege.
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