Below, is an edited version of a book review recently published in LBR. It seems to me to encompass all of the ills of our current global food systems, and to indicate how and where these systems came into being. I thought that it is such a powerful argument, and so close to home, that I should share it with others who may be interested in history.
Diet for a Large Planet: Industrial Britain, Food Systems and World Ecology
Review by Susan Pedersen (just appointed Visiting Leverhulme Professor at Cambridge)
The philosophy underlying our global food system is often referred to as cornucopianism - the belief that the earth’s capacity to produce food is, as a result of planning and technological innovation, just about limitless. Of course, many people now look askance at this kid of large planet thinking and, still more, at the diets, practices and conditions it has produced. We now know that the way people eat has grown more uniform; that we eat ever more salt, sugar, fat and animal protein, usually in highly processed and refined forms; that this diet is responsible for increasing rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity; and that it is eroding our soils, clearing our forests, poisoning our seas, subjecting to prolonged suffering the species we eat, displacing the species we don’t, and relentlessly heating the planet. Chris Otter knows all this, but our desperate straits aren’t his main subject. Diet for a Large Planet is instead an account of the way this food system came into existence and the outsize role Britain played in its creation.
British historians reflect their imperial state´s deep entanglement in globalising processes as well as a desire to make their field seem relevant, even important as the nation they study limps into insignificance. But Otter persuaded me, not just because he keeps his eye on a particular and definable end (the making of our food system, rather than the modern world) , but also because he understands that global impact is judged comparatively and quantitatively, frequently pausing to measure British developments against those in other large states. In this way, his argument for Britain’s singular trajectory does emerge. For a host of reasons - because it was densely populated but comparatively rich, had to import food to survive, controlled a number of pastoral neo-Europes thousands of miles away, moved early and decisively towards free-trade policies that dispersed food production and drove down prices, possessed a navy that could safeguard shipments even during world wars - Britain forged much of the infrastructure that underpins today’s cornucopianism.
This is a rough 19th century story, and Otter tells it in two parts. The first explains how Britain’s expanding population came to consume ever expanding quantities of three staple products - meat, wheat and sugar - and to import them from increasingly further away. A few figures bring out the scale of this transition. Food imports to Britain increased almost eightfold over the second half of the century; by 1909 more than four-fifths of British bread was made from imported wheat. But Britain didn’t just steadily increase its dependence on imported food; it did so earlier and more thoroughly than any other large state. States with vast agricultural hinterlands (the US, Russia) could rely on internal markets; some continental states (Germany , France) sought for strategic or political reasons to shelter their agricultural sectors. Britain chose to outsource production, in the process creating a networked global economy of food.
Take meat. Even in the early 19th century, Britons ate more meat - 75 pounds per person per year in the 1830s - than other European peoples, and by the turn of the century this had grown to 120 pounds. These averages do obscure variation: in 1904 labourers were eating an average of 87 pounds annually while aristocrats were shovelling down 300. The key point though is that demand rose across the board beyond that which even Britain´s intensive livestock farmers could supply. So Britain became the studfarm of the world, sending new strains of cattle to the pastoral grasslands of Argentina and the Antipodes and then eating their bulked up descendants. Refrigerated shipping made New Zealand mutton cheaper than mutton raised at home. No country was so dependent on imported meat; with only 3% of the world´s population, by 1930 Britain was taking 99% of the world´s ham and bacon exports, 63% of exported butter and 59% of exported beef.
Wheat consumption followed the same script. Cheap bread was of course the rallying cry of Victorian liberalism, the slogan under which new working class voters were taught the gospel of free trade. Workers had good reason to care about prices, because bread provided around half the calories in working class diets. Nothing was more essential to family life. Most of it, by the turn of the century was wheat bread, and the great majority of wheat flour was imported particularly from the Canadian prairies. Britain consumed about 40% of the wheat traded globally by that point, but other countries had been pulled into the system too. Managing the market in grain became an industry of its own and by 1930 two thirds of all futures trading was in wheat. People who still ate other grains - oatmeal, rye - were dismissed as faddists or foreigners. As Otter puts it, the flocculent, symmetrical white bread loaf was resolutely capitalist bread, the product of planetary food systems and liberalised wheat flow.
Sugar, though, was Britain’s first large planet food - a product so desirable and addictive that it remade economies and territories as well as the lives and bodies of everyone sucked into its maw. Britain developed its craving for sugar early: in the mid 18th century, the average Briton was already getting 72 calories a day from sugar; by the early 20th century it was 400. Sugar fuelled the slave trade and the Caribbean’s highly capitalist plantation economy and even after slavery´s demise it continued to restructure relations around the globe. Sugar made regions monocultural, their economies and peoples serving consumers thousands of miles away. Britons stood out for the intensity of their addiction - their jams tooth-aching, their chocolate so sweet it was judged inedible on the Continent. By 1939 Britain had 250 000 sweetshops.
Comparatively early then, Britain had made a world-changing transition. But it is the second part of the book when he turns to the workings of the global food system itself, that Otter really hits his stride. A country that is going to feed a rapidly growing population on meat and wheat raised continents away doesn’t just need railways and grain silos, industrial slaughter and refrigerated transport. It also needs food safety regulations and inspectorates, preservatives and pasteurisation. It needs nutritionists to measure food values and advise on diet, scientists to breed drought resistant grains and bulkier hogs, investors to mechanise everything from battery farming to baking and entrepreneurs to finance sugar refineries on Merseyside and cocoa plantations in West Africa. Caught up in the incentives and demands of their own position or place, few people involved in the system - and still fewer of those reliant on it for sustenance - could see it whole. Otter does so by using a series of organising frames to lay bare its logic.
Parts of this story - the late Victorian elaboration of food safety standards, for example - fit within a narrative of progress. One could write food history as social history, tracking the way 19th century class conflicts, especially the efforts to wrest power away from landed elites, created the conditions and coalition that made free trade in food seem not only economically optimal but morally right. Otter doesn’t tell the story that way. The great campaigns against the Corn Laws, Joseph Chamberlain´s unsuccessful attempt to build populist support for protection, and the decline in agricultural prices and land values of the last quarter of the century are hardly mentioned.
From the perspective of global issues, domestic conflicts shrink in significance. The process of using distant regions to fill British bellies was inevitably a violent one, and as Otter points out, most of that violence was displaced abroad. With metropolitan markets taking precedence, famine was effectively outsourced to peripheral zones, as was any work of an especially brutal kind. The horrors of plantation slavery stand out, but the debt-peons who raised crop yields by scraping stinking phosphate rich guano off South American rocks were so wretchedly treated that they sometimes threw themselves off cliffs rather than carry on. Imperial reach and control of the seas meant Britain could build global chains and continue to rely on food imports rather than stockpiles even during war, but maritime dominance meant that it could weaponise food too, as it did most effectively by blockading the Central Powers during the First World War. And once the War ended, Britain and America would relieve populations they had brought to the edge of starvation, rendering palpable the double edged nature of food power; the power to withhold food and to administer it as cure.
But Otter also tells his story this way because he thinks in terms of systems, not classes; the shadow of Foucault, not Marx, hovers over this book. Food power, like bio power is a force of its own distributing risk and energy, even existence itself unevenly across the globe. Britain was the key site for its emergence, but Otter makes clear that by the end of the 19th century, food power was dispersed and self-generating, an instrument of discipline and economic transformation in its own right.
With our heavier bodies, heart disease, rampant diabetes and eating disorders we too are the long term insidious products of food systems disposed to provide cheap sugary processed food. We learned to see the entire ecosystem and the animal kingdom as our expendable dominion; domestic zoomass now outweighs wild zoomass by a factor of ten. It is true that this transformation provoked environmental movements and vegetarian critiques, but these appealed most to better off elites able to abjure cheap food. Are our Fit-bits and exercise apps, our vegan diets and locavore restaurants merely holdouts against our food system or merely further evidence of its remorseless adaptability, its capacity to supply niche markets and foster fringe foodways even as the tsunami of sugar and oils submerges us?
Otter´s final chapter is titled Acceleration, and if it doesn’t scare you, it should. The dietary transition experienced by Britain in the 19th century was spread further by American power, the Green Revolution and the neoliberal economic reforms of the 1970s. China, Indonesia and India have all now embarked on the same journey. Predictable ecological and health consequences are in train. Hunger still stalks our world, but today as many people (one billion) are obese as are hungry, and more than 400 million are diabetic as well. The global population is still growing, the proportion of the Earth devoted to agriculture is growing too. Otter concludes with a few hortatory words about how we must reverse large-planet thinking and the global inequalities it has engendered if we are to survive. Unfortunately, nothing in his book suggests that this is remotely possible. If the global food system is covered by its intrinsic logic, and not by choice, we are no more likely radically to alter it than we are to ban air travel and air conditioning, even as the planet burns. More likely, we will glut ourselves on flocculent bread and feculent corn syrup until environmental and epidemiological disasters run us into the ground.