Of the many hardships visited on New York in the first months of the pandemic, food shortages weren’t among them. Supply chains held. Cleaning products vanished from supermarket shelves but there was still plenty to eat. The system showed its tensile strength, its eerie ability to deliver food of all kinds even to a population pinned in place, unequally able to purchase it. When the streets empty of other activity, you notice the people queuing for grass-fed beef and free-range eggs at the local greenmarket, but also the people queuing for food boxes at the local church. When online orders supplant trips to the store, Fresh Direct trucks and boosted delivery bikes join ambulances on the roads. We were supposed to stay at home, but ‘staying home’ outsourced risk to the cashiers, shelf-stockers and delivery guys still riding the subways into Manhattan from Queens. Indeed, the whole battered city outsourced risk – to the migrant farmworkers harvesting California’s lettuces and fruits, and to the ‘essential workers’ at meat-processing plants, which generated a third of a million cases with astonishing speed.
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 kind 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.
I have to confess that I was wary of this argument. We’ve seen so many big books in the ‘X and the Making of the Modern World’ genre – ‘X’ being the commodity (cocoa, sugar, cotton, coffee, tea), individual (Genghis Khan, Sultan Selim, Napoleon, Churchill), religious group (Jesuits, Muslims, Protestants, Freemasons) or invention (gunpowder, clocks, quinine) the author is interested in. British historians have written more than a few of these, reflecting their imperial state’s deep entanglement in globalising processes but also 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 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 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 deepen 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 three hundred. (The poor ate cheaper animals and cheaper cuts, too.) 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 stud farm 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 per cent of the world’s population, by 1930 Britain was taking 99 per cent of the world’s ham and bacon exports, 63 per cent of exported butter and 59 per cent of exported beef. (Otter could have mentioned that 1930 was the first year of the global depression, when countries that could afford to do so were cutting back on imports.)
Wheat consumption followed the same script. Cheap bread was, of course, Victorian liberalism’s rallying cry, 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 per cent 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 per day from sugar; by the early 20th century, it was four hundred. 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 in 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, inventors 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 (the management of risk, the distribution of energy, etc) 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. Who, after all, wants to feed their children tainted meat or bread bulked with sawdust? Or one could write food history as social history, tracking the way 19th-century class conflicts, especially the effort to wrest power away from landed elites, created the conditions and coalitions 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.
This is due in part to his global frame: from this perspective domestic conflicts shrink in significance. The process of using distant regions to fill British bellies was inevitably a violent one, and, as Otter makes clear, 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 of course 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 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 food power’s double-edged nature: 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. For this reason he doesn’t pay much attention to political (much less party) battles over particular pieces of legislation or regulation: the system requires them and so they emerge. Individual nutritionists, inventors or scientists are only passingly referenced – ‘Liverseege thought that prosecution [for adulterating food] was often unnecessary’; ‘Wolff attempted to develop centralised kitchens’; ‘Cleave was adamant that protein and fibre-stripped refined carbohydrates … produced the surge in peptic ulcers’ – but he doesn’t give much credit to their actions, nor does he always bother to tell us who Liverseege, Woolf and Cleave were. Individuals don’t much matter in a system: they are its products, not its authors.
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’, Otter tells us, now outweighs wild ‘zoomass’ by a factor of ten. It’s true that this transformation provoked environmental movements and vegetarian critiques, but these appealed mostly to better-off elites able to abjure cheap food. Are our Fitbits and exercise apps, our vegan diets and locavore restaurants, 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 oil submerges us? I know how Otter would answer this question.
He has written a really excellent book, and it deserves a wide readership. Sadly, I’m not sure it will find one. Otter has had to master a variety of technical subjects (nutrition science, gastroenterology, animal husbandry), and, rather in the manner of a teenager entranced by a video game, has adopted wholesale the jargon of those fields. I sometimes come across a word I don’t know in an academic book, but here I found dozens: zymotachigraphs, alveographs and extensometers (instruments used in baking); colocynth, gamboge and elaterium (stool softeners); oesophoscopes and gastrodiaphony (tools for studying digestive tracts). Pomologists, I learned, are people who study fruit; oyster-eating is ostreophagy. In this book, beets are obconical, cane juice is feculent, intestines are spiculated, and environments are anoxic. These words gladdened my Scrabble-player’s heart, and I gained respect too for Spellcheck, which recognised about two-thirds of them, but if writing the history of our food system matters, surely it might be done in prose an ordinary educated person can understand. Here, sugar doesn’t rot children’s teeth but – Otter prefers the words of a contemporary source – makes them ‘almost edentulous’. Women striving for thinness in a fat-saturated world are ‘trapped inside an inescapable lipophobic oligopticon’. It’s a real shame that sentence got past peer-reviewers and editors, because it will put off readers who should take this book to heart.
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 doesn’t want to follow his argument to its logical conclusion; instead, he 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 governed by its intrinsic logic and not by choice, ‘we’ are no more likely to radically 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 to ground.
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