Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Food is the Driver of Civilization

The author, Mark Bittman in this book, "Animal, Vegetable, Junk" contends that it is food that has drives civilization.  Unfortunately he sees a disaster unless we take steps to reverse trends.  The subtitle is "A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal".

Society was a long time arriving at the so-called Agriculture Revolution.  At one time there were no tools and our human bodies had not evolved to the more effective ones we take for granted today.  Those who could process available food would have their brains evolve.  Cutting and scraping tools boosted the process.  Spears made it easier to kill wild animals.  Fire made food more edible.  We learned to communicate and to cook.

Property concepts developed as claims for plants that had been seeded.  Of course rules are no good unless they can be enforced.  

Some areas got off to a head start where plants were easier to plant and harvest.  The Fertile Crescent (from the Nile River to the Tigris and Euphrates and over to the Persian Gulf) was such an area which in turn necessitated more rules and an enforcement system.  The author notes that foragers found children a burden, but when they settled as farmers children could be helpful.  A net result as farming gained a foothold was that surpluses were created.  This led to inequality.

Soil was learned to be a key part of the process and systems were developed to maximize its quality.  Four methods were established for maintaining nutrient quality during repeated plantings.  Fallowing, planting cover crops, crop rotation and fertilizing.  Plows allowed long straight lines which encouraged monoculture, meaning single crop on a field which in turn has led to poor soil maintenance.  

During the 'Dark Ages" (500 C.E. to 1500 C.E.) Asia and the Muslim world were thriving.  Spices inspired exploration.  Vasco da Gama made it to India by going around Africa.  Christopher Columbus was sent to find India by a different route, but instead discovered America.  Before too long Europeans found potatoes, tomatoes, corn and lots of other foods that became staples.

 Industrial agriculture developed as labor needs increased.  Along the way slavery spread underlying the desire for profit regardless of the suffering of others.  Cruelty to livestock came down to efficiency.  Tractors and heavy financing encouraged a monoculture farming that increases the need for pesticides and depletes the soil.

Processing food is part of the profit efficiency.  Marketing helps steer consumers to make eating and drinking choices to the most profitable for big money. 

There are enough calories available today to banish human hunger, but a large percentage are fed to livestock.  In 1917 neutral Denmark suffered a German blockcade of critical food imports.  They reduced alcohol production, rationalizing white bread, cutting out raising of pigs and other measures.   Dr. Mikkel Hindhede said, "Meat is the last requirement <for a diet>.  If the people must wait until pigs and cattle have sufficient food, then they will die of starvation."

Hope for the future.  The concept of agoecology is becoming more accepted and like the linked problem of climate change gaining more urgency.  There are many food lobbyists who have controlled government legislation, but there are more consumers who can exert pressure to to adopt a more sensible food system.

A powerful message from the author is "Power is at the nexus of all the interlocking issues that define the food system and an ethical restructuring of food systems must right the historical wrongs of land and wealth distribution and empower the world's most vulnerable people".  You would better appreciate the message as you read the book.

An earlier book that has been a life changer for me has been "VB6 Eat Vegan Before 6" .

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