It is the first book about food that I have read which never mentions taste or eating. There are no recipes. Instead, An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage is devoted to food as the source of civilization, of industrialization, as a weapon, and as the determiner of humanity's future.
History is often seen as, to use Steven Jay Gould's term, a 'punctuated equilibrium': Long periods in which little happens separated by turning points that frequently change everything. In the more historical chapters of the book, the two biggest turning points are the development of agriculture—which brought about civilization by making cities possible—, and the replacement of 'traditional' power by fossil fuels—which made industrialization possible because fewer farmers were needed per acre of crop.
The six sections of the book are:
- The Edible Foundation of Civilization
- Food and Social Structure
- Global Highways of Food
- Food, Energy, and Industrialization
- Food as a Weapon
- Food, Population and Development
The first turning point, agriculture itself, allowed great expansion of the population, but the fixed size of the Earth's cultivable surface set a limit on the total amount of food humanity could produce. The second turning point allowed a much greater expansion of population, and the invention of chemical fertilizers multiplied this potential. However, the cultivable surface has grown no bigger. We can at most double the amount of land now in cultivation…and then what?
A felicitous sociological principle could save us: wealth reduces fertility. The more prosperous a country, the lower its citizens' birth rate. The poor need to 'sire up field hands', and then hope they will have enough surviving offspring to care for them when they are old. Having many children is the only retirement plan available to them. A more prosperous person will at first dream of raising more children, but will soon realize that prosperity itself provides a better retirement plan. Everywhere that has become 'developed' the majority of people began to favor quality over quantity in their descendants. They put fewer eggs in the basket, but watched the basket better. Some developed nations actually have a negative population growth rate.
These sociological forces are expected to lead to an eventual reduction in population. But there is one caveat: sometime, perhaps while today's college kids are still around, fossil fuels will run low to the point we can no longer use them to support the level of industry and transportation that is now 'normal' in developed countries. Only if we develop sustainable energy technologies will our industrial present remain robust long into the future.
Were the human race to lose its ability to produce more energy than growing plants can provide, human population would of necessity drop to about one-third or less of today's level, perhaps two billions. We have become dependent on industrialization and high levels of energy use. While near-future wars could be fought over petroleum, it is more likely that the next war will be about water or food.
Much of the prior two paragraphs is my rumination, not what Mr. Standage writes. He is hopeful. Though there could be wars over food, he expects technology to pull through again, and give us a combination of tools to avert such a tragedy, from better conservation of water and land, to more efficient use of fertilizers, and genetic or crossbreeding products that improve total yields just a little bit more. Should civilization collapse, the Svalbard Seed Bank is the Noah's Ark of the next millennium, available when humanity returns to its senses.