an edible history of humanity

Part IV: Food, Energy, and Industralization

Part IV: Food, Energy and Industrialization

As more and more plants began to be imported into Europe, more and more people became interested in them. Soon, botanists were studying and adapting plants left and right. People wanted to understand plants so that they could put them to use in as many ways possible. They wanted to understand these plants so they could develop new cures for diseases that came with trade ships from tropical regions, as well as to find out how to make money off of new plants.

One of the most popular plants was sugarcane. It was becoming increasingly popular in Europe as well as in the United States. Sugar was a convenient way to get calories. Workers could easily spread treacle or jam onto bread. This supplied more calories, with less work. No cooking was necessary. But, working at a sugar processing plant was dangerous work. The United States began to import slaves to work the sugar processing plants. This created a trade triangle. Sugar was processed and then shipped to Europe to be used for cooking and selling. Manufactured goods, such as textiles, were shipped to Africa and then used to purchase slaves, which were then sent back to America to work the sugar processing plants. This was the beginning of the slave trade. Many slaves, sadly, did not live to see America after they had been purchased.

The manufacturing of sugar cane led to much more than a product of sugar. It was the beginning of the industrial revolution. As sugar became more popular, there was a higher demand for it. Sugar companies began to streamline how they produced sugar. Expensive machinery was made and brought in to hurry the assembly line. The machinery was powered by wind, water, and animal power. This newfangled way of producing sugar, “prefigured the equipment later used in the textile, steel, and paper industries” (116). Britain soon became the first industrialized nation in the world. There were three main factors that caused changes in food production.

The first of the three factors would be England’s switch from being “farm-based to factory-based”. The English realized that they needed more food than they could grow on their own soil. So, they began to rely more and more on manufactured goods, that they could trade with other countries for food. In the south of the country, crops were grown on a massive scale. But, in the north of the country, where soil was hard and clay-like, livestock were raised, and factories were built.

As England became more industrial, there was a major switch from burning wood for fuel, to burning coal for fuel. Firewood was becoming too expensive to use on a large scale (for factories, and plants). Also, coal is much more efficient than wood. Although, people still used wood to burn fires in their homes. They switch was huge. By 1800, the consumption of coal was at about ten million tons per year.

The final shift to industrialization was when Britain began to rely more heavily on imported food than ever before. Food was being traded for goods that had been manufactured in the north of England was being traded for foodstuffs from all over the world. Sugar and potatoes were being imported from America more than ever before. Laws that once had prohibited any food to be imported from Ireland were abolished. And by the early 1840’s, imports were supplying almost a sixth of the foodstuffs that were entering into England.  

Part VI: Food, Population, and Development

In 1909, a technological breakthrough made its first appearance. It was ammonia. Realizing that ammonia could be manufactured on a massive scale opened up a hugely needed source of fertilizer. This made a huge impact on the world’s food supply. The introduction of chemical fertilizers began the “green revolution”. It began in the 1960’s. The green revolution caused a huge population boom, and it also raised millions of people over the poverty line.

The green revolution first came about in the nineteenth century. Scientists were studying nitrogen. They found that any animal that was put in a nitrogen filled environment, suffocated. They also found that nitrogen was found in all plants, feacle matter, and bones.

Nitrogen’s mysterious role as nutrients for plants had been solved. The scientists found out that plants could get the nitrogen that they needed from various forms of organic waste (crop residues, manure, mud). This process of growing plants had been “independantly discovered by farmers all over the world, thousands of years earlier” (203).

As the availability of fertalizer increased, farmers were able to supply more fertilizer to their crops. This amount of nitrogen produced a larger harvest, heavier seed heads, and higher yealds. This seemingly good response to the fertilizer came with its problems. Since the seed heads were becoming heavier, cereal crops, such as wheat, maize, and rice, were growing top-heavy, and falling over. So, farmers began to altar their crops to have shorter stalks, or “dwarf” varieties. Dwarf varieties had two advantages: they weren’t as top heavy, so they didn’t topple over, and they didn’t waste energy on growing a stalk, leaving more energy to p[roduce a larger yeild.

Dwarf varieties traveled all over the world in a very short period of time. Soon, they arrived in Mexico. Agriculturalists in Mexico soon realized that they could grow one crop in the mountains for one season, and another crop in the valleys in another season. They began to call this “shuttle breeding”.

Borlaug heard about these advancements in Mexico, and began to work on his own improvements to his wheat crops, and “based on Borlaug’s new varities, the wheat harvestwas six times larger than it had been nineteen years earlier when he had first arrived in the country” (216).

The impacts of the green revolution were very apparent by the time that Borlaug won his Nobel Peace Prize. He stated that the increase in yeilds was due not simply to the development of dwarf varieties, but to the combination of the new varities with nitrogen fertilizer. By 2000, the new seed varities that Borlaug had created, were accounted for 86 percent of the world’s cereal crops.

Recently, between 2007 and 2008, after years of stable prices, the cost of cereal crops nearly doubled. For the first time since the 1970’s, food riots have been spotted. The food crisis has out agriculture back on the list of things to worry about in our world. “The long term answer is to embark upon a new effort to increase agricultural production in the developing world, by placing renweed emphasis on agricultural research and the development of new seed varities, investment in the rural infrastructure to supports farmers, greater access to credit, the introduction of new crop-insurance schemes, and so on” (235). Clearly a new “green revolution” is needed, and it will surely play a huge role in the history that the world is making.  

Part V: Food as a Weapon

Food may not always be associated with war, but it has always been a large part of war. The control of food sources can begin a war in a heartbeat, “For most of humanity, food was literally the fuel of war. In the era before firearms, when armies consisted of soldiers carrying swords, spears, and shields, food sustained them on the march and gave them energy to wield their weapons in battle” (145). This has been true since ancient times.

Armies of soldiers began to become more mobile and more efficient. Soldiers would carry as much as they could, on their backs. They took the least amount of pack animals that they could manage to take. With less animals, less food was needed to be carried by the animals, as well as food for the soldiers. If an army was faced with a lack of food while a war was going on, they could just as well throw in the towel and give up. A lack of food equalled defeat. Enemy soldiers would demand food from villages they passed through, and that might hold them off for a while. But, villages which the armies were headed towards would remove all food and fodder that they had, so that there would be none for the army to steal form them. This provided a way to use food defensively.

Soon, though, the bleak prospect of running out of food greatly decreased. In 1795 there were great efforts to improve the soldiers’ diets. Preserving food was a huge problem. Salting, drying and smoking were used for preserving foodstuffs for years, but the taste and nutrients of the food were affected by these techniques. Then, Robert Boyle, a scientist, invented a vacuum pump. He would remove all the air from a jar, or can, of food, then soak the jar or can in hot water. Boyle discovered that this protected fruit, vegetables, and other foodstuffs, from fermenting, spoiling, or rotting.Boyle had invented canned food. Boyle’s process of canning needed to be modified a few times, but it was finally finished and perfected in the 1860’s by Louis Pasteur. Pasteur figured out that fruit fermented and meat decomposed because of tiny microbes that would eat away at the food. He figured out that boiling the food cans for a few hours would diminish these microbes. Thus, he had finished discovering what Boyle had began.

Canning food was one of the two inventions that reformed military feeding logistics during the nineteenth century. Besides canning, mechanical transportation changed the military. No longer would soldiers have to walk where they were headed. Steam locomotives were invented and began to be used to transport ammunition, food, and soldiers. This meant that an army could be resupplied with food, wherever they were.

By the time the Civil War rolled around, food no longer had a central role in military planning, “By the middle of the twentieth century, food was already taking on a new role: as an idealogical weapon” (170). During the Cold War, food was being used to kill. The thought of death isn’t a common thing to come to mind when thinking about food, but it can be used as a deadly weapon. Limiting food supply to cities caused massive scale starvation. To solve this problem, food was flown over the city, and released in bundles, to help starving people.

Then came the largest famine in history. It affected the whole world, causing millions to die from starvation and malnutrition. It indirectly caused the Soviet Union to fail, simply, because they could not feed their own people.  

Part III: Global Highways of Food

As the importance of wealth and popularity began to grow, imported goods became more and more desirable. Trade routes became more relevant in the lives of early people, and food, exotic animals, and spices began to be traded.

Spices became very popular, and spiked a curiosity in peoples’ minds. Trade ships would bring exotic goods, along with equally as exotic tales of how they got them. They brought tales of giant animals who guarded these goods, and stories of how difficult it was to harvest or capture their treasures. These tales increased the value of the goods, so the traders could become wealthier, by tricking people into thinking that the goods that they were buying from him, were more valuable than they actually were. Among these goods, were spices.

Spices back then were not just salt, pepper, paprika and cinnamon. Leopards, ivory and silk were all considered spices. “Spices” were anything that was a special or valuable, exotic, and imported good. The Alexandria Tariff was a list of these special goods. The list included things like: cinnamon, ginger, aloe wood, and myrrh. Along with these spices, there were: lions, tortoiseshell and Indian eunuchs. Spices were used for antidotes, incense, cooking and preserving. Spices changed the world in a huge way, “The pursuit of spices is the third way in which food remade the world” (67). The search for spices was a huge kickstart in geographical advances. As the demand for spices increased, it encouraged Europeans to look for a better way to reach these exotic goods. This required map-makers and traders to work hand in hand. Thus, creating the world-wide trade web.

Before long, spices were being traded between China, Africa, India, Greece, and the Arabian Peninsula. But, spices weren’t the only things being transported by traders. Languages, artistic styles, customs and traditions, physical goods, diseases, and religions were being carried all around the world, as people knew it then, by traders and their ships. Along with these, new inventions, such as: paper, the magnetic compass and gunpowder made their way around, along with the idea of wine-making and noodles. But, above all of these, the most transmitted things were religion and geography.

Then, the time of Columbus came about. Columbus brought all types of foodstuffs back from the Americas. This included: maize, potatoes, squash, chocolate, tomatoes, and pineapple. He also brought back spices – vanilla and allspice. As Columbus brought these things back to Europe, he found that most of these new foodstuffs, along with chiles, could be easily grown all over the world, unlike the exotic spices from India. This reduced the value of his goods greatly. Columbus didn’t gain the riches that he had anticipated to gain, but he did bring important food sources from the Americas to the rest of the world.