Throughout history, food has played many roles in changing the world. It has been a weapon of war, an offering for peace, a force of development, imperialism, and an organizer of societies. In many cases, food and its production have had some of the most profound effects on humanity and indeed on the Earth itself. It has affected social status, social roles, empires, and war outcomes. Tom Standage is a writer who has documented these roles in his book The Edible History of Humanity. Maria Armoudian discusses the role of food throughout history with Standage.

Tom Standage is a journalist and writer. He is the author of An Edible History of Humanity.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: Let’s start from the back of your book with food as a weapon of war.

Tom Standage: If you ask yourself the question, “What is the most devastating weapon in the whole of history?” people would probably say the atom bomb or the machine gun or something like that. But I think if you really do the numbers, the weapon that has probably been most devastating is actually food. And this is something that was recognised as long ago as the Roman period. There was a Roman writer in the fourth century A.D. who said, “Starvation destroys an army more often than battle, and hunger is more savage than the sword”. This is because in the old days you had armies marching around [and] you had to give them food so they could keep moving around, and you had to give them food so they would have enough energy to wave their weapons. So food was basically fuel and it was kind of ammunition as well because it was what powered your army. And generals who weren’t able to cope with the logistics of providing enough food to their soldiers wouldn’t even get to the battlefield to fight the battle. So the battles that occurred were the ones where the logistics had gone well enough to get the two armies into the same place. But if you look at the history of military conflict, there are quite a lot of battles which are forced upon one of the participants because they don’t have enough food, and there are quite a lot of conflicts as well where the inability to maintain the flow of food actually affects the outcome. A good example of that would be the Revolutionary War, or the American War of Independence as we call it on this side of the pond, and what happened there is that the mightiest empire in the world at the time, the British Empire, was unable to defeat the American colonists who wanted independence in large part because the British soldiers had to be supplied from across the Atlantic, and maintaining the supply of food across the waters was very difficult logistically.

MA: You also mentioned the Civil War in your book and that food had a major role in that outcome.

TS: Yes, in that case you get [General Sherman’s] March to the Sea and you get the deliberate devastation of the agricultural productivity of the South. What is happening there is that the agricultural regions are sending food north by rail to the troops and so there is this deliberate effort by Sherman to disrupt agricultural production in the South and prevent that from happening. We get this time and time again, and another favourite example is Napoleon’s March on Moscow, his attempt to invade Russia. And the problem there was his supply lines were stretched far too long, there wasn’t food available on the land, which was his usual tactic to feed his troops. Napoleon had previously had great success in his military career because he was able to draw food from the land and not worry about complicated supply lines. He rediscovered the ancient art of feeding an army from the land, but to make that work you have to have food available, the best time to attack is just after the harvest so that the barns are all full, and you have to keep your army moving because if it stops they deplete the local area of any food and then you run out and then the army starves. So he had discovered all of this in his previous campaigns in Europe [and] had been extremely successful, and then he came unstuck when he attacked Russia because he knew there wasn’t going to be food there, he had a very elaborate system and there was mud and trouble with the carriages, the army got ahead of the supplies, the Russians had stripped the countryside of anything else to eat, and that was before a single shot had been fired, he had lost a huge number of men and horses and it all went downhill from there.

MA: Then when you went to the Cold War you said it actually began in earnest with a food fight in Berlin. [Can you] explain that?

TS: Yes, well the blockade of Berlin was this bizarre situation where West Berlin was a divided city in the middle of East Germany and, as one of the Communist leaders at the time said, “What happens to Berlin happens to Germany and what happens to Germany happens to Europe”. So the defence of West Berlin for the Western powers became a sort of test of their resolve in standing up to the Communists. And the East German surrounding area, basically all of the land-lined access to West Germany was cut, the barges weren’t allowed to get through, the trains weren’t allowed to get through, the roads were closed, and so there was no way to get food through to the Western-controlled sectors of Berlin. So the Western powers decided that an airlift, which they assumed would only have to run for a few days, would be necessary and they started to ship food and fuel and other necessities over to West Berlin. But it turned out they had to end up doing it for fifteen months, it wasn’t a few days, and they had to scale it up and up because once they started it they couldn’t possibly back down [as] it would have been a terrible admission of defeat, West Berlin would have fallen, and it would have been a terrible symbolic defeat for the Western powers who were trying to stand up to Communism at the time. Ultimately, after fifteen months it became clear that they were serious about this and the blockade was eventually lifted by the Soviet Union. It all sounds rather trivial, and there is a poster which I very much like from this period, it was made by [McDonnell] Douglas the aircraft maker which provided a lot of the planes that were used in the airlift and it says, “Milk, new weapon of democracy”, and the idea was that food was being used as a weapon to defend democracy by providing a steady supply of food. And it was largely American and British airman, and they were supplying it to German citizens who only a few months earlier had been their enemies during World War II, but suddenly the defense of democracy and freedom in the face of the threat from the Soviet Union became more important and food became a very valuable weapon in that fight.

MA: Which explains why there have been these food drops throughout history for efforts in winning wars. Then you went on to talk about Stalin’s famine and Mao’s famine. Tell us about those.

TS: Well the idea of Communism is that if we all pull together the world would be a better place, we all contribute, we won’t have individual property, we won’t have competition, and we all get paid the same. It all sounds great on paper, but when you actually try and implement it and in particular when you try and implement it in a largely agricultural society, which Russia was when Stalin tried it and China was when Mao tried it, the idea is when you collectivise the farms, you crunch all of the small farms together and you say, “Okay you’re all going to work together on a big farm,” what the Communist leaders thought in both cases is this would increase the amount of food that was produced. Everybody would be on the same team, they’d all work together. In fact, the opposite happened. Because if you’re a farmer and you are producing your own food you have an incentive to work hard and produce more food because you can sell it and you will have more money to spend on other things. But if you are in a collectivised farm where everyone is getting the same pay, and in fact they are being given accommodation and food and so on, it takes away your incentive to work harder. So the exact opposite happened and actually less food came out of the countryside after collectivisation than Stalin had expected.

And he was using this to demonstrate the superiority of the Communist model as he saw it, and the idea was to prove to the rest of the world how wonderful Communism was. The enormous increase in wheat production that would happen after collectivisation would be used and the extra wheat would be exported and this would be used to buy industrialised machinery and this would fund the industrialisation of Russia, this was his plan. The problem was that the amount of food went down, but he had already committed himself to this export plan, so the food was exported instead. And Stalin and his supporters were initially absolutely certain that the people in the countryside were simply hiding all the extra food that they must be producing. So they had this very draconian campaign of searching everyone’s houses and looking for it and searching for it and then they assumed it had been stolen and so on. But the simple truth was it wasn’t there at all, that the output of the countryside had actually gone down and the result was a massive famine in Ukraine.

And then this entire scenario was replayed in a very similar way in China. The Chinese fell for the Russian propaganda that Communism improved your farming output and they tried to do exactly the same thing and, again, the actual output fell, nobody dared tell Mao, and they faked all the numbers and they told him that there were record harvests, and none of it was true and there was another massive famine and the result was tens of millions of people died. These were the biggest famines in the twentieth century and they were entirely man-made and the basis of them was the ideology of Communism. So this was food as a weapon, they hoped, against the rest of the world to prove the power of Communism, but it ended up being a weapon that mainly killed their own people.

MA: Now when you documented the early days of food, it’s interesting because it was collectivized until farming came in to be, you even talked about hunters and gatherers always shared their food with the entire community, and then that changed when farming started.

TS: In fact, [Karl] Marx and [Friedrich] Engels, the creators of the doctrine of Communism, were inspired, they said, by discoveries in the nineteenth century by anthropologists at the time. They started to examine the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers of which there are still some today and there were then as well. And the idea of the “noble savage” became very popular. It turned out that hunter-gathers have very little property and what little property they have they share. And this is actually entirely practical if you are a hunter-gatherer because if you have got a band of people traveling around trying to get food from the land you don’t really want to all be weighed down with lots of possessions. So it makes a lot of sense for me to carry a net and you carry a spear and someone else will carry a bow, and it doesn’t necessarily make sense for all of us to own all of those things. If we do and we all start to try and accumulate goods and try and compete with each other to own more stuff we actually suffer as a band because we’ll be so weighed down with this that we will be less able to chase after that woolly mammoth that is going past than another band which is sharing everything.

So there is a sort of selection effect, where the groups of hunter-gatherers who are able to actually share things and get over the idea of building up their own superiority over others or their own collection of goods, they’ll actually do better. So it’s a sort of social technology that was developed and essentially bands that followed this sharing routine would do better than ones that didn’t. And in fact with surviving hunter-gatherers you can still see examples of this, and anthropologists have documented this, where if you are holding the knife today other people will start to gently rib you about it and say, “Oh look at him he thinks he’s so great he’s got the knife”, and this will prompt you to give it to someone else just to emphasise the fact that you’re not trying to lord it over everyone else because you’ve got that particularly high-status item. Similarly, there are rules in some hunting tribes where if you bring down an animal you’re not allowed to eat any of it you have to give it to everyone else and they share it out, and the only way you are allowed to get some is that your family members are allowed to pass some meat back to you. And then there are other rules where the arrow that brings down the animal determines who gets to distribute the meat but before going hunting the men all swap arrows with each other.

So I may fire the arrow, but if it doesn’t belong to me then somebody else gets to distribute the meat. So there are all of these tricks that are used to ensure that no one member of the band tries to sort of exert authority over everyone else and everyone is very equal and everything is shared. In the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that works extremely well, but as soon as agriculture comes in people have settled, it starts to become possible to accumulate goods, some people are better at farming than others and they have more produce and they can then use that and trade that with other people. And you instantly get, at least in archaeological time, this division into rich and poor and if you look at the graves of early agricultural villages you’ve got people who are buried with stuff and people who aren’t buried with stuff, and it seems to be that there is accumulation of wealth going on and there are high-status people and lower status people and you’ve got the beginnings of a stratification of society. And so that idea of economic inequality seems to go hand in hand with the settled agricultural lifestyle which is, of course, the basis of modern civilisation. So inequality seems to be baked into the way civilisation works.

MA: And then you talked about food as currency, food as a tax, although in some cases you said it was really labour that was the currency and the tax. Give us a little bit about Egypt and Mesopotamia.

TS: Well in all of these early civilisations you have various schemes whereby an elite establishes itself, typically of ten to twenty percent of the population. The rest of the population are farmers and a tax system is introduced so that the eighty percent of the population produces enough food for everyone. So they’re producing more than just the food they need to feed themselves, they are also producing enough food to feed the elite. And the elite justifies the handing over of the surplus food using usually religious grounds. So the sort of religious justification that is used in Mesopotamia, in South America, in Egypt, in China. Essentially the elite says to the masses, “The gods make the crops grow but they’ll only do it if we offer them sacrifices in the form of food so therefore you need to give us food and then we will make the offerings to the gods and then the gods will continue to ensure that your crops grow next year”. So there is this cycle and essentially the elite says to the masses, “You mustn’t disrupt this cycle or your crops won’t grow”. So that is how they stay on top of the much larger farming population using this religious rhetoric that this is the just order of things, that there are peasants, there are rulers, and there are gods. And you get this strikingly similar setup in different parts of the world separated by centuries. So the surplus is then collected by the elite and is then used by the elite to fund things, because if you’ve got food then it’s a currency that you can use to buy people’s labour. So if I’m a pharaoh and I’ve got a whole load of surplus wheat then I can say, “Okay I’m going to build a pyramid and I’m going to use this wheat to essentially feed the army of people I’ll get to do it”. The pyramids were not built by slaves, they were built by labourers who were taken off the land and given surplus food from the coffers of the state and that was how you could do it. And, similarly, if you wanted to wage a war, well then you would need food as a currency to pay your soldiers, and if you had an agricultural surplus then you would have that food at your disposal. So this was how you could start to fund state things like wars and monumental architecture and irrigation projects and so forth.

MA: There are two more things I’d like for you to cover. What is the role of spices and how much has that played into empire and imperialism?

TS: In my book, I look at a lot of ways in which food has affected history and there are different foods that do different things, but probably the group of food that made the most difference after the basic agricultural staples, which led to settlement and civilisation, are spices. And spices are these incredibly highly valued goods that were transported all over the old world, from Europe right the way to China and vice versa, depending on what was going in which direction, and they were used to connect up different civilisations. So frankincense reached China from Arabia and spices like nutmeg and cloves which come from the South Seas made it all the way into Europe shortly after the Roman period. So these were the things that were traded over longer distances. They were very valuable, they were nutritionally completely useless, it’s just that they showed how rich you were if you could afford to have them. And it was spices that inspired Columbus to go west, he was actually looking for gold and spices. If you look at his account of the journey he thought that he would be able to get to the Indies if he sailed west, and, of course, he said he found the Americas and he then spent the whole time looking for spices, he had no idea what the spices looked like when they were growing and of course none of the spices he was looking for were actually in the Americas – he was looking for a black pepper and things like that. And then, similarly, the Portuguese were looking for a way to get to India and the spices and chose a different route around the bottom of Africa, and of course, that approach did actually work. And so the opening up of these massive sea trade routes and the establishment of European empires and the peopling of the Americas and the slave trade and all of this sort of thing then followed from that, and that has obviously had a massive impact on the unfolding of world history and the way that the world is today. And it was to chase after these really rather superfluous food stuffs.

MA: What I think is one of the most important questions, which deals with how farming has profoundly altered the planet itself.

TS: Farming is the thing that has made the biggest difference for the environment of Earth. You could call it the biggest environmental disaster in history. And, if you look, we’ve used forty percent of the Earth’s surface for agriculture. So what I like to say is if farming was invented today environmentalists would never allow it because it has led to huge ecosystem destruction. I’m in Britain now, the natural state of Britain is not beautiful fields with sheep and the odd tree, it is forests of oak with wild boar running around. So when we look at an agricultural landscape we think it’s natural and we think it’s beautiful, but it’s just as manmade as the Manhattan skyline.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.