It is full of great historical quotes and little peculiar stories. The book tells the history of human civilization through the development of our food production and culture. A highly relevant book to the present blogging project as trying to halve hunger is writing a new chapter in the history of food.
I have already picked (ripped off) a selection of warfare related quotes from the book at Ecowar: Food & War: Highlights from 'An Edible History of Humanity'. There it supplements an even longer tale of conflict over natural resources related to food and history in particular.
Below is a similar summary related to development issues. That is: Lessons from the past on how to successfully drive progress and a brief look at the basic conditions of the progress of civilizations.
Food production limits
[Agriculture's] principal object consists in the production of nitrogen under any form capable of assimilation.
- Justus von Liebig, 1840.
First, the domestication of maize, wheat and rise is retold - essential beginning of the tale. Then the spread of farming discussed. Prior to the invention of agriculture mankind were hunter-gatherers. Our “production” limit was what we could find and catch in nature. As farming defined our species limits were constrained by the availability of arable land, natural photosynthesis and progress in cultivation.
Once fertilizer was invented it became the new limit defining factor in agricultural production. When Fritz Haber invented nitrogen fixation in the 20th century fertilizer could be produced chemically. Since then it has only contributed to the demand for fossil fuel as the process is energy intensive. Thus, the supply of energy for fertilizer production – as well as agricultural machinery, food production and logistics – from then on exerted a constraint on agricultural productivity.
The occasional revolutions in agriculture has each time helped us escape Malthusian doom: population booms leading to greater food demand than food supply barely escaped. Then leading to the next population boom. Our modern crisis involves an additional limit: the already exceeded ability of our atmosphere to absorb carbon dioxide, a byproduct of using fossil fuel for production of chemical fertilizer, pesticides and many other things.
The complete story of agricultural progress would require a thicker book than Standage's. But his is concise, fairly disposed and entertaining.
Food crisis or food abundance
In the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.
- Amartya Sen, economist.
History provides a handful of gruesome famines to take heed of. Most thoroughly discussed are those created by Stalin and Mao respectively as their regimes ruthlessly enforced top-down decisions to transform the entire agricultural sectors of their countries. These stories are both sad and full of lessons for governments as well as corporations.
Accelerated agricultural progress is the best safety net against hunger and poverty, because in most developing countries over 70 percent of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
- M. S. Swaminathan, 2004.
Wealth, it seems, is a powerful contraceptive. The decline in infant mortality means parents in rural areas do not need to have so many children in order to be sure of having enough people to work in the fields, or to look after them in old age. […] as female literacy improves and women enter the workforce, they may delay marriage and change their attitude toward childbearing. [p. 228]
So, democracy and (relative) wealth generated by technological progress guarantees our happy future? It certainly seems so. But history is also full of failures and tragedies. Intensive, industrialized agriculture has led to many of the environmental problems that we have to deal with. Can we keep it up with genetic engineering of crops, for example?
There is no feast which does not come to an end.
- Chinese proverb
An Arable History of Humanity provides a series of lessons and a reasonable discussion of the pros and cons of our various dilemmas – organic, GMO or both, local or global? (Although in my opinion it at one point is too harsh on organics.) There are definitely some rules of thumb to take with us from history if we are to try and stage a future of sustainable plenty.
The planning for our future should be aware of the limits of human life: photosynthesis, available energy, space for production. And how we can change these limits. All while avoiding the traps of development and wealth. No, turning up foreign aid a bit will not solve all the world's issues just like that. It's complicated.