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Simply... A History Of Food


new internationalist
issue 225 - November 1991

SIMPLY - A history of food

1. Managing the magic
About 12,000 years ago there was a revolution in the way people obtained their food. Instead of foraging and hunting, groups began to settle in one place, secure in the knowledge that they would have enough to eat. It was almost certainly women, the gatherers of berries and seeds while men hunted, who realized that plant growing was not completely haphazard, that there was a connection between putting seeds into the ground and harvesting the grains. This made it worthwhile to stay in one place and tend the young plants.


2. Ancestors of our food
In the Middle East the hairy precursors of modern wheat and barley were grown; in what is now Mexico around 7,000 years ago people had begun to cultivate the corn, beans and squash that still sustain them. Further south, in the Andes, potatoes were the staple fare. In China millet was cultivated in the north and rice in the south; while in Africa millet grew in the Sahara, then lightly wooded, and indigenous 'red' rice in the great bend of the Niger River in what is now Mali.

The domestication of animals such as dogs, sheep and goats began at about the same time as settled agriculture. Techniques for farming improvements abounded. One of the first was irrigation which in turn led to the growth of larger settlements of people. Another was the selective breeding of plants and animals.


3. Traditional nutrition
In almost all traditional cultures people ate foods that blended together in a wholesome way. The rice and pulses of Asia; the corn and beans of the Americas and later of Africa; the wheat and dairy products of the Middle East - all complement and enhance each other's protein to produce a nutritional balance that is hard to beat. And these 'twinned' foods tend to be healthy for the environment: beans planted among the rows of corn fix nitrogen back into the soil, replenishing its vitality. Most people gained their protein from pulses and grains - meat was for rich people or for high-days and holidays.


4. The spice of new horizons
From the beginnings of settled agriculture there was trade in food - at first in spices such as pepper, which enhanced the taste of food, rather than in the foodstuffs themselves. But in the fifteenth century Europeans started to explore and settle to the west, south and east - and this led to major changes in the patterns of world agriculture.

Local food crops were displaced by crops that suited European needs and palates. To control production,wthe European powers took over tropical regions as colonies, and the wealth from agriculture was transferred back to Spain or Britain or Holland to fuel their own economic development.


5. Sugar and slaves
Sugar was the first major 'cash' or export crop grown on a wide scale, requiring a huge labour force. From the sixteenth century through the next 300 years, the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French between them transported at least 10 million Africans to South America and the Caribbean as slaves.

The 'triangular trade' of slaves to the Americas, sugar to Europe and manufactured goods to Africa was lucrative. Sugar became increasingly important in Europe, especially for use in tea and coffee, the new beverages. By the 1670s sugar was so vital for trade that the Dutch were prepared to give up New York to the British in exchange for the sugar lands of Surinam in South America.


6. Africa's fragile balance
Unlike Asia and South America, Africa was not endowed with rich and fertile earth. Knowing the limitations of their soil, people hunted and gathered, or herded animals for their livelihood. Where there was cultivation, African population rarely outgrew the soil's ability to support it. Sorghum, bulrush millet and finger millet were grown, plants which can tolerate dry soils and light rainfall. The commerce in slaves upset the balance. Apart from robbing the continent of its strongest young people, the trade put the emphasis on fighting rather than on agriculture. Instead of farming, people found themselves led to war by kings and chiefs eager to exchange captives for European guns and blankets.


7. A rich land's world
When the Europeans divided Africa between them, in the nineteenth century, the old balance was utterly lost. Land which had grown food was now turned over to crops that would satisfy the industrializing nations of Europe: cotton, coffee, cocoa, peanuts, palm oil, bananas, rubber, tea and sisal. Trade restrictions and low prices for these 'commodities' and other raw materials have driven African and most other Third World countries into debt.

The colonial model continues to shape world agriculture, even in an era when almost all the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America are politically independent. This is a world which produces enough food to give each person 3,600 calories a day - plenty - and yet still sees people suffering from lack of food.

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New Internationalist issue 225 magazine cover This article is from the November 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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