With the Grain

Against the New Paleo Politics

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Summer 2018 | Rachel Laudan,

rains are under growing attack. A whole genre of diet advice blames them for contemporary health problems, described as diseases of civilization. Humans did not evolve to eat “carbs,” it is said, which are fit only for peasants.1 Real men, and women too, are better off with meat, nuts, and fruits. Taking this counsel to heart, many of the 45 million Americans (almost one in six) on a diet have chosen a Paleolithic or ketogenic regimen. Many more shun wheat and barley, even though they do not suffer from celiac disease, crediting claims that these grains are silent killers of body and brain.2 Those who do enjoy grains are apt to dismiss their modern forms, seeking out ancient and supposedly healthier versions. Grains and soy, rail political activists such as Miguel Altieri, have replaced traditional multi-cropping with monocultures that deprive peasants of a life on the land.3 The crops produced by “big ag” are “not food but commodities, grain not to eat but to store, trade, and process,” environmentalist Richard Manning charges in his 2004 book Against the Grain.4 Environmentalists fret further about fertilizer runoff and pesticide use on these high-yielding crops.

The anti-grain consensus, ostensibly focused on the improvement of diet, equality, and environment, rejects in theory if not in practice the very notions of progress and civilization. That the turn to grain-based agriculture transformed the healthful, leisured, and carefree life enjoyed by hunter-gatherers into the dull drudgery of peasant society is a theme promulgated by prominent scholars, notably the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who termed hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society,” and the biologist Jared Diamond, who declared agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”5 The historian Yuval Noah Harari takes a similar tack in his bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015). Underlying each of these criticisms is a rejection of the old idea, implicit in the foundational myths of the first civilizations and explicit in Enlightenment conjectural histories, that the postulated passage through the stages of hunting and gathering, herding, and farming constituted progress: an improvement in the quality of human life.

In 2017, James C. Scott, the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, joined the anti-grain chorus with his widely praised Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.6 Scott’s is a name to conjure with. His pioneering field work on the resistance of Southeast Asian peasant societies to state power was followed by widely read articles and books, particularly Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998), that spread his reputation from the halls of political science departments to the wider public.7

There is much to agree with in Against the Grain, not least because Scott, by his own admission, is reporting what archaeologists and historians have learned over the past century. Material familiar even to high school students following the Advanced Placement world history syllabus came as news to him, he says, just a few years ago.8 Domestication was not a sudden event but a long, drawn-out process in which humans successively mastered fire, the breeding of certain animals, and the use of grains, well before the emergence of farming or cities. Only grains — easy to monitor, count, carry away, store, and redistribute in measured amounts — could support cities.9 Non-state societies (hunters and gatherers, nomads, and those who gardened roots) did not constitute stages prior to civilization but coexisted with “civilizations” (grain-based states), dwindling to almost nothing in size and influence only in the last few hundred years. Living in the early states meant drudgery, taxation, slavery, and ill health for much of the population.

These facts, Scott concludes, leave the “progress narrative” that celebrates settled life, farming, cities, and states in “tatters.” Dismissing the main historical trajectory of the past 5,000 years, city-based societies, and the grains on which they have depended for most of their calories and nutrients is no small matter. It’s also one in which I have a personal stake, as I reviewed the same facts in my Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (2013) and drew very different conclusions. In that book (which might have been called Grains and Progress), I argued that without grains, no progress in the human condition would have been possible.

Food systems — the ways our food is acquired, prepared, and distributed — are interwoven with politics — the power structures of societies. The two change in tandem. Over the course of human history, the very real costs of grain-based, city-centered, agrarian societies have been offset by the fact that, unlike the foraging, herding, and gardening alternatives, grain-based societies were able, over time, to reduce labor and inequality while increasing access to good food and political participation. This was progress: not the grand narrative of a march forward sure from the first step across the whole of human life, but a specific narrative that acknowledges backward steps and unintended consequences while insisting on overall improvements in the food system and in social and political organization.

1.

Hungry humans thought that cereal grains made great food long before they began farming them. In today’s terms, cereals have a high calorie per area yield — in the case of corn, as much as 15 million calories an acre, or enough to sustain 15 people for a year. This yield has been rivaled in the past four hundred years only by potatoes, sugar cane, and rice.10 Even the wild ancestors of cereals were productive, as the American botanist Jack Harlan demonstrated in the 1960s when he ventured into a stand of wild einkorn wheat in Turkey and harvested four pounds in one hour, enough to feed two people for a day. Unlike sugar cane stalks, grains contain a wide range of nutrients, including carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and certain minerals and vitamins. Unlike potatoes, they have a high nutrient-to-weight value. As a rule of thumb, two pounds of grain a day sustain an adult, compared to ten or more pounds of wet, heavy roots, making grain a much better candidate to provision cities. In addition, unlike many roots that contain protective toxins, grains are generally safe to eat. They are also easy to store because they are hard and dry, and, being annuals, can be quickly improved through breeding, planted in response to changing demands, and established in new places. Thus, the contrast between grains as food and grains as commodities is ill-drawn. One reason why grains were good food was precisely that they could be commoditized.

Another reason was that grains could be turned into an amazing variety of tasty, nutritious, useful dishes. To understand why this quality is so important, it’s helpful to consider for a moment what human food actually is. For us, unlike for animals, food is not what’s gathered or killed or harvested. Plants and carcasses are just the raw materials. Human food is something that humans have to make. At some time in our history, we passed a point of no return: no longer could we flourish eating raw foods.11 We’d lost the claws capable of ripping up carcasses, the teeth capable of chewing raw meat or fibrous plants, and the digestive system that could assimilate flesh and fiber. We now outsourced much of the work our teeth and digestive tract had formerly performed: we processed our food.

Using all the tools — thermal, mechanical, chemical, biochemical, and biological, frequently used sequentially and repetitively — at our disposal, we created food. Stone hammers smashed hard nuts and bones; water and mud removed toxins and leached tannins out of bitter plants; naturally occurring salts preserved flesh; the sweeter fruits and saps turned into delightful intoxicating liquids; flesh could be desiccated and preserved by the sun; ice kept meat good over the winter; and the heat of the fire made flesh both tender and tasty.

Plants and carcasses could be turned into food, then, but it took so much effort that the results had to be worthwhile. Leaves, shoots (vegetables), tough stems, and bitter fruits rarely passed that test. Nuts, roots, and flesh were more promising if they could be cracked, detoxified and softened, and tenderized, respectively.12 By the late Paleolithic, humans had learned to prepare meat and roots in earth ovens and to grate and soak roots to extract the starch.13

The Paleolithic diet, in short, was constantly evolving and at no point more “natural” than at any other. Nor did some primitive egalitarianism reign. Processing, which required as much or more energy than gathering (and, later, farming), built inequality into the human food system long before grains entered the diet. Those who collected the wood, dug the pits, and cracked the nuts lost. The group as a whole benefitted, the way now being open to more-complex societies and economies.

When humans did turn to cereal grains about 20,000 years ago, they embarked on a long series of breakthroughs that transmuted these grass seeds into a greater array of appealing, sustaining, nutritious foodstuffs than was possible from any other part of any other kind of plant. Most of these foodstuffs are still prepared somewhere in the world today. Sprouted grains and unripe corn are light and tasty. Toasted ground grains, such as pinole made from maize or the mixed-grain gofio of the Canary Islands, are instant foods to be eaten as is or mixed with hot water. Parboiled dried grains, such as bulgur or rice, are also fast foods. Smashed grains and water make porridge or, with added vegetables, legumes, and meat, the pottage that sustained much of humanity. Softer grains, such as rice or millets, taste good simply boiled. Flour from harder grains and water can be shaped into tender noodles or satisfying dumplings (tamales), or baked or steamed to make a fragrant flatbread. Salted, moldy grains or bread make tasty condiments. Chewed maize or sprouted barley grains and molded rice ferment to thick, heady, filling beers. The sweetener malt sugar can also be extracted from sprouted barley. The debate about whether it was to ensure their supply of bread or beer that people turned to farming misses the point: grains were worth farming precisely because they could be turned both into bread and into beer, and into many other foods as well.14

Grain foods offered a variety of delicious tastes and textures for different purposes. They made shelf-stable provision for travelers, portable food for field and construction workers, stretchable porridges and pottages for hungry families, beer for energy and cheer, pap for babies and grandmothers, white breads and rice for rulers, and brown for their subjects. Add a few legumes, oil from oil seeds, and foraged greens, and diets were complete, varied, and satisfying. Hence, wherever cereal grains could be gathered from the wild, people added them to their diet: in the Yellow River and Yangtze valleys, the Fertile Crescent, the Sahel, and Mexico. Many remain valuable — particularly wheat, rice, and maize, and to a lesser extent barley, oats, millets, and sorghum — while others, such as Job’s tears and hemp, are no longer on the table.15  

Absent their benefits, humans would never have persisted with grains, given their appalling costs. The energy required for their processing came not from fire but from human effort. Twenty repetitive steps of threshing, winnowing, and cleaning were required just to rid barley and wheat of their husks.16 Most cereals had to be ground because whole grains remained chewy even when boiled. Grinding enough with a saddle stone to provide one adult with bread for one day took an hour, so where bread was the staple, one out of five adults spent their lives grinding for themselves and others. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” said the Old Testament, and sweat it was, a job forced on women and slaves, the lowliest in society. The social differences already inherent to eating processed plants and animals were only amplified by the shift to grains. Archaeologists have found that among modern women, only elite competition rowers who train 21 hours a week rival the upper body strength of prehistoric Central European women. 

Yet cereal grains were so valuable that by 2000 BC, humans had transported them across continents and oceans, acclimatized them to new soils and climates, and scaled up production to feed whole populations. Wheat and barley from West Asia had been established in northern China, India, North Africa, and Europe. Chinese and Indian rice had hybridized. Indians had adopted African millets, and Africans Indian ones. Maize had spread south to the Andes and north to the central highlands of Mexico. Knowingly or not, humans selected for larger seeds, seeds that ripened simultaneously, and seeds that were easier to thresh. No longer were cereals gathered; they were farmed.

2.

The costs of farming, to which Scott constantly refers, are well known: the effort of preparing the land, the labor of irrigating it in dry areas, the back-breaking work of weeding, and the exhausting toil of harvesting the crops. What he does not recognize is that the forced labor of grinding, a daily rather than seasonal task, was worse. Although the work varied somewhat from grain to grain, preparing flour for, say, barley or wheat bread took by my reckoning one in five working adults — 20 percent of the working population condemned to grinding five hours a day, day in, day out, in every ancient society in the barley-wheat regions that stretched from northern China through northern India to northwest Europe. Every palace had its grinding slaves. And every civilization depended on those who stood to pound and knelt to grind, a fact that might have strengthened Scott’s case, had he acknowledged it.

Over the centuries, though, human drudgery was reduced by innovations in processing and farming even as the variety of foods made from grains continued to grow. To attempt to give a sense of the scale of the change, the proportion of the population required to grind the harder grains such as wheat, barley, or maize fell from around 1 in 5 with the saddle stone to between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 with the rotary quern, and then again to between 1 in 100 and 1 in 1,000 with water mills. After 1900, with the adoption of fossil fuel–powered roller mills, the proportion grinding wheat was too small to be recorded. Fossil fuel–powered rice mills quickly followed, transforming the lives of millions of women. In the mid-20th century, mills for wet-grinding maize freed Mexican women from toil (and made it possible to extract oil from corn). Only in the poorest parts of the world did women still pound and grind.

By the end of the 20th century, in addition to the earlier foods, wheat had been turned into raised bread; flat breads, pasta, dumplings, and umami-rich condiments; gluten (seitan) used as a mock meat; pie crusts and pretzels; machine-made, shelf-stable crackers; cookies, quick breads, pancakes, and cakes; and shelf-stable, ready-to-eat white bread and pasta (pot noodles). Rice was parboiled, ground, popped, flaked, and fermented. Maize treated with alkali made flexible tortillas, and fermented, as it later was in West Africa, a tasty dough (kenkey); alcohol; vegetable oil; high-fructose corn syrup; and, fed to livestock, beef, pork, and chicken.

Meeting the intellectual and technological challenges of turning grains into food came with wider benefits as well. From pestles, mortars, and grindstones to mills, food processing tools and techniques could be taken up by other industries and transferred to other activities. Flow-through technology, for instance, was pioneered in gristmills. Because of their technical skills, millers played a disproportionate role in the industrialization of Britain and the United States. Containers and packaging — including pottery, sacks, and granaries — proved similarly important. The field of organic chemistry began with the analysis of sugars, fats, and starches.

Agricultural yields also reached new heights. The productivity of farming had increased at important junctures throughout human history: when high-yielding rice from Southeast Asia was introduced to China in the 11th century, for example, or when improved farming practices were introduced in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 20th century, machines, new higher-yielding crop varieties, and fertilizer — particularly synthetic nitrogen compounds from the Haber process — made yields soar.

This is not to say that there were no rocky patches in this overall pattern of improvement. The acreage devoted to grains kept creeping up at the expense of wood and grassland, although thanks to increasing productivity, it did not grow as fast as population. Between the end of the 18th century and 1990, the latter more than quintupled from 1 billion to 5.3 billion, while cropland, mainly for grains, grew from 3–5 percent of the world’s land to around 11 percent.17 Seasonal hunger and periodic famine remained endemic problems, the latter never more so than with the surge in population in the 18th and 19th centuries, a challenge failed by states of every political persuasion, whether in Ireland, the Ukraine, Bengal, or China.

Even so, the logistics of feeding growing numbers improved as steam, then diesel, then containerization lengthened the grain chain, linking the huge silos on what had been the world’s grasslands in the United States, Canada, and Argentina to the elevators in London and Liverpool, Mexico City, Yokohama, and Cairo. Famines declined. Cities of 20 million could be provisioned by a small number of farmers and processors, leaving the majority free to engage in a vast range of other activities, something that would have been impossible without grains. It’s something of an irony, then, that Scott and others of his persuasion — who can explore non-state societies, write books, and teach at universities because neither they nor the university bureaucrats, airline pilots, students, or book publishers who support their work have to spend their time provisioning — should argue against the grains. 

3.

How did hungry, grain-eating humans see the food and politics of the groups that Scott vaunts — hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and gardeners? He refrains from asking the question, perhaps because archaeologists and anthropologists less starry-eyed than Sahlins and his admirers have reported that one group after another suffered high death rates, in part due to warfare, harsh disparities of rank and gender, and restricted, inadequate diets — features that Scott attributes to early states.18 The !Kung (Bushmen) of southern Africa, for example, who inspired Sahlins to coin the phrase “the original affluent society,” lived largely on the flesh and kernels of mongongo nuts, augmented with some bush meat. To enjoy this bounty, they spent a mere three days a week gathering food; the rest of the time they could do whatever they cared, or so claimed the anthropologist Richard B. Lee.19 Sadly, this finding has not been borne out. Lee’s account failed to include food processing in his calculation of food procurement: factor in time spent walking from tree to tree, lugging the nuts back to camp, heating them to soften the tough shells, cracking them, and winkling out their little kernels, and the !Kung had as long a work week as any modern wage-earner, a point Lee himself subsequently conceded. Worse, in years of drought, the supply of mongongo nuts dwindled and the !Kung suffered severe weight loss, malnutrition, and even death.20

The Comanche of the American southwest, one of many nomad groups Scott admires because they “fought against permanent settlement,” depended on bison meat. Their diet was rich and meaty but perilously low in carbohydrates. To supplement the meat, the Comanche, like other nomads, had to locate some supply of starches, either by digging roots out of the hard, arid soil or by trading horses for corn.21 For the arduous digging, processing, and other chores, the Comanche enslaved other Native Americans, African Americans, and people of European ancestry. Even so, they were ravaged by epidemics, and in the second half of the 19th century the Comanche population collapsed with the decimation of the bison.

Native Hawaiians, living on Pacific islands often described as bountiful, depended chiefly on poi (cooked, pounded taro root).22 In fact, the islands that the Hawaiians found when they first landed were a food desert, featuring only flightless birds (gone in a generation or two), fish, and seaweed. It was the dozen or so edible plants that the Hawaiians brought with them in their catamarans that allowed them to survive: they grew taro in laboriously constructed paddies, working up to their waists in muddy water, and cooked it for hours in underground ovens to remove toxins. A system of taboos (kapu) governed eating, among many other aspects of society. If broken, by women daring to eat with men, for example, or to enjoy pork or the better fish, the penalty was summary execution.

The people who dwelt in the marshes of southern Mesopotamia shortly before farming and cities arose — Scott’s favorite example — took fish, turtles, and crustaceans from the waters, hunted migrating deer and water birds, and harvested the roots of aquatic plants such as club-rushes, cattails, water lilies, and bulrushes: a “cornucopia,” says Scott.23 Whether this biodiversity translated into a plentiful, diverse diet for hungry humans is another matter. How was the seasonal glut of deer and birds preserved for the lean season? What did they eat when it turned cold and the turtles burrowed into the mud? Who waded into the water to harvest the roots, then peeled, grated, and soaked or ground them to make flour? What happened when the rushes were wet and did not light easily for cooking?

Four groups are not proof but they are suggestive. In none was the diet more varied and nutritious than in agrarian societies, nor could political or social life have been preferable. And was life for farmers truly as dreary a contrast to the supposed fun of hunting and gathering as it’s made out to be? If on the farm I grew up on in England in the second half of the 20th century we hunted hare and birds, gathered hazelnuts and blackberries, herded cattle, and grew fruit and vegetables, would not farmers in Mesopotamia have caught birds in nets, fished in irrigation canals, and picked wild greens from the edges of the fields?

4.

Hungry humans knew as well as Scott that early states could be bad news, with their forced extraction of tax or tribute and their rigid hierarchies, both linked to grains. “The power to feed fed power,” observes a historian of the Ottoman Empire — a truth that all rulers had to keep constantly in mind.24 The monarchs depended on the court and army. Prior to money, and persisting long after it, they were paid in kind with food. Palaces and temples housed capacious granaries to hold taxes and tribute. Their kitchens, where dozens, hundreds, or even thousands labored, fed the royal family, their courts, their artisans, and their bodyguards, who, freed from producing and processing food, specialized in crafts, combat, or mental work. Furthermore, hierarchy was reflected and reinforced by what you ate. Those who labored ate coarse porridges and dark breads. Those who ruled dined on fine white bread or rice, thought to be far more nutritious and fortifying.

Rulers’ power, however, was not absolute, not simply because, as Scott says, the early states were precarious, but also because of a widely understood contract between rulers and subjects about food security and food and citizenship. Rulers were expected to guarantee food for their subjects. To do this, they waged war for land, labor, and booty, and they bargained with the gods through sacrifices of grains and meat. By feeding the gods (such as Lord Millet in China, or Demeter in Greece) who were believed to have given humans the gift of grains, they expected in return success in war and bountiful harvests. A failed harvest was a failed sacrifice and sanctioned resistance to the state.

Over millennia, the techniques used to ensure the grain supply shifted from sacrifice to state-sponsored religions promising bread and salvation to secular measures. States built granaries for the court but also to store grains to hand out as a last resort when the grain market failed. They passed laws and edicts laying down rations, serving sizes, and penalties for falsifying weights of grain foods. They mandated the planting of higher-yielding grains, the restriction of grain exports, and the policing of millers and bakers. Politicians debated the Corn Laws and free trade. Economists pondered rent and futures markets. By the end of the 20th century, many states entrusted corporations such as General Mills and ConAgra in the United States, Rank in Britain, Nippon in Japan, and Rong in China with milling, and privately owned companies such as Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus with much of the grain supply. The state’s interest as guarantor of last resort had expanded from court, to city-state, to nation, to much of the world by the time Herbert Hoover introduced international food aid with wheat shipments to starving Belgium following World War I. Mechanisms had changed, but the power to feed continued to feed power — to be used for political ends. While attributed to Socrates, it was the United States Department of Agriculture that coined the slogan “No man can be called a statesman who is ignorant of problems of wheat.” As the techniques for assuring the grain supply changed, so did the framework for political unrest if it failed, evolving from the sacrificial bargain to the “moral economy.”25 Whether it was Parisian women marching on Versailles demanding bread in 1789, protesters clamoring for bread in Russia in 1917, or Egyptian bread riots in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the rhetoric of food shortage accompanied political resistance.

Just as grain-supported state power always had its counterbalance, so did grain-underwritten hierarchies. To unite the state, rulers paid for communal feasts where all could consume strengthening, prestigious white bread or rice (and meat). Early on, participating in the feast following the sacrifice and partaking of the finer grains and roast meat offered to the gods was a civic duty. The sacrifice vanished, but public feasts, designed to unite all included in a society, continued well into the 20th century and have their distant echoes in politicians sharing hamburgers (white bread and meat) with their constituents.

Furthermore, if food determined rank, changing food changed rank. Eating fine white bread or rice, believed through the centuries to be the most empowering of foods, made one part of the elite, and in more egalitarian political systems was a sign of citizenship. As late as 1800, white bread was available to only 50 percent of the population in the country of its highest consumption, Great Britain. By 1900, it was the basic food of all British and Americans. Around the world, politicians, nutritionists, home economists, and cookbook authors assumed that the industrialization and expansion of these nations was linked to the consumption of nutritious white bread. Governments and social reformers in Japan, Mexico, Colombia, Italy, India, and elsewhere introduced measures to spur on modernization by feeding their soldiers, children, and even entire populations pasta and white bread.26 Improbably, then, in the two hundred years between 1800 and 2000, when world population soared from one billion to six billion, social and political inequality decreased, as an increasing proportion of this increasing population ate like rulers of old: enjoying white bread, pasta, or white rice, as well as more fat, more sugar, and more meat, most of all three derived from grain. Sliced, packaged bread was baked and sold in Mumbai, in Nigeria, and by the world’s largest baker, Bimbo, in Mexico and across the Americas. White bread anchored two of the world’s most popular meals, the pizza and the hamburger, the latter often made with grain-fed beef. Wheat pasta, according to Oxfam, was yet more favored, with Bambino spaghetti in India, Pasta Grande spaghetti in Zaire, and supermarket shelves packed with the instant pot noodle worldwide.27

When everybody can eat white bread, pasta, and white rice, how are people to distinguish themselves? In the United States, the answer is all too often to disdain grains and grain agriculture, and to dwell on the downsides of the civilization that they have supported. “So that’s us: processed corn, walking,” says Michael Pollan, without pausing to consider that what he so quickly dismisses was one of the great triumphs of the last century.28 That refined white flour is not as beneficial in sedentary populations with low-fiber diets as it was in earlier, more active populations with high-fiber diets should not blind us to its role in the global transformation of subjects into citizens.

5.

Presumably, when Scott and others argue that life in grain-based states was a step backward, they do so not to advocate a return to non-agrarian ways but to indicate that states, modern as much as ancient, can be less than benign and wise. The reminder is salutary. Yet even if life in early states were as grim as they claim, it is irrelevant to the role of grains now and in the future. The advantages grains always offered have been enhanced and the costs brought way down. Progress has been made in feeding people, not in one giant step, but in countless small ones that in aggregate have moved us in the right direction. The past can be left behind; it is what happens now that matters. If the anti-grain consensus takes grains off the table as foods for the future, we will be in for disaster.

The energy and excitement around the future of food, now as during the past two centuries when politicians, agronomists, and the public first began worrying about the exploding population, focuses on the fresh and natural: meat, meat substitutes, and fresh vegetables. The richer cities of the world enjoy these indulgences today, but providing them has required a technological miracle.29 Animal life cycles have been reorganized, packaging has been reinvented, and perhaps the most elaborate network humans ever constructed — energy-intensive cold chains — has been put in place.30 I am just one of millions of beneficiaries, and I marvel at how choice in food has proliferated over the past half-century.

Yet important as fresh meat and vegetables are, they remain delicious luxuries that consume space and energy in quantities disproportionate to other foods.31 The demand that they form ever larger parts of our diet is underwritten by an old elite dream, a wistful longing for the supposedly healthy, leisured, egalitarian, and free (or at least carefree) life of the noble savage and the Arcadian shepherd — a dream that says more about dissatisfaction with modern society than about the realities of herding, hunting, and gathering, or any evolutionary need for large quantities of meat and vegetables.

For all the people now in the world and the three billion more still to inhabit it, grains remain the best bet. It’s time to resist the deceptive lure of a non-agrarian world in some imagined past or future dreamed up by countless elites. Instead, we might look to the story of humanity’s huge strides in using these tiny seeds to create food that sustains the lives of billions of people, that is fairly distributed and freely chosen, and that with its satisfying taste contributes to happiness. If we are to anticipate more progress in the future, it’s not against but with the grain that we must work.
 

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 9

Featuring pieces by Alan Levinovitz, R. David Simpson,
Mark Sagoff, Fred Block, Julie Guthman,
Brandon Keim, and more.
 

 


[1] S.B. Eaton and M. Konner, “Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications,” New England Journal of Medicine 312, no. 5 (1985): 283–289; Loren Cordain, The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat (New York: Wiley, 2001).

[2] William Davis, Wheat Belly Total Health: The Ultimate Grain-Free Health and Weight-Loss Life Plan (New York: Rodale Inc., 2014); David Perlmutter, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar — Your Brains Silent Killers. (New York: Little, Brown, 2015).

[3] Miguel A. Altieri, et al., “Agroecologically Efficient Agricultural Systems for Smallholder Farmers: Contributions to Food Sovereignty,” Agronomy for Sustainable Development 32, no. 1 (January 2012): 1–13, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13593-011-0065-6.

[4] Richard Manning, Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization (Berkeley, California: North Point Press, 2005), 188.

[5] Marshall David Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Transaction Publishers, 1974); Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover, May 1, 1999, http://discovermagazine.com/1987/may/02-the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race.

[6] In the Guardian, the eminent archaeologist Barry Cunliffe called it “well founded and highly provocative,” in the New Yorker, John Lanchester hailed it as “the case against civilization,” and in the London Review of Books, Steven Mithen, another distinguished archaeologist pronounced it “fascinating.”

[7] Jennifer Schuessler, “Professor Who Learns from Peasants,” New York Times, December 4, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/books/james-c-scott-farmer-and-scholar-of-anarchism.html.

[8]  Advanced Placement world history syllabus, pp. 45 and 188, https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/pdf/ap-world-history-course-and-exam-description.pdf?course=ap-world-history.  

[9] Scott claims priority for the thesis that only grains could support states, dismissing what he claims to be the only possible competitor, Joram Mayshar, et al., Cereals, Appropriability and Hierarchy (Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2015), http://www.barcelonagse.eu/sites/default/files/working_paper_pdfs/842.pdf. This seems extraordinary.

[10] Tamar Haspel, “In Defense of Corn, the World’s Most Important Food Crop,” Washington Post, July 12, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/in-defense-of-corn-the-worlds-most-important-food-crop/2015/07/12/78d86530-25a8-11e5-b77f-eb13a215f593_story.html.

[11] Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (New York: Basic Books, 2009), chap. 1.

[12] Rachel Laudan, “Was the Agricultural Revolution a Terrible Mistake? Not If You Take Food Processing into Account,” January 21, 2016, http://www.rachellaudan.com/2016/01/was-the-agricultural-revolution-a-terrible-mistake.html; Wiliam Buckner, “Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer,” Quillette, December 16, 2017, http://quillette.com/2017/12/16/romanticizing-hunter-gatherer/.

[13] LuAnn Wandsnider, “The Roasted and the Boiled: Food Composition and Heat Treatment with Special Emphasis on Pit-Hearth Cooking,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 16, no. 1 (March 1997): 1–48, https://doi.org/10.1006/jaar.1997.0303.

[14] R. J. Braidwood, et al., “Symposium: Did Man Once Live by Beer Alone?” American Anthropologist 55, no. 4 (1953): 515–526; Solomon H. Katz and Fritz Maytag, “Brewing an Ancient Beer,” Archaeology 44, no. 4 (1991): 24–33; Jeff Alworth, “Of Course Beer Came Before Bread,” Beervana (blog), April 10, 2017, https://www.beervanablog.com/beervana/2017/4/9/which-came-first-bread-or-beer.

[15] Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2013), chap. 1.

[16] G. C. Hillman, “Traditional Husbandry and Processing of Archaic Cereals in Modern Times: Part I, the Glume Wheats,” Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture 1 (1984): 114–152.

[17] John Robert McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 213.

[18] For example, David Kaplan, “The Darker Side of the ‘Original Affluent Society,’” Journal of Anthropological Research 56, no. 3 (October 1, 2000): 301–24, https://doi.org/10.1086/jar.56.3.3631086; Buckner, “Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer.”

[19] Richard Barry Lee and Irven DeVore, Man the Hunter (Transaction Publishers, 1966).

[20] See Laudan, Cuisine and Empire and “Was the Agricultural Revolution a Terrible Mistake?” above.

[21] Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); Peter Mitchell, “Going Back to Their Roots: Comanche Trade and Diet Revisited,” Ethnohistory 63, no. 2 (April 2016): 237–71, https://doi.org/10.1215/00141801-3455283.

[22] Rachel Laudan, The Food of Paradise Exploring Hawaiis Culinary Heritage (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996).

[23] Jennifer Pournelle, “Marshland of Cities: Deltaic Landscapes and the Evolution of Civilization,” (PhD thesis, University of California, San Diego, 2003), 76.

[24] Amy Singer, Constructing Ottoman Beneficence: An Imperial Soup Kitchen in Jerusalem, SUNY Series in Near Eastern Studies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 145,155.

[25] E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present, no. 50 (1971): 76–136.

[26] Laudan, Cuisine and Empire, chap. 7; Helen Zoe Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), chap. 1.

[27] Al Kinley, “Pasta: The World’s Favourite Food,” Oxfam, June 15, 2011, https://www.oxfam.org.uk/blogs/2011/06/pasta-the-worlds-favourite-food.

[28] Michael Pollan, The Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 23.

[29] Susanne Freidberg, Fresh: A Perishable History (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).

[30] “Cold Chain,” Top Markets Report (US Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, 2016), https://www.trade.gov/topmarkets/pdf/Cold_Chain_Executive_Summary.pdf.

[31] Tamar Haspel, “We Need to Feed a Growing Planet. Vegetables Aren’t the Answer,” Washington Post, December 15, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/we-need-to-feed-a-growing-planet-vegetables-arent-the-answer/2016/12/15/f0ffeb3e-c177-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html.


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RACHEL LAUDAN



Rachel Laudan is a historian and author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. @rachellaudan

 

 


 

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BREAKTHROUGH JOURNAL, NO. 9

 

On Naturalness
by Alan Levinovitz
 

 

The Trouble with Ecosystem Services
by R. David Simpson
 

 

Welcome to the Narcisscene
by Mark Sagoff
 

 

Seeing the State
by Fred Block
 

 

Strawberry Fields Forever?
by Julie Guthman
 

 

If We Could Talk to the Animals
by Brandon Keim
 

 

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