Grain for All

The Case Against Repeasantization

Thanks to Sam Bliss for his spirited rebuttal to my article “With the Grain: Against the New Paleo Politics,” a piece I published last year in the Breakthrough Journal (Summer 2018, Issue 9). Prompted by James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (Yale University Press, 2017), the article addressed the disdain for grains expressed by a succession of anthropologists, historians, physiologists, physicians, journalists, and political activists over the past 50 years. Altogether, they have pinpointed the largely grain-based “agricultural revolution” as the “worst mistake in the history of the human race,” argued that diets based on wheat and maize are unhealthful, and disparaged modern grain farming as commodity monoculture. Since states sprouted up after grain foods did, this chorus of criticisms has often gone hand in hand with wistful speculations about a pre-state world in which people led leisured, equal, and healthy lives. Bliss, who shares this wistfulness, charges me with giving far too much weight to the critique of grains.

His is obviously a judgment call. However, I remain convinced that the chorus has created mistrust of grains among a significant portion of the American public. Perhaps even more important, it has skewed the discussion of the connections between food and society by paying insufficient attention to the fact that humans, unlike their closest relatives in the animal kingdom, do not eat entire plants, grains included, nor do they devour carcasses. Sometime in the past, humans passed a point of no return, able to survive only on plants and carcasses that had been cooked, prepared, or processed (it is significant that there is still no generally accepted term for these transformations). On balance, these products are safer, more digestible, more nutritious, longer-lasting, and tastier than their raw materials. Since then, humans have repeatedly found new ways to transform plants into foods.

Grains, by which I mean the small seeds of annual herbaceous plants, including legumes and oil seeds, were arguably the most important plant materials to be mastered (roots, some nuts, and some fruits are other possible contenders). They were storable, relatively shippable, and as the food for a new generation of plants, were packed with nutrients and unrivaled in their capacity to be transformed into staples, oils, sweeteners, condiments, meat substitutes, and animal feed. A diet of nothing but foods made from grains could (and did) satisfy most nutritional and gastronomic requirements, as well as providing many nonfood by-products.

Each change in the technologies of food preparation required new distributions of human and nonhuman energy and, in turn, experiments with new social structures. Thus, the “agricultural revolution,” rather than being a uniquely important turning point, for better or worse, in the history of humanity was in fact just one of the many socioeconomic shifts that went along with innovations in food processing.

Furthermore, the shift to food that had been made, not just gathered, carried a huge cost. Somebody had to do the making. While the group as a whole benefited from not having to chew, claw, and digest raw food, a subset did most of the labor. So when Bliss accuses me of not realizing that work can be joyful, as he paints a picture of hunter-gatherers processing food “while sitting talking and laughing with friends and family,” I want evidence that food processing has historically been primarily communal, light work. My own experience and research suggest that moving plants and animals to the preparation site, breaking them down mechanically, collecting the necessary fuel and water, and making tools for processing them are tasks that have normally been relegated to the least powerful in society. Moreover, these processes have typically required more time and energy, and been more unrelenting, than the widely acknowledged heavy labor of harvesting plants and animals, whether from the wild or from the field. Even today, with fossil fuels available to power much of the transport and primary processing of food, the inequitable distribution of labor in the preparation of food remains a problem. In short, forget wistfulness. While completely agreeing with Bliss that meaningful work of one’s choice can be a source of great pleasure, cooking became joyful only in modern times when multiple sources of prepared food made the work voluntary, machines made it light, and unending, unchosen toil gave way to caring and creative expression.

Have food shortages really been a phenomenon of states, “nearly all result[ing] from unequal access to food, not insufficient availability,” as Bliss, following a particular interpretation of the work of Amartya Sen, suggests? To return to food processing, inequality surely predated the hierarchical, authoritarian state because the transition to cooked/prepared/processed food divided groups into those who did this work and those who escaped it. Moreover, until the last couple of hundred years, few if any societies escaped shortage-created nutritional problems, whether infant malnutrition and death, stunting, or deficiency diseases. Food shortages have many causes, including seasonal changes in plant and animal availability, climatic variations, predators, diseases, and inadequate labor for provisioning and processing. Hence, whereas hunter-gatherers may have shared food in a relatively egalitarian fashion to ensure the survival of the group, settled societies and pastoralists had their own techniques for warding off hunger. These included rules of hospitality, charitable giving, stockpiling food, accustoming children to endure hunger and poor food, and providing extra nourishment for nursing mothers and those engaging in heavy labor. Although states were often far from benign — failing or being incapable of acting to counteract shortages or starving enemy populations as a military strategy — it was not in their best interest to starve the subjects they depended on for procuring and preparing food and other essential services. As a result, states developed their own strategies to ensure the food supply, including building granaries, controlling food exports, monitoring food markets, and sponsoring the collection (or stealing) and naturalization of useful plants or “green gold.” For both individuals and states, grains (where they could be grown) formed the front line against food shortages.

So while I believe that increasing mastery of grain farming and processing has supported a growing population, averted famine, and provided a sequence of delicious and nutritious foods, I have never suggested, as Bliss asserts, that the “evolution from foraging to increasingly mechanized farming has made life unequivocally better.” Any tale of progress has to take into account backward steps and unintended consequences. For example, treating maize with alkali and grinding it wet made it possible to roll it into a flat bread with enhanced nutritional value, but in all likelihood increased women’s work. Power-milling wheat, rice, and maize led to a host of new products, such as fine cakes and sauces, more digestible bread, and corn bread, but also led to a rise in deficiency diseases. These observations in no sense back away from my advocacy of grains. Rather, it is my hope that today, with greater capacity for monitoring and greater wealth, more can be done to offset the deleterious human and environmental consequences of the continuing use of grains.

And while I agree with Bliss that grains have played a key role in “capitalist modernization,” they were also exploited in pre-state societies, key to city-state functioning, part of the agro-pastoralist lifestyle, central to ancient and early modern empires, underpinning feudalism, and essential for socialist modernization. It makes no historical sense to suggest that grains are uniquely linked to capitalism.

To debate “whether grains are good or bad,” Bliss says, is “inane.” Indeed — grains are neither moral actors, nor are they intrinsically good or bad. That said, it is quite the opposite of inane to try to figure out why grains have been so important as food: it’s a necessary basis for strategizing about the future of food, agriculture, and the environment.