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Link: A Hollow Abundance – The Modern Change in International Food Production

17 Mar

The food writer Bee Wilson has a very interesting article in this weekend’s Guardian Review magazine regarding the quality versus quantity of modern food and the changing nature of the global diet, as identified in her new 2019 book The Way We Eat Now. With its riveting introduction Wilson’s newspaper article brings into play the cultural and industrial underpinnings of why changes, in both mass availability and the variety of food produce, is having a detrimental effect on the modern diet and food standards more generally:

‘Eating grapes can feel like an old pleasure, untouched by change. The ancient Greeks and Roman loved to eat them, as well as to drink them in the form of wine. The Odyssey describes ‘a ripe and luscious vine, hung thick with grapes’. As you pull the next delicious piece of fruit from its stalk, you could easily be plucking it from a Dutch still life of the 17th century, where grapes are tumbled on a metal platter with oysters and half-peeled lemons.

But look closer at this bunch of green grapes, cold from the fridge, and you see that they are not unchanged after all. Like so many other foods, grapes have become a piece of engineering designed to please modern eaters.’

The article is worth a read as it highlights how food standards are continually changing to meet new markets, particularly the international market, and how we as a species have made previously seasonal fruit and vegetables available year round for global consumption.  With that comes a host of other changes introduced, or designed, to increase efficiency across trading and cultural borders, such as the selection for seedless grapes and stability in flavour, as the example Wilson uses above and explores throughout the article.

The ability to produce foodstuffs year-round, in spite of seasonal variance, is a relatively new development on a stupendous scale but it is necessary to feed the now burgeoning global human population of 7.7 billion individuals.  To highlight the monumental change and increase in the human population in recent centuries, and thus pressures on providing food and impact on the environment to provide that food, check out the chart below:

World population estimates from 1800 to 2100 using United nations projections in 2015 and United Nations historical estimates for pre-1950s data. Source: Wikipedia.

Technological and industrial developments in the 19th and 20th centuries have helped to drive a chain reaction that gave our species the ability to harness agriculture and provide food produce across continents, yet as Wilson points out this glut of food isn’t always what it is nutritionally cracked up to be.  The homogenization of the international diet, through increased trade and economical bonding, can be deceptive in its nutrient value.

So what does this has to do with archaeology?

As quoted above, we often subconsciously think of food as a direct route back to the past, whether it is a way to communicate and bond with our perceived ancestors or through some fad palaeodiet that has gained attention as diet of the month which is based on flimsy scientific evidence.  Or perhaps we are celebrating our personal and familial heritage and our culinary heritage is a central tenet of our religion and/or cultural affinity.

Food itself is a direct portal to a past that we, as a species, have long valued and appreciated.  A large proportion of all archaeological remains are related to food production in some context, increasingly so the further we delve into our prehistory and osteological ecofacts (e.g. bones of butchered animals) are often our only evidence of human activity in a number of archaeological contexts.

Sometimes though a grape is not just a grape, it is a portent to the future and a harbinger for our unhealthy modern diet.