Tuesday, June 14, 2011
The Midas Touch
Stomachs Too Big to Fail?
The history of food reaches across a span of four thousand years, during most of which time the global economy is agrarian. Prior to the twentieth century, the changes were relatively slow in coming. Humankind is the tenant of nature, food the measure of both humanity's wealth and wellbeing. The earliest metal currencies (the shekel, the talent, and mina) represent weights and units of grain. Allowing for cultural difference and regional availability, the human family sits down to meals made of what it finds in the forest or grows in the field, the tables set from one generation to the next in accordance with the changing of the seasons and the benevolence of Ashnan or Ceres.
The contract between humankind and nature remains in force for as long as it is understood which one is the tenant and which the landlord. Over the course of millennia human beings discover numerous ways of upgrading their lot -- cooking with fire, domesticating animals and plants, bringing the tomato from Mexico to Spain, pepper from Sumatra to Salem, constructing the chopstick, the seine net, and the salad fork -- but the world's population stays more or less in balance with the world's agriculture because the landlord is careful about matching supply and demand...
The contract between landlord and tenant doesn't come up for review until the seventeenth-century plantings of capitalist finance give rise to the Industrial Revolution. Human beings come to imagine that they hold the deed to nature, persuaded that if soundly managed as a commercial real-estate venture, the property can be made to recruit larger armies, gather more votes, yield more cash. Add to the mechanical staples (John Deere's cast-steel plow, Cyrus McCormick's reaper) the twentieth century's flavorings of laboratory science (chemical pesticides, synthetic gene sequences), and food becomes an industrial product subsumed into the body of a corporation.
Image source here.