Big Historical Picture

Submitted by admin on Wed, 08/31/2016 - 00:06

The Original Questions.
I have wondered how discourse might have begun, and I imagine that the earliest humans only had three basic questions in their lives:-

  • What is safe to eat ?
  • How can we get more of it ?
  • How can we store it so we never run out of food and go hungry ?

These questions have now evolved into a massively complex system of ideas (especially complex since economics began by trading foodstuffs at the start of history ?).
For example, "What is safe to eat" might diverge in two directions

  • What is healthy to eat ? - evolving into medicines and treatments
  • What tastes good to eat ? - evolving into cookery and gourmet issues

These seem like the roots of separate discourses, though they are clearly connected (for example, some medicines are healthy, but unsafe in excess, and the discourses of health and safety interact in many different ways)

One can imagine these discourses evolving and developing, gradually taking in more subjects (such as the sciences of botany and biology, then microbiology, as and when they developed

The Agricultural Revolution
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, say in 1750, the population of Britain was around 6 million, quite evenly distributed (so that the cost of transporting goods into the towns was not excessive - with a horse and cart, every extra mile costs quite a lot in horse-feed, and this was a limiting factor in the growth of towns and cities). Towns were small, and localities were more-or-less self-sufficient in food. The threefold increase in population over the 500 years preceding 1750 had necessitated more land being brought under cultivation and some changes in farm management had occurred. But these were slight, until about 1720 when the so-called Agricultural Revolution began. Between 1720 and 1750 there were radical changes in agricultural methods which, it has been argued, prepared the ground for the subsequent Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution
The next 150 years saw more great changes. The population multiplied by six times and was 37 million by 1900. Most of the new population were town dwellers. Also, Britain became the 'workshop of the world' as the possibilities of mechanised industry, powered by steam, were realised. Whether or not British agriculture could have fed this population cannot be examined her; the fact is that British agriculture did not feed the 37 million in 1900. As a nation, Britain chose the commercial route similar to that adopted by imperial Rome. The British Imperial markets may not have demanded a large quantity of manufactured goods, but the terms of trade were exceedingly favourable to the manufacturers because they had no competition. So the tradition of importing food was developed, and by 1914 it is estimated that the UK was only 30% self-sufficient in food. Sugar from the Caribbean, grain from Canada, and eventually meat from as far away as New Zealand poured through the British docks.

Do not suppose that this choice of food supply came into being without resistance. Landowners held the lion's share of political power and the period 1815-46, which covers the most rapid expansion of British towns and cities, was also the time for which the Corn Laws were in force. These protected British agriculture by prohibiting imports of grain until the market price was £320 a ton - an astronomical price. Starvation was common among the poor, especially when harvests were poor.

Modern Times
Since 1940, however, there has been a distinct change in policy in Britain. The experience of the wartime blockade, with the real possibility of serious malnutrition, once more brought the subject of national food production to prominence. Successive governments have encouraged increased home production of food by various supportive measures to farmers. Just before World War II, Britain produced about 47 per cent of the food consumed by its 16 million inhabitants. In 1975, the proportion had increased to 55% despite the fact that the population had grown to 55 milliion. Even making no allowance for improvements in diet, this change represents an increase in food production of 1 ½ times. These figures can be misleading, but they do indicate that a revolution has overtaken British agriculture in recent decades which is quite different from anything that had happened before.

An Imaginary Starting Point. At some point in the past, all food in the UK was produced by natural methods. This was by default, because there were no other techniques available - it was 'organic', even before this concept was invented. People had slowly bred better types of plants and animals, worked out how to improve the soil with manure, and improved yields and fertility. People's bodies had adapted to their local diets over a time-span of thousands of years.