Wheat production already demonstrated the kind of truly transnational links, and capacity for destabilization and volatility, that it does today.

Rising meat consumption, meanwhile, is perhaps the most important phenomenon in modern western dietary history. Average annual per capita meat consumption in Germany, for example was below 20 kilograms before 1820, but by 1900, it was almost 50 kilograms. Meat-eating was symbolically and viscerally linked to every kind of power: masculine, racial, imperial, and national (vegetarianism, reactively, was born in its modern guise in the nineteenth century).

Yet, ironically, this avalanche of meat could not be produced domestically: by 1914, Britain imported 42% of its meat. World trade in meat rose seventeenfold between 1854 and 1913.

Importing meat, of course, required more than territory, railways and steamships. Because of the distances involved, it also needed refrigeration: hence the production of a cold chain linking abattoirs in Argentina and Australia with European cold stores.

By 1891, artificial refrigeration apparatus had replaced natural ice on the steamships bringing frozen meat from America to Britain. Such controlled environments, which arrested organic decay, temporarily cheated time and generated the modern western experience of being able to eat practically anything, year-round.

From the perspective of today's food crisis, two points are particularly germane here. First, this particular food system, in which production was concentrated in particular parts of the world, and in which fossil-fuel inputs (for transportation, refrigeration, and fertilizer) escalated, was more globally connected, and more energy-intensive, than anything previously seen.

Today, around seventeen percent of American energy consumption goes towards food distribution. Well before the 1970s oil crisis and the current biofuel controversy, food and energy systems have been inseparable.

Second, this system, like those following it, created and sustained a calorific rift dividing western Europe and North America from much of the rest of the world.

This combination of technologically-embedded and energy-intense agriculture and distribution, and globalized asymmetry of consumption patterns made food crises on a truly global scale possible.

The Western Surplus: Obesity

In 1800, a diet of 2,000 calories per day was normal in many European countries. From around this point onwards, a steady calorific rise is discernible, with most European nations breaking the 3,000 calorie threshold by the early twentieth century.

Great nutritional disparities existed within the West—as social investigators demonstrated and hungry slum-dwellers protested—yet a significant calorific chasm had emerged between the west and much of the rest of the world.

Hunger persisted, and indeed rose. Yet, production—buoyed by synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and developments in plant genetics—easily kept pace with world population growth.

The FAO Second World Food Survey (1952) noted that 59.5% of the world's population lived in countries where daily food supplies were below 2,200 calories, a figure falling to ten percent by the mid-1980s. West German and British gross food output, moreover, doubled from 1950 to the 1970s, as agricultural self-sufficiency returned to post-industrial Europe.

The western dietary complex—sugar, wheat, beef (and increasingly chicken), dairy products, plus caffeinated and alcoholic beverages—has increasingly become a diet to which developing nations aspire even as health-conscious westerners try desperately to emulate the unprocessed diets of pre-modern peasants.

Obesity, however, is neither a wholly modern phenomenon nor a wholly modern concern. Aristotle thought too much fat harmful, for example. Writing on obesity flourished in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when it was generally seen through the lens of "the humors" which shaped much medical thinking at the time.

Being overweight, however, was usually the preserve of the wealthy, and it remained a sign of fashion, status, or even virtue well into the nineteenth century. An 1865 article in the English periodical Blackwood's Magazine noted that the corpulent were incapable of deceit or violence: "stout people are not revengeful; nor, as a general rule, are they agitated by gusts of passion. Few murderers weigh more than ten stone [140 pounds]."

The "war" on the waist-line, however, was beginning. In an interesting reversal of today, nineteenth-century American observers were sometimes struck by the level of obesity they saw on English streets. The British surgeon William Wadd noted in 1829 that it was becoming increasingly difficult for the corpulent to secure space on stagecoaches, while other British doctors began noting the effect that sedentary lifestyles and dietary abundance were having on middle-class girths.

By 1900, fat was ceasing to be either fashionable or a status symbol: it displayed a failure to control one's appetite and, writ large, a failure to control one's self.

A pivotal figure in this shift was a plump English undertaker, William Banting, the designer of the Duke of Wellington's coffin. In his best-selling "Letter on Corpulence" (1863), Banting recounted his long struggle against being overweight.

He tried numerous remedies, he noted, including exercise, sea air, riding, and Turkish baths, "yet the evil still increased, and, like the parasite of barnacles on a ship, if it did not destroy the structure, it obstructed its fair, comfortable progress in the path of life." He eventually found success with a diet low in sugar, starch, and fat, which left him thirty-five pounds lighter.

Banting's text was among the first to view the remedy for obesity not in terms of the volume but of the type of food consumed. Although it was not explicitly couched in terms of "low carbohydrate," the idea of monitoring food groups was beginning to take shape, as was that of weighing oneself regularly.

Banting recommended frequent weighing, something made feasible by the proliferation of public and private scales. These, along with the later emergence of standard clothes sizes and more regular medical examination, made it increasingly difficult for any westerner to escape knowledge of how much they weighed, and whether or not this weight was normal.

By the early twentieth century, commentators were connecting Banting's recommendations about the individual to more collective concerns about the effect of modern life on health and the body. In 1901, the economist J.A. Hobson suggested that British "command over commodities," particularly "carboniferous foods" was producing excess consumption.

F.A. Hornibrook, in The Culture of the Abdomen (1924), depicted obesity as the paradigmatic disease of civilization, and recommended a series of ergonomic exercises (abdominal retraction, deep breathing) for those wishing to escape its starchy clutches. Other innovators flooded the market with a variety of remedies for flab, from abdominal lipectomy to massage machines.

Modern technology, for some critics, was as culpable as overabundant food. From automobiles and washing machines, to, later, remote controls and online shopping, technology was subtly reducing the amount of calories unconsciously burned over the course of a day.

In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell grumbled how technological advance was threatening to produce "a paradise of little fat men." The focus on men is important here, since obesity was often equated with diminished male virility. This was particularly the case for those already suffering from potential emasculation, like clerks (whose tedious, sedentary lifestyles prevented the sorts of physical feats of strength and courage that defined masculinity at the time).

Others placed obesity in an anthropological context: the further one travelled (geographically, culturally, chronologically) from western cities, with their surfeit of cars, office machinery, and sugars, the thinner people appeared to get. Conversely, as the western dietary and technological complex encroached, the more obesity, along with heart disease, diabetes, constipation, food poisoning, and bowel cancer, replaced hunger and famine as the primary food-related threats human beings faced.

For all the angst about overweight male clerks, however, the stigma of obesity was increasingly felt by women. In The Art of Feminine Beauty (1930), Helena Rubenstein sternly warned that "an abundance of fat is something repulsive and not in accord with the principles that rule our conception of the beautiful."

Fifty-six years earlier, around the time that Banting was formulating his rather cordial version of carbophobia, William Gull (a royal doctor) coined the term anorexia nervosa to refer to a condition he and other Anglo-American doctors were seeing with greater frequency. Middle-class girls were refusing to eat, without any sign of being insane or otherwise ill.

Anorexia nervosa, as many studies have shown, appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for numerous reasons: changing female bodily norms, the rise of feminism, shifting fashions, alterations in bourgeois family dynamics, and the medicalization of everyday life. But it also appeared at precisely the time when the west began to plug itself into a seemingly inexhaustible stream of food drawn from around the world.

The World Food Crisis

In 2008, Eva Clayton, the former special adviser to the Director-General of the FAO, spoke before the U.S. House of Representatives. "The situation is dire," she stated. "Our response must be decisive and forward thinking. The failure to strengthen our global food system would ultimately lead to political and economic upheaval all over the world."

The food crisis is indeed dire. It is also systemic and global: it unites the world, but its pathologies are geographically distinct. On the "developed" side of the calorific rift, fat is accumulating at a startling rate. On the "developing" side, huge populations are increasingly vulnerable to hunger and famine.

The bifurcation of the world into fat and hungry zones is the most visceral way in which global inequality is lived, felt, and seen. Although this process has accelerated in recent years, the origins of such corporeal polarity and stratification lie deep in historical time.

As Europeans colonized the world and built food systems that underpinned their industrialization and development, they embedded dietary inequality within these systems. The global food crisis is a product of these past practices.

One of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century, then, is to find a way of overcoming this history and producing a more equitable global food system, one in which the obese will lose some of their weight while the starving will gain some.