About this Episode
We are facing a world food crisis of unparalleled proportions. Our reliance on unsustainable dietary choices and agricultural systems is causing problems both for human health and the health of our planet. Solutions from lab-grown food to vegan diets to strictly local food consumption are often discussed, but a central question remains: how did we get to this point?
Join Professor Chris Otter as he takes us back over the last 200 years to explore how we developed our current diet heavy in meat, wheat, and sugar. He’ll explore how the British played a significant role in making red meat, white bread, and sugar the diet of choice—linked to wealth, luxury, and power—and how dietary choices connect to the pressing issues of climate change and food supply.
Nicholas Breyfogle | Associate Professor, Department of History; Director, Goldberg Center
Chris Otter | Professor, Department of History
This event is presented in partnership with Bexley Public Library.
Cite this Site
Nicholas Breyfogle: Welcome to Diet for a Large Planet by The Ohio State University. I'm an associate professor of history and director of the Goldberg Center. I'm your host and moderator today. Thank you for joining us. Today we face an unparalleled food crisis. A reliance on agriculture is causing health problems for us and our planet. The central question remains: how did we get to this point? Our speaker today, Chris Otter, takes us over the last 200 years to discuss how we developed our current diet, heavy in wheat, meat, and sugar. Dr. Chris Otter is a professor of history at the Ohio State University. He has authored books including "Diet for a Large Planet." That's a book he'll speak about today. With that introduction, Professor Otter will start with a presentation on the history of our food. Then we'll take questions and have a discussion. If you have a question, please submit it in the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen. We'll answer as many questions as we can. Now let me pass you to Chris Otter for an exploration of a diet for a large planet.
Christopher Otter: Thank you to you all for organizing this. I'm going to share my screen so you can see my slideshow. I'll begin with a recent document from 2019 by the EAT-Lancet commission on food, planet, and health. This report pulled no punches. Food systems have a potential to nurture human health and support sustainability, but they currently threat both -- that's a quote. This addresses obesity, climate change, etc. Diets high in meat, wheat, and sugar cause greenhouse gas emissions and are linked to the extinction of species as well. This idea that these diets are launching us to crisis is becoming commonplace. One author stated, the world cannot eat as the US or UK eats. This language of not enough planets echoes the work of Frances Moore Lappe where she placed blame on a diet rich in meat and so on was bad for the Earth. Most of studies of the food crisis limit their studies from 1950 to the present, placing the blame on post-war America, big corporations, and neoliberalism, and sometimes folding it into the theory of the world going haywire after 1950.
Today I'll talk about the deeper origins of this world food crisis. I'll make a rather bold argument that these origins are not really American but primarily British, located in the British world food system of the 19th and early 20th centuries when Britain was the dominant world economic and military power, creating long-distance food chains which made meat, wheat, and sugar the diet of progress. Through industrialization and population growth and more, Britain created the conditions under which the idea of using the entire planet as a food source became systematic. The British diet became worthy of serious critical inquiry. I want to begin with this diet. It's not a nice place to start. In his book, Offner refers to the cheap imported staples and meat and sugar that gave British the worst diet in Europe. Ouch. The rising consumption of several key foodstuffs were involved: animal proteins, refined grains, sugar, and dairy. There was a rising per capita calorific intake. British people were eating more than in the past by then. We have a change in patterns of morbidity and mortality, sometimes called the demographic or epidemiologic transition.
There's a rise in lifestyle diseases like cancer along with a decline in infectious diseases. This type of diet becomes inseparable from these patterns globally. From my perspective, the key phenomenon was global outsourcing. Britain's food policy was basically to abandon or significantly reduce its agriculture and use the rest of the world as its food resource. This is using the more peripheral Celtic zones of the UK for agrarian zones to the use of noncontiguous agrarian zones throughout the world. This is driven by technological capacity to dominate spaces, often violently and using forced removal of peoples. This is coupled with industrialization in Britain. and an ideology sometimes related to Ricardo. Ricardo argued that if other parts of the world could produce food more cheaply than Britain then there was no point for us to produce food and we should focus on industrial production. One consequence of this policy, as this graph shows, is declining food prices by the 1890s-1900.
Food prices were lower than in France or Germany. This was seen as being in the interest of industrialists. Meat like beef coupled with wheat and sugar were two factors. Meat has been associated with Britishness but there became concerns about rising prices and a limited supply. Britain could have done intensive livestock production or become vegan. None of those fit the cultural ideals. So the key was going overseas for resources. What we saw was Britain exporting large numbers of animals, especially shorthorns , Herefords, and certain cattle. We see this with Danish pig breeding. We supplied much of the Denmark hog market and helped produce the Danish land race pig. Same story with sheep. This is a Corriedale sheep that was developed and bred to fill the British demand for lamb. These were networks created explicitly to feed Britain. As well as breeding techniques, it involved a novel breeding regimen and baby slaughters. The bovine body changes shape throughout the body. There's also a conscious project to intersperse fat throughout muscle, known as marbling. This is a well marbled steak, a calculated project of breeding and feeding.
At first, these animals were shipped live back to Britain to be slaughtered. In j1 the 1870s we had preservation and freezing methods so meat could be shipped this way globally instead. This was a large system. A quick note on wheat. By 1914 around 80% of British wheat was imported, a complete turnaround from the pre-1800 period. Here, the story is more about Canada. In 1923, Canada became the world's largest wheat exporter, supplying about half of British wheat imports. Canada's landscape became different based on this. We also had the Canadian railways developed as well as storage grains. Canada had the finest system of grain inspection in the world, meaning it was trustworthy. They also had telegraphs conveying instantaneous information on crops. So price differentials dropped. By 1910, Canadian wheat was cheaper or the same price as British.
We also saw biological innovation. British buyers demanded a fluffy white loaf made of wheat that you could not grow in England. So North American wheat farming thrived as these new varieties of wheat were developed, often using wheat imported from Russia. Roller milling allowed for the production of extremely refined flours. We have new technology creating unfibrous bread fit for even the toothless. I don't have time to talk about sugar here but am glad to answer questions about it. So these changes aligned around the world. In some of these places, the connections were symbiotic. By 1914, over half the monetary value of food consumed in Britain came from overseas. This came from cattle, wheat, etc. Also, there's the role of the German sugar beet.
Before World War 1, most sugar was from sugar beet. I cannot talk about most of these consequences today. You have to look at the book for these issues of public health, food security, and famines and geopolitics of food. Here, I'm going to talk about health. This diet was refined, concentrated, fiber stripped, dehydrated, highly seasoned, and durable. It was materially heterogeneous. So more and more foods are made from the same ingredients that are not the same ingredients we've eaten throughout most of history. There are complicated bodily effects, including improved disease resistance, especially tuberculosis. There's diminished micronutrient deficiency. There's increased height and sometimes weight. There's greater available energy for workers which helps the industrial revolution. The body was also vulnerable to several novel health conditions, sometimes called lifestyle diseases.
[Reading quote from slide] Today we often refer to this process as evolutionary mismatch. There's the idea that the environment we've evolved to inhabit has been replaced by something artificial and so the body reacts. This diet was seen as the cause of the decay of man. It cause expanding waistlines and clogged bowels of what one author called a nation of toothless fatties -- that's from 1980. So we can see how people responded to this new diet. Think of tooth decay. People had become to be accustomed to tooth decay. Studies have shown that this new diet was related to tooth decay, caries, etc. Also there was the idea that the diet influenced the shape of the British face, with occlusion of the jaw. The idea was sustained by those comparing the bodies. This research showed that things like cancer were almost never seen in groups eating traditional diets.
Interestingly enough, there was a tremendous scare about constipation in the late 19th century. The idea was that this diet was effectively getting stuck inside the body. I quote: the overburdened colon was a cesspit. This was a flawed argument of auto-intoxication where the body poisons itself from within. This author who argued for js this posited that it was the cause of every disease to man. Numerous treatments were developed, including things like brown breads by Hovis from 1885. This was an attempt to turn back to a less refined diet. We actually end seeing a craze for the removal of the human colon practiced by Lane. I'll spare the details but it's in the book. People like Lane were not just cranks but they were positing a connection between mental health and health of the gut. There was one author connecting fecal flora with nervous breakdowns. It was blamed on the diet and gut. Books like "Gut," a bestseller from a few years back, say things we've discussed for at least 100 years.
British waistlines were also expanding. People noticed British people seemed to be getting fatter. There were concerns about health. William Banting published Letter on Corpulence, arguing for a low-carb diet. He noted he had lost weight on this diet. Being obese has historically only been feasible for the wealthy. It's often a manifestation of social power. In the 19th and 20th century, this difference was democratized, so the prevalence of obesity in Britain spiked. It doubled from 1980-1991. The rise was noted to be as fast as or faster than anywhere else in the world. Why was this seen as an Anglo problem? I think it's the particular inheritance of this diet. I think it's also linked to the economic principles on which the British diet was built.
In The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett argue that stress results in people wanting to eat comfort foods in more individualistic societies. It's a complex argument but I think there's something to it. Also, the nutritional landscape has been changed more drastically in these societies. There's an important gender dynamic as well. Women ate more foods of empty calories -- sugar, white bread, tea, margarine. This is linked to more weight gain. This meant in the late 18th century there was a lot of concern with women's bodies. There were many outcomes of this. I apologize for this image. It's shocking. This was when they coined the phrase, anorexia nervosa. I think the dietary change is one of many complex factors leading to this condition. There's an ambivalence here. [Reading slide] But then there's minor and major consequences. Now I'll switch gears to spend about ten minutes talking about ecology and the effects on the planet's health. In my book I write about the large planet philosophy, the idea that there was no limit to resources for Britain to import from around the planet. Other societies followed this pathway but it was done so more aggressively by Britain. This led to ghost acreage, a country needing large amounts of acreage in other countries to sustain their diet. This became political. Any attempt by the conservative party to float protection would immediately be greeted with joy by liberals who would point out that food prices would go up and people would not have a plentiful diet. This is linked to the entire global trading system. So the global system triumphs. This pioneered large scale ecological overshoot, the basic reason for our environmental dilemma today. If you take the paradigmatic British breakfast, the eggs are probably from Russia. The grain is probably from Canada. The bacon is from Denmark. The sugar is from India. The tea is from the Caribbean. The English breakfast is actually a planetary breakfast. So we see a planetary deficit developing.
The ecological effects are more nuanced and complex. For example, when Britain expands its planetary footprint, it realizes it has a problem with fertilizer. There's a desperate quest to track down nitrate and phosphate deposits. This is a Peruvian guano mine. This is blasting the Chilean desert for nitrates, before the development of synthetic nitrates by Germany in the 20th century. By mining fertilizer, humans temporarily but spectacularly escaped the limits of the nitrogen cycle. If you look at this, they are diagrams of how nature works. You can see things like fossil waste, cadaver waste, etc. Humans are woven into planetary cycles. The leaching of nitrates has caused greenhouse gases and many other problems. This diagram was created to show a series of planetary boundaries that we are sometimes already exceeding. For example, we're over-consuming nitrates and phosphorus.
Another example is deforestation. Grasslands rapidly replaced forest in places Britain used for farming. About 80% of New Zealand's wetlands were destroyed. Their landscape is now almost wholly British in character. The dust bowl of the 1930s was partially caused by the relentless farming to create exports for the British market. The dust bowl hit Canada, South Africa, Australia. It was a global problem. We have a quote from William Vogt. [Reading slide] These are some of the ways in which contemporaries connected transformations in diet with planetary problems. Here is a diagram showing the ecological footprint in London alone. It covers most of England, Wales, and Scotland -- 293 times its geographical area. point is not everybody can consume like this. One final point is extinction.
Ecologists often talk of the sixth mass extinction in the Earth's history. The reconfigured commodity frontiers supplying Britain's foods reduced biodiversity from the beginning. There was a war on unwanted insects and weeds underway. This made ecosystems more fragile. Monocultures are dubious. This kind of farming is heavily monocultural. I have mentioned the exports of livestock around the world and formation of new breeds. We also see the extinction of many breeds of sheep, cattle, etc. Darwin wrote about the extermination of ancient cattle breeds, for example. There's something similar with British pigs. The large white pig was created to make bacon but Danish bacon became more popular. We have all kinds of now extinct cattle breeds. Dominant cattle breeds, though, have very large biomass but very low genetic diversity, reducing the effective population size. That's some half insemination equipment from the past [on screen]. The ecological issues are worse than the health problems. It's very hard to argue this diet is good for our planet.
It's estimated the world food systems are probably the biggest driver of climate change, more so than industry. One thing we might note is that Britain has been home to two of the most powerful movements against this. One is the vegetarianism movement. This is in its modern form, and it's not religious based. It's a diet that is ethically and ecologically opposed to meat consumption. Also, organic farming developed in the early 20th century. Quick conclusion. Although the British diet has often been the subject of international ridicule, the system that sustained it has been enormously consequently historically. The 2007-8 Financial and Food Crisis Report from the Lancet is something I want to return to. It shows a slow crisis of development, food, climate, etc. It spiked food prices in a world increasingly bifurcated into stuffed and starved. As a tendency for us to conflate these recent developments with the whole history of crisis, I hope I've shown you we need to take a longer historical perspective. We could even push this further if we wanted. The period when Britain was the dominant world power saw a complex producing massive quantities of meat, wheat, and sugar. This has become the aspirational diet of many countries. Wherever it unfolds we see obesity, diabetes, ecological strain, etc. It weighs heavily on our present. I'll stop there. Thank you very much.
Nicholas Breyfogle: Thank you so much for that exceptionally interesting talk about our food history. Thank you for the new ideas to think about. We have a lot of questions that have come in for you. We took a bunch of questions before when people signed up. We've had others that have come in. If you have a question, please use the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen. We'll answer as many as we can. One question that came through a great deal has to do with the relationship between population size and food. You mentioned today in the talk about the different types of food, technologies, and changing species. The question people ask is, to what degree is the crisis a range result of a change in the population size on the planet? We have almost 8 billion people today. What's the relationship between population size and the fundamental change in food systems?
Christopher Otter: Great question. In the 70s there was alarmism about global population growth. The argument was very bleak, that the human population was soon going to outstrip planetary productivity and we'd spiral into crisis. It's very Malthusian. The problem is it makes no acknowledgment of how everybody eats. If everybody eats like an average American, we can't stand 7 billion as our population. On the other hand, if we seriously reduce our meat consumption, the planet could easily support a population of 7 billion. It's not about population per se, but about what the population eats. There are problems because if the aspirational diet includes meat, wheat, sugar, dairy, even alcohol, then it's a perceptual problem. It's not a problem with our absolute numbers. That's my short answer.
Nicholas Breyfogle: You talked about the cultural origins of this diet in Britain and England in particular, especially preferences for meat and sugar. How and why does this kind of cultural diet spread to other cultures? If it's a British interest based on British culture, then what makes it appealing for everybody across the planet?
Christopher Otter: I think first of all, it's not only in Britain that meat has been a high status food. In many cultures around the world, it's a high status food, just like refined grains are. So it's not that the British put these things together. Although roast beef and Britishness were very particular to Britain. It's not as if it has to persuade countries to abandon a more sustainable diet. What it does is make the link to that diet becoming general and democratized, and a certain kind of economic progress associated with industrialization or whatever we want to call it. So the idea is, as this happens, you get more of this. It's seen as Bennett's Law, arguing that the richer a country gets, the lower amount of resources go to staples like r grains and more goes to meat. It revolves more around industrialization than diet. And it's not about cuisine. There are many ways of cooking the meat. It's not just a huge slab of meat with potatoes -- that's very Anglo.
Nicholas Breyfogle: [Laughing] That seems to define British cuisine. so It's perhaps fair to say that increases in these foods resulted in chronic conditions. Were there voices to challenge this transition at the time?
Christopher Otter: Yes. There were voices challenging every aspect of this transition all the way through. Since the 1840s we live in an age of big data about health. Whether it's anecdotally or collection of data, there was accumulating knowledge about this link with diet and health. These voices were raised, and they resulted in movements like more fiber consumption. But Hovis bread in England is no better than brown bread. In England you can get basically white bread just dyed brown and it's not healthier.
Nicholas Breyfogle: One of the topics you mentioned briefly was this question of race or food injustice or differences in access to food globally. One of the folks in the audience asked what role this has played in racism?
Christopher Otter: Good question. There is a certain self-awareness of this diet being a white man's diet. Winston Churchhill said this very explicitly. He talked about how the brown races -- I apologize for the language -- had not learned to live on anything better than rice. It's not just rice. There are many ways in which wheat has a similar view of it. That said, in my talk I mentioned this plays out in many different ways. There's a notion that we overpower people with meat and wheat. There's also the inverse idea that their diet is better than the British diet. As many people were well aware, there were dreadful famines in India in the late 19th century and the British response was horrible, racist, and genocidal. One assumption was that Indian populations didn't need much protein because they're used to a minimal diet. That's another way race plays out. Also, this diet was very class based. The higher up the ladder you go, the more meat and vegetables. You get to eat. There are ways in which the diet of the poor becomes white bread, and sugary tea. The social class aspects are important too.
Nicholas Breyfogle: We have a lot of questions revolving around what we should do now. So we've gotten to this point. One person says, history is good but what can we do now? Let me put together a few of these to get your thoughts on what you learned from the study of this history. Do you think it's possible to gain the health benefits of this diet without the challenges and harm? In other words, can the food system learn from what we know here? Or does it need to be rebuilt from the bottom up? Based upon the patterns of human food production and consumption that you see, is there a sustainable food system we could try to implement? As people who know about these kinds of issues, do we have a moral imperative to change the way we farm or eat? Many people ask the equivalent of what should I do? What are the individual choices I should be making today to mitigate the harms of the food system? I know that's a lot. Please take on whatever you can there, Chris.
Christopher Otter: At the end of the book, I say something. When I got my readers' reports on the book, one reviewer said it's such a negative book. It's almost an apocalyptic story. I didn't want it to read like that. We're not doomed at all. I make that point. There are clearly ways we can transform our diets and farming. We've made so many technological strides. The Lancet report states clearly if you change your diet and eat much less meat and many more vegetables and eat more locally, we could this. The problem is not in farming and economics. The problem is more cultural. The really, really difficult thing to do is to persuade your average American male, your average British male, your average Frenchman, that a largely vegetarian diet is progressive. That's extremely difficult because of issues of masculinity and so on. They're interwoven with food culture. History teaches us that momentum takes a long time to change. People who study how information spreads are probably the people to look to more than scientists because it's about changing perceptions which is harder than changing the farming itself. I have no idea how you do that. I have no idea how to persuade the driver of a gas-guzzling vehicle to eat lentils.
Nicholas Breyfogle: Are there any examples from the history you've studied where there's been a successful convincing of people to change dietary habits? Are there any groups like the FDA or similar groups globally that can do this? Are there ways to accelerate this process of cultural change?
Christopher Otter: I have a 19th century story. It's about producing a more sustainable food system. The history of horse meat is pretty interesting. Horse meat was pretty much illegal in Britain for much time. Over time it was decriminalized over much of Europe. It became not a massive part of diets but did become significant. It was known for eating old horses good for nothing but the important thing is the Anglo world wants none of this. There's a famous horse meat banquet that was held in London in 1865. A man held a huge feast of horse sausages and soup. It used French words for the horse meat. People refused to run with it. People refused to eat horses and it's couched in almost entirely cultural terms. Horse meat might be the only new animal some parts of the world have added to their diet in recent years. Insects are another new one. We are continually told that micro-livestock is the way forward for sustainable protein. The cultural leap there is massive. History tells us that changing diets is very hard. It's very embedded. The history of vegetarianism shows us that a minority population can change its diet. But overall history doesn't suggest that changing diet is easy. That's a rambling fashion.
Nicholas Breyfogle: Even with all the cicadas outside, we have to change how we think about food before making that shift. Chris, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. We're all very grateful for you sharing your expertise and passion for history and a new way to think about this crisis. I hope the audience will join me in giving Chris a virtual round of applause. Thank you very much.
Christopher Otter: Thank you very much. Thank you, everybody.
Nicholas Breyfogle: I want to thank everybody for joining us today. I want to thank Clara Davison and Jade Lack for their work as well as our sponsors today. Thank you to our audience for your excellent questions and ongoing connection with Ohio State. Stay safe and healthy. We'll see you next time.