Tracing Contemporary Food Policies Back to the Enlightenment
Rebecca Earle on Potatoes, Diets, and Why the State is On Your Plate
What we eat is our business, or so we generally believe. We resent being told to consume more vegetables, cut back on salt, and embrace lentils, particularly when the advice emanates from the government. The food writer Diana Henry summed it up: “When the government tells us to watch our drinking I want to pour myself a large gin.”
It’s not simply that we are contrary. We also wonder whether such interventions into our private lives violate the underlying principles of democracy. Shouldn’t we be allowed to make our own dietary mistakes? New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg learned this to his cost in 2012, when he attempted to ban the sale of extra-large soft drinks. The scheme failed because critics viewed it as an attack on individual freedom.
“New Yorkers need a Mayor, not a Nanny,” shouted a full-page advert in the New York Times. And when a school near Rotherham, in the north of England, eliminated deep-fried Turkey Twizzlers and fizzy drinks from its cafeteria, outraged mothers rose in protest, insisting that their children had a right to eat burgers, potato crisps and other unhealthy food. Our diets, we feel, are our own concern.
At the same time, we rely on the government to ensure that our food is safe; the pan-European horsemeat scandal focused attention on what can happen when regulatory systems go awry. In January 2013 shocked consumers across the continent learned that their supermarket “beef” lasagne and chili con carne might have contained a significant percentage of horsemeat laced with phenylbutazone and other dangerous chemicals.
Blame was ascribed in part to reductions in government inspection programs. We expect the state to help us eat safely and feel let down when it does not. We are also troubled by reports that our fondness for sugar and disdain for exercise is causing a costly crisis in public health and hindering economic growth.
British newspapers regularly warn that diabetes and obesity are on course to bankrupt the National Health Service and researchers calculate the economic costs of our collective failure to eat properly. One survey placed the figure at well over 50 billion dollars for the United States alone. Other people, at least, ought to eat sensibly, because their ill-advised consumption habits affect us all.
Our inconsistent attitude towards how much say anyone, and especially the government, ought to have in shaping our diets induces what psychologists call cognitive dissonance—the sense of vague discomfort that results from holding incompatible or contradictory beliefs and values. We’d like to pour a large gin, but fear that if everyone followed that approach the social and economic consequences would be disastrous.The story of the potato’s spread around Europe and the world traces out a new history of the relationship between everyday eating habits and the modern state.
Nor is ours the first generation to worry about striking a balance between dietary freedom and public well-being. During the Second World War, deficiencies of the US diet were identified as a threat to national security after a shockingly large number of army recruits were rejected on grounds of ill-health attributed to bad diet. In response, government officials established a wide-ranging program of dietary reform aimed not only at managing the United States’ limited food resources but also at improving public health by changing the nation’s eating habits.
Yet the very people charged with implementing this program suspected that it was fundamentally incompatible with liberal democracy. The federal Committee on Food Habits fretted that its own program was encouraging the sort of submissive rule-following it believed characteristic of totalitarian regimes. Real Americans would, and should, resist such intrusions into their private life.
These tensions between individual choice, public well-being, and the wealth and strength of the nation were born in the Enlightenment. It was in the 18th century that everyday eating habits became a matter of state concern. New theories about how to build economically successful states led to new ideas about the relationship between individual diets and national resilience—to the emergence, in other words, of what we might call food security.
Feeding the People offers a deep history of the concept of food security and a fresh account of how eating became part of modern politics. It also helps explain our own fraught relationship with dietary guidelines by showing how healthy eating became embedded within a neoliberal framework valorizing personal responsibility and choice rather than state-led intervention.
Feeding the People tells that story through the history of a food that is emblematic of this transformation: the potato. Today, the potato is a global staple. According to the United Nations, there is not a single country in the world where potatoes are not grown. They are fourth on the list of the world’s most important food crops; China is the largest producer, harvesting nearly 100,000,000 tons in 2016.
Mashed, stewed with cauliflower and cumin seeds, deep fried, made into pancakes, or prepared in thousands of other ways, potatoes are eaten daily around the globe. At present Europeans are the most enthusiastic consumers. Turkmenistan leads the field, at nearly 140 kilos per person per year. Potatoes are an exemplary modern food. Because of their global importance and nutritional merits, the UN declared 2008 to be the International Year of the Potato.
This is a remarkable achievement for a food that was totally unknown to most of humanity before the 16th century. Until then the only people who ate potatoes lived along the spine of mountains that runs from the Andes in Bolivia and Chile northwards through the Rockies. These mountains, the homeland of potatoes, were also home to the vast Inca empire, whose overthrow by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century released a whirlwind that blew potatoes to Ireland, India and beyond.
The story of the potato’s spread around Europe and the world traces out a new history of the relationship between everyday eating habits and the modern state.
According to most scholars, the notion that the population’s eating habits affect a state’s political and economic security developed between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. It was then, explain historians, that individual health ceased to be a private concern and became a matter of public importance.
Politicians and officials in many countries became ever more concerned about the impact of poor diet on national efficiency and strength, and responded with a range of innovative new programs, from state-subsidized school dinners to healthy-eating campaigns. Hunger and malnutrition were transformed from personal misfortune to national emergency, notes James Vernon, because they began to be perceived as threatening “political stability, economic production, and racial efficiency” in ways that affected all of society.
They demanded “not just philanthropic intervention but forms of statecraft.” The voluminous writings on food security similarly connect developments during the inter-war years to the deepening conviction that adequate diets were essential to national and global stability. The establishment in the late 1940s of international agencies such as the FAO is usually considered the culmination of this new conviction.
The belief that effective governance entails effective management of the population’s eating habits is an essential part of modernity. Developments since the late 19th century transformed many aspects of the state’s relationship to food, and politicians and officials have been able to design and implement ambitious projects in ways unimaginable a century earlier.
The degree to which states accepted responsibility for the population’s welfare also changed significantly. Yet the fundamental modern belief that everyday eating habits shape a nation’s political and economic success emerged not in the late 19th century, but a hundred years earlier, during the Enlightenment.
This chronology matters. Situating these ideas in their 18th-century context allows us to see the close connections between enlightened debates about food, political economy, public well-being and effective statecraft, all of which have decisively shaped today’s world. Everyday eating practices acquired a new political importance during the Enlightenment because statesmen and scientists, philosophers and philanthropists, became ever more convinced that there was a correlation between diet and national prowess.
The 18th century also saw the emergence of the conviction that the way to guarantee a well-functioning economy and a secure state was by enabling people to choose the right foods, rather than by requiring them to do so. The key point, to paraphrase the political scientist Bernard Harcourt, is that the logic that underpins today’s approach to nutritional governmentality “was embedded in the first articulations of liberal economic theory.”
We can blame the Enlightenment for our ambivalence about whether our diets are our business, or everyone’s business. Today’s healthy-eating plates, food pyramids and governmental dietary guidelines have their roots in the 18th century. So does the hostility to more robust forms of intervention, such as Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban. Following the potato on its journey from the Andes to everywhere is one way of tracing out that history.
The history of the potato also opens up alternative vistas for thinking about food security, or, better, about what is often called food sovereignty, which stresses the importance of empowering locals to determine their own eating and agricultural practices. Andean villagers, rather than the Inca state, were the protagonists of the potato’s emergence as a South American staple, and early modern peasants and laborers were the pioneers who spread potato cultivation across Europe. Today, UN analysts and agricultural experts increasingly recognize that small farmers hold the key to a sustainable agricultural future.
Following the potato in its travels helps tell this story because it reveals these intersections with particular clarity. Potatoes make visible the ways in which our ideas about eating are entangled with the emergence of capitalism and its celebration of the free market. The potato’s story also reminds us that ordinary people make history in ways that continue to shape our lives. Potatoes, in short, are a good way of thinking about the origins of the modern world.
From Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Adapted and printed with permission from Cambridge University Press. Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca Earle.