48 pages 1 hour read

Tom Standage

An Edible History of Humanity

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2008

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Summary and Study Guide


An Edible History of Humanity (2009) by Tom Standage traces the origin of agriculture and the impacts of the domestication of plants and animals on human life. This nonfiction work shows how people and plants have affected one another throughout history, with their interactions fueling innovation, trade, war, and oppression. Standage explores the early origins of farming and follows its development to contemporary culture. He argues that agriculture did not lead to a better way of life for humankind; instead, it prompted more complex social structures that, in turn, fostered hierarchies of power and violence. Standage is a business editor at The Economist who has published many books on historical topics, including A History of the World in 6 Glasses and The Victorian Internet.

This guide utilizes the 2009 paperback edition by Bloomsbury Publishing.


In An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage takes on a monumental challenge: to trace the history of humans’ relationship to plants and agriculture from the first farmers to the modern age. Standage sweeps across centuries, outlining the dynamic and complex connections between people and food. While following proto-farmers, international trade, and the role of food in war and politics, Standage makes a bold claim: humans are not better off because they started farming. The shift away from hunter-gatherer societies embroiled people in a complicated web of power structures and greed, damaging human health and the climate in the process. The work examines three major themes: The Coevolution of Humans and Plants, Agriculture as a Destructive Force, and Agriculture and Power.

In the Introduction-Part 1, Standage examines the earliest proto-farmers and the development of domesticated plants and animals. For most of modern humans’ history, people lived as hunter-gatherers. Approximately 10,000 years ago, humans began farming. By 2000 B.C., most human societies were agricultural. Maize, wheat, and rice provide examples of how humans used selective breeding to create the foods that now dominate the modern diet. The domestication of plants and animals altered human society and radically affected human health. Early farmers spent far more time acquiring food than hunter-gatherers, but their time did not ensure a healthier existence. Standage is critical of farming and the impact it has had on human health and society.

Part 2 details how power structures emerged from food surplus. As societies became agrarian, they developed social complexity. Specialized roles led to hierarchies, positioning some above others. Standage asserts that these power structures evolved gradually and that people were unaware of how drastically their lives were changing. “Big Men” took control of food surplus and used it to build their social power. The line from chiefdom to civilization was marked by an increasingly intricate social structure that utilized religion to secure positions of control. Strong leaders emerged to handle large stores of food and trade, and kings served as mediators between the people and the divine to ensure successful harvests.

In Part 3, Standage explores how the global trade market exploded and the impact it had on the planet and human society. The spice trade introduced a new idea: goods as a symbol of status. Spices were not a necessity, but the wealthy elite were eager to incorporate them into their diets as a show of power. Control over the global trade market led to violence and the spread of both Islam and Christianity. The Columbian Exchange opened the world up even further, inviting a new age of slavery and trade with the Americas.

Part 4 examines the ramifications of the new global trade market. Plants from other countries, such as pineapples, became symbols of status and power. Plants like maize, potatoes, and sugar cane contributed to major changes in social structure and human violence. Populations increased, and diseases spread rapidly. As import and export systems became more complex, some countries like Britain committed to industrialization, leading to the widespread use of coal and to dependence on sources of fuel other than timber.

Part 5 details the role of food in warfare. Standage argues that wars are lost and won because of food; providing sustenance for armies is a monumental challenge. Standage outlines the role that access to food played in the Civil War, the American Revolution, World War II, and other conflicts. He also describes how innovations for preserving and transporting food contributed to changes in transport and trade. Food served as an ideological weapon to support communism and collectivism. However, that use of food is less likely to occur in democratic countries, accounting for the decline in this strategy in recent years.

In Part 6-Epilogue, Standage outlines how agriculture has changed in recent years with the green revolution and the introduction of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Population and food production are intrinsically connected. As countries grapple with shifts in economics and climate change, Standage suggests that a second green revolution will need to occur, especially in countries that do not yet have high yields of agricultural production. Seed storage presents a vital option against short- and long-term threats against the globe’s agricultural success.