History lessons from the British Empire

A history of food’s role in the development of the British Empire offers a compelling beach read for anyone taking a step back to assess a dizzying year of developments in global ag.

Since last summer, investors in agriculture have confronted a series weather, trade and political risks that would have been difficult to foresee even on the previous 4th of July.

As readers look ahead to the coming holiday weekend and beyond it to a hopefully relaxing summer, many will no doubt take a break from what has been a torrid pace of relevant news.

For those seeking the refuge of a good read that doesn’t stray too far from our subject, Agri Investor suggests The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World.

Published in 2017 by historian Lizzie Collingham, the book demonstrates how as a fundamental human activity interacting with most other spheres of life, agriculture can both drive and be driven by wider events in a way makes the sector’s risks and rewards unique.

Each of the book’s 20 chapters begins with a description of a meal demonstrating something about the interlinked developments of consumer tastes, private investment and foreign policy, combining to present a narrative of how food and agriculture shaped the British Empire and its ultimate influence.

Collingham uses a June 1647 meal of maize bread and saltbeef succotash shared by a family of New England setters to demonstrate the role agriculture played in earlier colonialists’ interactions with Native Americans and vision of what would constitute success in the New World. A 1769 drinking session among Sons of Liberty in Boston was fueled, Collingham suggests, by rum prices made possible only through exports from a sugarcane-focused Caribbean colonies that formed a key node of the transatlantic slave trade.

In another chapter, the composition of an Indian housewife’s homemade curry in 1811 serves as a springboard to discussion of how tea consumption among British lower classes fed the trade balance that eventually motivated the UK to forcibly open Chinese markets to opium.

At several points in the book, technological development barges in, explaining how advancements in refrigeration, other methods of food preservation and shipping helped make certain agricultural commodities key to global trade at various points in the life of the British Empire.

Managers currently linking the fortunes of American pensioners to the vagaries of Polish weather patterns could be forgiven for thinking they are involved in a thoroughly modern endeavor made possible only through 21st-century globalization.

What Taste of Empire demonstrates is how linkages between the domestic conditions and  foreign policy of powerful states has often found expression through food and agriculture and that those managers are part of a longer tradition that will continue to frame their reception in certain markets.

At a time when markets grapple with the question of whether the disruptions of the past year will permanently shape global ag trade flows, Taste of Empire suggests that although the ultimate answer will have tremendous commercial consequences, it will be driven by larger and more complicated social forces.

Write to the author at chris.j@peimedia.com