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037:Global Food Corporations - Bread, Potatoes, Nutmeg, Bananas, Lipton Tea: (Day 7)

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

The creator of the 1701 “seed drill” inspired the name of a 1970s English progressive rock band - Jethro Tull. The 1776 invention by James Watt allowed steamships to cross oceans, and forever influence songs, literature and movies with the steam engine at the centre. A conversion from “air to bread” by German Fritz Haber made available synthetic ammonia fertilizers for farmers (and later destructive weapons) from 1909 onwards. Ragini Kashyap, an educational professional, brought her love for teaching, history and food, and highlighted these key moments in the last 300 years that drastically altered what, how and why we eat what we do across the globe.

Needless to say, the 18th century industrial revolution in Britain directly impacted the farming and feeding habits of its numerous colonies. Food became a ‘product’ to be sold. It needed to be:

i) manufactured at the cheapest rate (Adam Smith, division of labour, factory workers, anti union laws)

ii) preserved for the longest time (frozen foods, chemical additives) and

iii) distributed widely through water, road and air.

Suddenly, food became more than ‘sustenance’, for many though not all. With cheaply available sugar, salt, and hydrogenated fats due to colonization and global trade roots, certain foods also became a ‘pleasure’. And as we see now, slowly some foods are becoming an ‘addiction’- indispensable to our daily routines. Relaxed tax laws, predatory marketing, and aspirational advertising have helped Kellog breakfast cereals, KFC fries and McDonalds burgers become a part of the urban middle-class diet in India.

Bread. Potatoes. Nutmeg. Bananas. Lipton Tea. Nescafe by Nestle. Rooh Afza. These everyday foods were made complex through Kashyap’s thoughtfully researched, multi-dimensional narratives. She showed us how a 1709 UK parliamentary Act on ‘household bread’ paved the way for Bombay sandwich-walas to eventually use ‘Wibs’ white bread. How a monoculture of the ‘Irish Lumper’ potato encouraged by British markets led to the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1849, which resulted in the death of more than a million people. How the island of Manhattan was forfeited in exchange for the Dutch East India company’s control over the nutmeg laden Run island in Indonesia. How the Cavendish bananas became a staple across American households due to the monopoly propagated by the ‘United Fruit Company’ of the Chiquita infamy.

How a Scottish supermarket owner began by importing 10 kilograms of tea leaves from Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and slowly built his Lipton empire on an export of 22,900 tons of tea! And how the eleventh of fourteen children, Henri Nestle, first invented an ‘infant formula’, and later merged with the Page brothers of condensed milk fame, to grow Nestle into the world’s largest food and beverage company. How the division of the Indian subcontinent led to three different recipes of the Hamdard ‘Roof Afza’ in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Through these case studies Kashyap showed us that often the lines between ‘governance of nation states’ and ‘profits of corporations’. As consumers, we can begin by critically reading both the front label (which may include words such as clean, organic, fat-free, no-added sugar, natural), and weigh these against the information present on the back of the label (nutrition, additives, preservatives, parent companies). A truly thought-provoking session by Kashyap.

Talk conducted online on November 29, 2021 by Ragini Kashyap. Day 7 of the Food and Politics, Studying Food workshop.

Further Reading:

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