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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?
In Diet for a Large Planet, Chris Otter goes back to the late eighteenth century in Britain, where the diet heavy in meat, wheat, and sugar was developing. As Britain underwent steady growth, urbanization, industrialization, and economic expansion, the nation altered its food choices, shifting away from locally produced plant-based nutrition. This new diet, rich in animal proteins and refined carbohydrates, made people taller and stronger, but it led to new types of health problems. Its production also relied on far greater acreage than Britain itself, forcing the nation to become more dependent on global resources. Otter shows how this issue expands beyond Britain, looking at the global effects of large agro-food systems that require more resources than our planet can sustain. This comprehensive history helps us understand 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 shows how dietary choices connect to the pressing issues of climate change and food supply.
Chris Otter is associate professor of history at the Ohio State University. He is the author of The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800-1910, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
"Diet for a Large Planet is a brilliant, bold book that forces us to rethink the short- and long-term global implications of changes in what British people ate and how they thought about food in the nineteenth century. Professor Christopher Otter masterfully weaves together scientific, technological, political, cultural, and economic histories into a magnificent study of the making of the modern, global food system. This book is a satisfying if filling meal that will appeal to the tastes of anyone interested in the history of food, environment, industry, consumption and global capitalism."
– Erika Rappaport, author of A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World
"The British diet, like British dentistry, is a familiar punchline. But Otter shows that it is much more than this. He argues that Britain's dietary transformation remade bodies and geographies, and the outsourcing of its nutritional needs paved the way for the global food system. Fast, filling, simultaneously nutritious and unhealthy, Britain's appetite for meat, wheat, sugar, and dairy presaged the era of 'Big Food' as well as cheap food. If looking back is the key to looking forward with any optimism, Otter's brilliant and pioneering account is an urgent as well as timely intervention."
– Philip Howell, co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History
"Diet for a Large Planet arranges an impressive array of evidence from diverse sources into a powerful analysis of how Britain forged the modern world of food systems and their consequent effects upon human and environmental well-being. Few, if any, books link human and environmental health together in such a sustained and creative way. Otter is clearly a scholar of immense ambition, erudition, and passion."
– Matthew Klingle, author of Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle