The Food for Thought speaker series presents Dr. Christopher Otter on “Devouring the Earth: Britain’s Nutrition Transition as Biological and Planetary Phenomenon” on April 22 at 5 p.m. in Alden’s Friends of the Library Room.
Otter, Associate Professor of History from the Ohio State University, speaks as part of the College of Arts & Sciences Food Studies theme series.
“Otter is a specialist in modern British history, with particular focus on the history of science, technology and public health, environmental history and the history of food. His first book, The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800-1910, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2008. He has published articles in numerous journals, including the Journal of British Studies, Cultural Geographies, Food and History, and History of Technology,” according to his website. “He is currently writing The Vital State: Food Systems, Nutrition Transitions, and the Making of Industrial Britain. This book is global in focus, and explores the causes, consequences, and experience of a shift to a diet rich in animal protein, wheat, sugar and dairy products. Professor Otter is also working on a longer-term, transnational project on the emergence of ‘technological society’ since the 17th century, which encompasses the history of human health, ecology and security.”
Otter explains that in early 18th century Britain, the “average” agricultural laborer’s diet consisted of bread, cheese, bacon and beer. These foodstuffs were locally produced, and they were minimally processed. Bread was made from various grains, depending upon one’s location, and was usually coarse and brown. Grains were also often consumed as pudding or porridge. Two hundred years later, this diet had changed. The “average” industrial worker consumed white wheat bread, sugary tea, milk (often condensed), margarine and an increasing volume of meat. This food, with the exception of liquid milk, was no longer locally produced. A substantial quantity was drawn from a global market, transported by steamships and railways, refrigerated and processed.
Otter argues that this British “nutrition transition” is inseparable from Britain’s urbanization, industrialization and planetary colonization. It explores a series of significant consequences of this nutrition transition, operative at different scales. At a planetary scale, these include the transformation of agrarian ecologies in Argentina, Canada, Denmark and New Zealand, and the accelerated, human-driven evolution of cattle, wheat and sugar. Britain presided over domestic plenty but failed appallingly at managing imperial scarcity, particularly in Ireland and India. At a national scale, this recognizably “British” diet, albeit one with regional peculiarities, provided the calorie flows necessary for the domestic labor force to power the industrial revolution. Since this flow relied upon a global food system, it also catalyzed fears about food security during wartime, which structured British policy in World War I. Finally, while calorific levels rose on the British mainland, late-Victorian and early 20th century texts cataloged a seemingly endless litany of dietary pathologies, from constipation, food allergy, diverticulitis and tooth decay to anorexia, nervosa and obesity.
Refreshments will be served following Otter’s presentation in the Faculty Commons. Students, faculty and community members are invited.