If you were to believe newspapers and dietary advice leaflets, you’d probably think that doctors and nutritionists are the people guiding us through the thicket of what to believe when it comes to food. But food trends are far more political – and economically motivated—than it seems.
From ancient Rome, where Cura Annonae – the provision of bread to the citizens—was the central measure of good government, to 18th-century Britain, where the economist Adam Smith identified a link between wages and the price of corn, food has been at the centre of the economy. Politicians have long had their eye on food policy as a way to shape society.
That’s why tariffs and other trade restrictions on imported food and grain were enforced in Britain between 1815 and 1846. These “corn laws” enhanced the profits and political power of the landowners, at the cost of raising food prices and hampering growth in other economic sectors.
Over in Ireland, the ease of growing the recently imported potato plant led to most people living off a narrow and repetitive diet of homegrown potato with a dash of milk. When potato blight arrived, a million people starved to death, even as the country continued to produce large amounts of food – for export to England.