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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Watergate provided reporters with a pithy principle for political scandal: follow the money. Now Tom Standage proposes of formula for historians: follow the food. Standage argues that the abundance or paucity of food explains the transformation of human society from the dawn of civilization to the collapse of the Soviet Union. If you have questions about the intersection of food and history, how surplus cereals enabled the Egyptians to construct the pyramids, how the search for spice led to both exploration and empire and how canned food changed the calculus of warfare, our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you could join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll talk about the crash of Air France Flight 447 and the problems posed if we never find out what happened. But first, Tom Standage joins us from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle. He's the business editor of The Economist and the author if "An Edible History of Humanity." And it's nice to have you on the TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. TOM STANDAGE (Author, "An Edible History of Humanity"): It's good to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And among the many questions you address is whether humans domesticated wheat, rice and corn or whether that was the other way round.

Mr. STANDAGE: Yes, absolutely. It's a two-way street, domestication. I mean, obviously, we changed the crops that we now rely on, so we took their wild ancestors and there were particular traits that we liked about those crops and we propagated the traits that we liked and we got rid of the traits that we didn't like. And the result is all sorts of things now that didn't occur in nature that are sort of man-made derivatives of those wild ancestors. So you don't find chickens in nature. You find, you know, the Southeast Asian jungle fowl, which is like a very scrawny chicken. You don't find corn in nature. You find Teosinte, which is a very much smaller grass, and so on. So we made all these different plants.

But at the same time, we also entered into a bargain with them. We changed them, but they changed us as well. They changed the lifestyle of mankind completely from being a hunter-gatherer, nomadic lifestyle to being a settled lifestyle based on agriculture. And that was an enormous shift. And so, in effect, we were domesticated by the plants. And we have, of course, spread those plants around the world. So we've, in that sense, done them a favor. So, are they taking advantage of us or we taking advantage of them? You can really argue it both ways.

CONAN: And, indeed, there's an interesting point you make in the book. Herbicide-tolerant maize, genetically modified, does not occur in nature, it is true, you write. But nor does any other kind of maize.

Mr. STANDAGE: No, exactly. So, I mean, you can argue that modern genetic modification is just continuing this 10,000-year-old tradition. It's obviously being done in a very different way in a laboratory and so on. But I think I find it very odd when I'm drinking orange juice or something and it says a 100 percent natural. And I think, that's funny, because actually, oranges don't occur in nature, either.

If you got into a time machine and went back 10,000 years, you wouldn't find most of what we eat today. Some of it is genuinely wild, you know, some kinds of mushrooms, some kinds of fish, and so on. But most of the food we eat has been domesticated. It just happened a long time ago. So we got used to the idea that things like cows and pigs and corn are natural, but actually, we made them, pretty much. We made the modern form of them, and it was just a very ancient act of genetic engineering that did it.

CONAN: I was astonished to find out carrots aren't orange.

Mr. STANDAGE: Well, there have been a number of colors of carrots. So, carrots were purple and white, and there was the yellow sort as well. And then the Dutch royal family, William of Orange - it was the Orange family, was the Dutch Royal family. But it was honor of - in honor of William of Orange that the horticulturists in Holland decided to refocus on the orange carrot. So they took the yellow carrot and they did selective breeding and they made the color more and more orange. And this was actually - it was in honor of him, but it had great advantages.

It was a nicer tasting carrot, and didn't stain the plate that you were putting it on, rather like the purple carrots had. So now, carrots are all orange. And it's, you know, better for the cooks and so forth. But it was actually a very carefully chosen mutation. And there was a British supermarket that tried to reintroduce the old carrots recently, and no one wanted to buy them back because they thought, what's this? It's - you know, someone's been messing with it. It's genetically modified or something. But actually, it's the orange one that's been modified, and it's been deliberately bred to be that way.

CONAN: Getting back to that profound transition of human society from the hunter-gatherer society to first a sedentary group and then on to building cities and civilization and that sort of thing - one of the things you argue in the book is, in fact, citing science, I don't think you did it yourself, but anthropologists are now saying in a lot of ways, the hunter-gatherers had it much better than those early city dwellers.

Mr. STANDAGE: Yes. So Jared Diamond famously had said that this was the worst mistake in human history, the switch from hunting and gathering to farming. And you could see why. If you look at very early farming communities and you compare them with the hunter-gatherers that are living alongside, the farmers lived shorter lives. They're actually physically shorter. They are malnourished by comparison. They're less healthy. They have a much less diverse diet. They have more disease because they're settled, and settlement brings with it a whole load of diseases.

So you have to ask yourself: Why did people do it? Well, they did it because you could support a large population, and also it's a more secure way of providing food. It's an insurance policy, with crops you grow yourself. You can see them and you can store them, and there are all sorts of advantages over hunting and gathering in that respect. But it's a much more arduous lifestyle, though ethnographic evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers spend about two days a week gathering food. And rest of the time it's like having a two-day week in a five-day weekend, whereas farmers have to spend an awful lot more time growing food and processing it and so forth.

So if you compare the lifestyles of earliest farmers with hunter-gatherers, it seems to be a big step backwards. Why did they do it? Well, it was a sort of a mistake, actually, as far as we can tell. They didn't realize that they were becoming dependent on agriculture. We're very lucky today in the rich world because we have the benefits of agriculture. We can eat a much greater diversity of foods. We've regained the stature of hunter-gatherers of 10,000 years ago. But for most of human history, most people have been subsistence farmers, and you have to as yourself whether they have actually been better off than hunter-gatherers and whether they've had a more difficult lifestyle.

CONAN: Even so, as I recall from the book, the lifespan difference you're talking about, hunter-gatherers had the life span of about -lived to average of, I think, 23, and that was reduced to 19.

Mr. STANDAGE: Yes, it was still strikingly short. This was a nasty, brutish and short life, absolutely. And so, you know, we have many other advantages today, medicine and so forth, that allow us to live much longer and healthier lives. But we really are at the, you know, in that respect, this is the greatest time to be alive because we have the benefit of modern food production and medical technology, which - and we have it in the rich world, of course, and most people in the world don't have it. So to compare us with the hunter-gatherers is, you know, is the best possible face you can put on it as far as comparing the agricultural lifestyle with hunting and gathering. Most people aren't as fortunate as us.

CONAN: We are talking with Tom Standage about the edible history of humanity. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Steve is joining is on the line, Steve is from Clarkfield in Michigan.

STEVE (Caller): Minnesota, actually.

CONAN: Minnesota. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEVE: Thank you. I find the piece is fascinating, and I wonder, getting back the present concerns and the foreseeable future, if you've given thought to the genetically modified food debate. There are some countries who are resisting it, some who are really promoting it. And I wonder if you are able to look ahead and postulate what kind of impact that might have. Obviously, it'll confuse trade to some degree, and I'm wondering what kind of conflict might come out of that between nations.

Mr. STANDAGE: Well, we already see this to some extent, of course. There's been a huge fight going on in Europe over whether to allow genetic modification of genetically modified foods. And there is a little of it going on, but by and large, the scientists who advised the European Commission have said, yes, this is fine. There's no problem with it. You know, billions of people have been eating genetically modified food for years, all over the world, hopefully showing there's no problem with it. And yet the politicians say, no. We don't like the look of this. It will be bad in various ways. So that debate is definitely going on.

I think looking forward, there's a lot of talk about how are we are going to feed nine or 10 billion people later in this century? And the proponents of genetic modification say well, you know, we could make these crops that are more drought tolerant and, you know, have vitamins in them, and all this sort of stuff. And maybe they can. But, I mean, the fact is if you look at the genetically modified crops that exist today, the main thing they have is this herbicide tolerance. And that's good for the farmers and for the makers of the herbicide, but there's no actual benefit for the consumer at the end of it there.

So I think the jury's still out. I think it's possible that there might be some benefits, and it may be that this is one of the tools in the toolbox that we're going to need in order to feed everyone in the next century, but it's certainly not a panacea, and we really haven't seen - you know, there have been great claims about crops that can grow in very saline or dry conditions, for example, so far, but they really haven't been backed up with evidence yet.

So I'm sort of open-minded about it. As I say, you can argue that this is a continuation of the domestication of crops 10,000 years ago. So in that respect, it's - you know, it's just a different way of doing the same thing.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Pete, Pete with us from Galesburg in Illinois.

PETE (Caller): Good afternoon, and thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PETE: Dr. Standage, given that the current economic theory says that if I eat a steak, the cow had to be fed corn or wheat, and that raises the world price for corn and wheat, does that mean that when I eat a steak I'm helping to starve people in those places in the world where people can't afford grain?

Mr. STANDAGE: Well, I don't think it's quite as simple as that. What's certainly the case is that more people in India and China in particular do want to eat steak, and that is one of the reasons that food prices went up quite dramatically at the beginning of last year. But it's only one of them, and there are several of them.

You can't blame them for wanting to have more middle-class lifestyles and Western-style diets, but there are many other things, too. Biofuels played a part. Restrictions on trade played a part. There were a couple of parts of the world where the crop was smaller than usual. So there are many, many things interacting here.

CONAN: The price of oil played a part, too.

Mr. STANDAGE: Yes, absolutely. So it really is not as simple as that. And I think it's - there are - you know, sometimes you're told that it's as simple as if you do this, it's good, and if you do that, it's bad. But it's usually more complicated than those sort of straight-forward prescriptions would suggest.

CONAN: Pete?

PETE: Well, I'm still feeling a bit guilty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PETE: Thank you for…

Mr. STANDAGE: Well that's fine. I can't remember who it is - oh, Michael Pollan's favorite formula, of course. What is it: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. I mean, his point is that eating less meat is not a bad idea from a health point of view, but it also is probably the simplest way to reduce the environmental impact of what you eat.

So, I mean, my preferred approach is to eat, you know, a small quantity of meat, but it's very good-quality meat. And I think that's the way I like to do it. But I don't think there are simple right and wrong answers, here. And I think as far as, you know, the environmental impact is concerned, the best thing we could do is if we had a carbon price. And that's something that obviously government in the United States is starting to talk about with a cap-and-trade system. But if you actually reflect the full cost of environmental impact in food, I think that would help - that would make it much easier to make choices.

So foods that require large amount of fertilizer would, because it's made from fossil fuels, that they would cost more. And you'd then be able to tell that those foods were more expensive because they had a higher environmental impact. So just buying cheaper food would reduce the impact.

CONAN: Pete, thanks very much for the call, and enjoy your dinner. We're talking today with Tom Standage, the author of "An Edible History of Humanity." If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@np.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Wars, the industrial revolution, even the Roman Empire - it comes down to food. Tom Standage takes us through an edible history of humanity in his new book. We've posted an excerpt, including a surprising connection between corn and vampire myths. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you have questions about the intersection of food and history, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tom Standage is with us from Seattle in the studios of member station KUOW. And Tom, I know that a lot of us think that Christopher Columbus came to the new world, well, trying to get to the East in search of gold. You argue that, in fact, well yes gold, but just as much spice.

Mr. STANDAGE: Yes, gold and spices. If you look at his diary when he arrived at the new world, he's - yes, he's looking for gold and he's asking the locals, well, where can you find gold? But he's also got samples of spices and he's saying where can I find this? And his diary has mention of things like I can see all these trees. I think they might be nutmegs, and when he writes to Ferdinand and Isabella, his letter announcing his discovery, he says: I believe I have found rhubarb and cinnamon. And he wants to find all these things because spices came from the East. And if you find them, that means you've found the East. And he was - he thought Cuba was Japan, and Japan was obviously just off the coast of China, and therefore you were almost there.

So he looked around, trying to find these things. Now the big problem was that Europeans didn't know what spices looked like in the wild. They'd been told all these crazy things by traders going right back to ancient Greek times about how, you know, cinnamon sticks were used by giant birds to make their nests, and you had to gather some spices by wearing an all-over suit made of leather to protect you from the creatures that would - I mean, it was all completely rubbish. But it made people very curious about spices, prepared to pay a lot for them. And as a result, Columbus is trying to find a way around the Arab spice monopoly. And he thinks if you head West, then you'll be able to get to the Indies - which is true, of course, but he did all his sums wrong and made the Earth much smaller than it really was.

So that's really what he's looking for, evidence that he's in Asia, in the Indies, and that he has found spices. But because he doesn't know what spices look like as they're growing, he's sure they're all around him, but he can't tell which trees are the nutmegs and where's the cinnamon. And his men think they found it, and they take all these twigs and so forth back to Spain and say look, here are the spices. And everyone's, you know, very unimpressed. And that's why they have to have a second expedition, to go and see if they can find them.

And eventually, he gives up. The spices aren't there. And he says, well, you know, this is pretty good climate for growing sugar, and that was - you know, everyone know that that was a very valuable trade. Columbus had been involved in it as a younger man, and so that ends up being the thing that is done in the new world. The slave trade gets started, and Africans are taken over in large numbers to work on these new sugar plantations that are set up in the West Indies to produce sugar and send it back to Europe. So they don't find spices. So they do, instead, switch to the manufacturing of sugar.

CONAN: And, indeed, when Columbus fails to find spices, the Portuguese then renew their quest to get around to the East around the southern tip of Africa and launched the period of European empire.

Mr. STANDAGE: Exactly. So the Portuguese have been working their way down the west coast of Africa for a while. And then it sounds as though Columbus has found this quick way to get around to the Indies. So they put it all on hold for a while, and then it turns out that it's all not true. So they then go - they resume their efforts, and Vasco da Gama eventually goes around to the west coast of Africa - the west coast of India and comes back with the first, you know, load of spices brought directly around the bottom of Africa back to Europe and completely circumventing the Arab traders in the middle.

And this has an immediate impact. And, you know, the Portuguese and then the Dutch and then the British try to dominate the spice trade and then trade more broadly with the East. And that's the beginning of the colonial empires and the first footholds that they establish, which then grow into these much larger empires.

So it really - you really can blame spices and the European love of spices for both the discovery of the Americas and the beginnings of those empires.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. John is on with us from Lake Tahoe.

JOHN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JOHN: Yes, I read where Winona LaDuke is promoting seed sovereignty, and I just wondered how Tom thought that played with protecting against monoculture, and I can take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay. Well, this is - in fact, you end your book at that weird and sort of fascinating fortress of seeds that's located in the frozen north.

Mr. STANDAGE: So seed sovereignty is - I have to confess, that's not a term I've heard before. This is the idea that, what, that countries own seeds, and you can't patent them, or something like that?

CONAN: It may be. I don't know. But I was…

Mr. STANDAGE: I don't know. Well, I mean, what I end up with in the book is this amazing vault in Svalbard. So it's the far northern wastes where, you know, you're not allowed - you're not advised to go outside without a rifle in case you run into a polar bear. And this is a place where the largest seed bank in the world is being assembled in order to protect the biodiversity that we have because the number of varieties of crops we're growing has got smaller and smaller and smaller. You do have these monocultures. They're more susceptible to disease, and this is a big problem.

And there's a very nice example that comes from a particular kind of Turkish wheat that was collected. And the anthropologist who was collecting it said that he thought it was particularly useless, and he couldn't imagine why anyone would ever want to grow this kind of wheat. But it turned out that, in fact, the part of the world where I am now - it was called hopelessly useless by Jack Harlan, the American botanist who collected a sample in Turkey in 1948. But anyway, then there was this problem, a disease called stripe rust, which hit American wheat in the '60s, and it turned out that this Turkish wheat was immune to it.

So they then crossed it and produced a new variety of wheat that could resist stripe rust. And now today, nearly all of the wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest is descended from that apparently useless kind of wheat.

And so that's a classic example of how we need to protect the diversity of the seeds. We don't want to be reliant on monocultures. Ideally, we want to protect them by growing them, not just having to store them away in Norway. But we are going to need all sorts of traits in plants that we currently don't think are very useful to cope with things like climate change. And ultimately that's what that vault is there for, that we don't know what seeds we might have to draw upon.

And in the longer term, if we don't deal with climate change or we're struck by an asteroid or there's a nuclear war or something like that, then, you know, getting humanity back on its feet is going to start with where we were 10,000 years ago. It's going to start with reestablishing agriculture. And so you can imagine an intrepid band of people heading off to that seed vault to get the seeds because they'll be stored for thousands of years, and you'll still be able to plant them.

So I sometimes wonder whether I should write a science fiction novel about that very idea of going to restart human civilization, because it's all founded on agriculture. And that's what you would need to do to get it going again.

CONAN: It could be the sequel to "WALL-E."

Mr. STANDAGE: Yes, exactly, same sort of part of the map, isn't it? Yes.

CONAN: Yes, indeed. Here's an email from Robert in Iowa, who challenges your thesis. I can see that there's been certain pivotal changes in society that had given us one or another trajectory - gunpowder, say, or writing. But isn't this sub-genre of history going a bit toward the ridiculous? In particular to argue that food has shaped history is a little like saying that bricks have shaped history. What really is the new insight gained by this sort of research? What is discovered we didn't know before?

Mr. STANDAGE: Well, I think food is sort of - everything everyone has ever done throughout human history has been fueled by food. So we sort of take it for granted. Oh yes, people ate, and then they did these other things. They invented stuff, and they made gunpowder or whatever. But ultimately, where they got their food from and so forth - although we fail to see it and we take it for granted - that actually had a great deal of impact on the way things turned out.

I mean, just to give a simple example, after the switch from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture, that was the beginning of social structure. Hunter-gatherers were quite an egalitarian society, and settled societies, you could accumulate goods. Some people would accumulate more food than others. You start to get an elite appropriating the surplus food. You start to get the division of society into rich and poor.

And we kind of assume it's normal now that you have rich and poor and everyone has a different job and so on. That's a huge shift from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, where it was much more egalitarian, as I say. And, in fact, Marx and Engels were inspired by hunter-gatherers when they were coming up with the idea of communism. They called them primitive communists.

So there are all these aspects of that modern life that we just assume have to be the way that they are. And actually, if you look at why they are the way they are, it's because of food. And I don't think it's - I appreciate that this micro-history genre can sometimes go a bit far. I'm not saying that any single food is responsible. I'm saying food, the fuel of the human race, is also the fuel of history.

CONAN: Let's get Alice on the line, Alice with us from Pacifica, California.

ALICE (Caller): Hi. I taught a Spanish and Portuguese history class, and we read Columbus' first four letters. And as I recall, the first letter, he actually says he did find a spice, which was chili pepper. So he didn't find the ones he was looking for, but he did find one that actually, when the Portuguese started importing it to Asia, completely changed Asian cuisine because, of course, Indian and Southeast Asian food now has a lot of chili pepper, which is an American spice.

Mr. STANDAGE: Yeah, it's from the Americas. Absolutely. And we assume that, you know, that all of that hot, spicy food must have always have been that way. But actually, chili is a very recent addition.

The thing about the chili was it was great. It was superior to pepper in many respects, and the court was quite impressed with it back in Spain. But the reason Columbus was unexcited was that it wasn't one of the spices he was looking for, you know, the really, the valuable ones, the ones people were prepared to pay lots of money for. And the thing about the chili is you could transplant it very easily - as, in fact, immediately happened. So you could pretty much take it from one place and grow it in another place. And the thing about the spices was that they were much, much harder to move around.

And when, in fact, the Spice Islands were eventually found, they were - there were specific islands where specific spices grew, and it took quite a while for people to figure out how to move them to other places. So one of the things that made spices valuable was this incredible small area that they came from and the fact that it was difficult to get them to grow elsewhere.

And the thing that made the chili not so valuable by comparison - I mean, it was valuable as a food stuff, but it wasn't economically valuable - was the fact that it was so easy to get it to grow in places other than its place of origin. So, yes, I think in the long run, you know, the chili has proved to be, you know, more valuable in that respect. But it didn't have the sort of value that Columbus wanted it to have.

ALICE: Interesting.

CONAN: Thank you, Alice.

Here's an email from Brian in Watertown, Wisconsin. When in human history did culinary arts develop? When did humans start using spices, start developing optimal cooking techniques for enhancing flavor?

Mr. STANDAGE: That's a good question. I don't know. I think it's been going on all the time. And the introduction of spices - you can see quite clearly, say, for example, pepper. Pliny the Elder was a grumpy Roman writer. And his generation hadn't grown up with pepper, but the increase of - the supply of pepper was dramatically increased to Europe during his lifetime, and people started to become very fond of it.

And he just couldn't see what was going on here at all. He thought this was very strange. And furthermore, he had a bit of a sort of local food objection to it. He really couldn't understand why you had to pay so much to bring this food all the way from India, particularly given that he didn't like the taste of it.

So there have always been, you know, new foods being introduced in new places and new techniques being developed and new fusions, and so on. And that's really, you know, that's been going on all the time, I think. I don't think there's a particular period where that hasn't happened.

CONAN: You do, however, puncture what you describe as the myth that Europeans were so interested in spices to cover the putrid flavor of rotted meat.

Mr. STANDAGE: Yeah. This is just not true. I mean, the thing is, spices were so expensive that this would be like using, you know, a hundred dollars of spices to cover up the taste of $5 of rotting meat. I mean, the spices were the far more expensive ingredient. So if you can afford the spices, you can afford fresh, good meat.

But what the origin of it nay be that if the meat had been salted to preserve it, then you might have wanted to use spices to then cover up the taste of the salt. But the idea that it used to discover - sorry, to conceal the taste of rotting meat is just not correct.

CONAN: We're talking today with Tom Standage about his new book, "An Edible History of Humanity." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get Jim on the line, calling from Charlotte.

JIM (Caller): Yes. I was wanting to comment about the viewer who sent the email or whatever it was about food not playing an important part of history. Food is critical in determining historical events. What about the Crusades? When the Europeans went in with a heavy meat and potatoes diet and alcohol, they were slaughtered by the Muslims in the beginning till they learned to adapt to a Middle Eastern diet of fruit, yogurt, dates, white meat, not to overcrowd your digestive system and die of heat stroke. I mean…

Mr. STANDAGE: Well, I have to disagree with you about the potatoes. I agree with you on everything else, but if you say this…

JIM: Oh, yeah. The potatoes would came later. Yeah, but the…

Mr. STANDAGE: Exactly. They came later. The Crusaders didn't have potatoes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: Yes. But, you know, going into the Middle East and eating a heavy carbohydrate-rich diet, you know, basically caused lots of problems for them until they adapted to that, you know?

Mr. STANDAGE: Well - there are many conflicts where what the participants ate had a great influence on the outcome. And, in fact, Napoleon and Alexander the Great were as successful as they were because they were so good at coping with this aspect of logistics.

I mean, it's very easy to overlook the fact that, you know, if your army doesn't get to the battlefield at all, then obviously you have no chance of victory. So, actually, feeding your army is a crucial part of winning.

JIM: Napoleon did say, an army marches on its stomach, right?

Mr. STANDAGE: Yeah. Well, he probably didn't say that, actually. It's, again, it's like, let there be cake - Marie Antoinette didn't say that. But, I mean, even in Roman times, there was a Roman writer who said that hunger is more savage than the sword and starvation destroys an army more often than does battle. And whoever does not fight, provide for food and other necessities is conquered without fighting. So it was a prerequisite of military victory that you dealt with food first.

And the example I gave in the book, if - when that didn't happen was what we call the American War of Independence and what's called the Revolutionary War in the United States, which is where, you know, obviously, the U.S. wanted to be independent and the British Empire tried to stop this from happening. And we failed. And why was it? Well, essentially, we had to supply our troops by sea.

They couldn't do the usual thing, which is draw food from the land, because doing so would have alienated the local farmers who we were trying to keep on side.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much.

JIM: So, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. There is a transition point, though, you describe during the Second World War when armies become so mechanized and food is canned and that sort of thing - of course, freeze dried food these days. And your last - second to the last chapter, I think, is about food as a weapon of ideology.

Mr. STANDAGE: Yes. So, what happens in the Second World War is it suddenly becomes more important to feed machines than people, and it's getting the fuel and the ammunition to the frontline that becomes the really difficult logistical challenge. And food then shifts and it becomes an ideological weapon during the Cold War. So the Cold War starts with a food fight with the Berlin Airlift and the Blockade of Berlin, and so all of this food is flown in on planes.

And then ultimately, the collapse of the Soviet Union can be attributed to its failure to feed its people. This isn't my idea. This is the idea of Yegor Gaidar, who is a prime minister of Russia underneath Yeltsin, saw the whole thing happening. And ultimately, the collectivization of farming under Stalin and then the sort of fetishization of industrial activity.

So the industrial workers were paid a lot more than the rural workers. So everyone wanted to get off the land and into the cities. And the agriculture productivity just went down and down and down throughout that period. And the Russians were able to cope with it for a while by selling oil and using that to pay for food. And they used gold to import food and so on.

But ultimately, they couldn't produce enough food to feed themselves. And there were food crises and shortages and everyone was queuing up. And eventually, Gorbachev's government said, okay, this isn't going to work, and it all fell to pieces.

CONAN: Here's an email, finally, we have Bruce in Ithaca, New York. We've been researching Ithaca as the home of the ice cream sundae, and the most interesting part is how it opens a window to history.

Starting in around 1890, sundaes went from a local specialty to a national phenomenon. It would not have been possible without electricity, modern refrigeration, mass media and most importantly, leisure time and disposable income that emerged from the Industrial Revolution - and, of course, because it was delicious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STANDAGE: Exactly.

CONAN: I'm not sure you got to the ice cream sundae. But Tom Standage, thank you very much for joining us today.

Mr. STANDAGE: Thank you.

CONAN: Tom Standage's new book is "An Edible History of Humanity." You can get a taste and an excerpt at our Web site at npr.org. Go - click on TALK OF THE NATION. And he joined us today from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle.

Coming up, we may never know what happened to the Air France flight that disappeared into the Atlantic. We'll talk about what that means for investigators, for the families of the victims, and for your decision about whether to fly or not.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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