Skip main navigation

Food cultures: past and present

Here, Prof Harry G. West talks about how what the world eats is changing.
Hello. I’m Harry West, Professor of Anthropology. If we traveled the world a century ago, we would have encountered a diverse array of foods. In much of East Africa, porridges made from finger millet were a staple. Pastoralists in Anatolia aged curdled ewe’s milk in lambskin bags, and carried it with them as they migrated with the seasons. Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest caught salmon on the annual run up the Columbia River, dried it, and ate it for much of the year. France was divided roughly into three regions, one which cooked in olive oil, one which cooked in butter, and one which cooked in lard.
Human food ways or food related traditions and practices were arguably more varied than the languages people spoke. We may still see elements of these distinctive food ways today, but they sit side by side with modern food ways that have come to occupy every corner of our world. To be sure, foods have been traded between human societies for millennia. But the intensity of this trade, as well as the technologies and marketing that shape it, has led to what is often described as the homogenization of global diets. Even in remote villages in the global south where annual incomes may be below $100 US, vendors sell branded fizzy drinks.
Global fast food chains now occupy major cities around the world, with imitators reaching into towns of ever smaller size. In countries with an emergent middle class, the consumption of meat is fast rising to match Western diets. Maize, rice, wheat, and soy, each grown on a massive industrial scale, have become the predominant staples worldwide. They have displaced a range of other grains and pulses, which once formed the foundation of dietary diversity. The globalization of diets has intensified the impact of food and farming on our planetary ecosystem. Mass livestock production contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, and produces waste on an unmanageable scale.
Global demand for fresh fruit year round has depleted water supplies in subtropical countries, and multiplied food miles, the distance that food must be transported to market. The increased consumption of meat, of sodium, and of sugar has led to rising rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke almost everywhere. But addressing such problems requires us to understand why modern Western foods are so attractive to people around the world today. While there may have been greater variation in what people ate in different societies in the past, there was also frequently less variation within diets than there is today. Pre-modern food ways, particularly for the poor, were generally monotonous. Those who consumed them often suffered dietary deficiencies.
Some would argue that globalization and the modernization of diets has not only brought greater diversity of tastes to many, but also increased life expectancy. And it has connected many people to a broader world, whether as consumers of food or when they have been able to persist in the face of global competition as its producers. What is more, while globalization has had some homogenizing effects on what people around the world eat, it has met with a vast array of local responses. Some of these have sought to preserve distinctive food ways, and some have created novel food practices at the junctions between the local and the global. Somali migrants in Minneapolis hold their elders council in the neighborhood Dunkin’ Donuts.
Some Michelin starred restaurants engage anthropologists to identify forgotten foods that will become the next big thing in global gastronomy. And UNESCO now recognizes some of the most distinctive food ways as what it calls intangible cultural heritage. These include the gastronomic meal of the French, traditional Mexican cuisine, and washoku, traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese. This development is attracting tourists from around the world and supporting a vast number of sustainable livelihoods. What the world eats is changing, not only at dizzying speed, but also in unexpected and sometimes contradictory ways whose consequences are hard to measure. The exercise that follows this video provides an opportunity for you to reflect on changing global diets and share your experiences with fellow learners.

Here, Prof Harry G. West talks about how what the world eats is changing, describes the history of human diets and what diet globalisation means to food production.

In the next step we ask you to share your own food cultures.

This article is from the free online

Future Food: Sustainable Food Systems for the 21st Century

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now