Published by EH.Net (June 2024).

Rebecca Earle. Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 306 pp. $25.95 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1108484060.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Alan Greer, University of the West of England.


The opening of this fascinating, well-researched, and readable book notes that potatoes are the fourth most important food crop in the world. Although central to the contemporary food policy of many countries such as Peru and China (the largest producer), potatoes were ‘largely unknown to most of humanity’ before 1500, with cultivation largely limited to mountainous areas in the Americas. A key claim for the importance of the book is that it tells the story of how eating became a core element of statecraft. Drawing on examples from an impressive range of countries, Earle wants to explore ‘the genealogy of a particular way of thinking about the relationship between eating and the state’ (p. 21) and to provide ‘a deep history of the concept of food security and a fresh account of how eating became part of modern politics’ (pp. 2-3). As Earle demonstrates, the potato is ideally suited to the task of exploring the tensions between individual choice and the public good.

The book has six main chapters – Immigrant Potatoes, Enlightenment Potatoes, Free Market Potatoes, Global Potatoes, Capitalist Potatoes, and Security Potatoes – which nicely combine thematic discussion with a chronological ordering. There are 24 well-presented illustrative figures and, reflecting the broader interests of the author (besides her academic work, she has edited a cookbook), each chapter contains a recipe taken from a range of countries and historical periods; although interesting in themselves, they could have been better integrated into the argument being developed.

As only too aptly demonstrated by contemporary debates around issues such as obesity, the consumption of sugary snacks, and tackling climate change (note the controversy about whether governments should take action to reduce the consumption of meat), there is a central tension between individual choice and state intervention. In this vein the Introduction sets out the conundrum that people regard food consumption as a private matter yet at the same time expect governments to ensure that there is a plentiful supply of affordable food that is safe to eat and produced responsibly in relation to environmental sustainability. A strength of Earle’s approach is to demonstrate that this tension is nothing new and that ‘ours is not the first generation to worry about striking a balance between dietary freedom and public well-being’ (p. 2). In this long historical perspective, rulers and then states were concerned with several food-related issues, including famine and its political consequences, state provision of grain, and regulation of the prices and quality of foodstuffs.

Reflecting a broader challenge to top-down and elite-driven histories of the cultivation of crops, Earle in chapter 1 convincingly questions the dominant interpretation of the spread of the potato from the Americas to Europe and beyond. This conception focuses on the role of political philosophers, agricultural economists and crop scientists, ‘far-sighted’ rulers, governing elites, and a whole raft of potato-promoters such as Parmentier in France who saw their role as convincing unwilling peasant farmers and labourers to embrace it as a useful crop, healthy and nutritious as well as accessible and affordable. On the contrary, argues Earle, the cultivation and consumption of potatoes was widespread in Europe long before elites began to promote it – what working people objected to was not eating potatoes but being told to do so, especially as a replacement for other foods they enjoyed such as bread. In this persuasive alternative account, importance is accorded not to elites but ‘rather to peasants and small farmers’, emphasising the importance of peasant agricultural expertise and knowledge (p. 47).

For most ancient and early modern states, the adequate provision of healthy food ‘was a recognised component of statecraft’ but the diets of ordinary people ‘did not form part of the art of governance’ nor was it regarded as a matter for political philosophers (pp. 8-9). This, argues Earle, all changed during the eighteenth century Enlightenment when the potato became the object of ‘intense scientific and political interest’ across Europe (p. 16), with potato evangelists playing a key role, including for example the promotional activities of the British Board of Agriculture. Food became a central theme in debates about military and economic prowess and about the strength and resilience of states generally, reflecting broader changes in the understanding of governance. Potato promotion formed just one part of a ‘larger re-conceptualisation of the relationship between food and the wealth and strength of the nation’ (p. 55). Food supply – particularly inexpensive alternatives to existing diets – was not just a matter of public order but ‘a central component of a larger model of political economy that associated national wealth and greatness with the energy and vigour of the working population’ (p. 64).

It was, argues Earle, during the Enlightenment that notions of ‘food security’ and ‘food sovereignty’ first emerged. Subsequent political thinkers as diverse as Malthus, Adam Smith, William Cobbett, and Karl Marx have all devoted some attention to what we might generally call the politics of food. Not surprisingly, there was fundamental disagreement about whether the causes of poverty and poor diets were the result of individual fecklessness or exploitative broader social, political, and economic structures. Whatever the reason, a shared concern emerged that eating habits are ‘not simply a matter of individual concern’ and the encouragement of better diets by the state, e.g. through education programmes, came to be regarded as ‘an appropriate exercise in governance’ (p. 13).

During the Enlightenment food production and consumption became indelibly embedded into liberal economic theory in which states could encourage and enable but not require people to eat the ‘right’ foods. As Earle stresses, the idea of healthy eating now sits within a neoliberal framework that valorises ‘personal responsibility and choice rather than state-led intervention’, the roots of which were laid down during the eighteenth century (p. 3). Indeed studying the potato allows us to ‘make visible the ways in which our ideas about eating are entangled with the emergence of capitalism and its celebration of the Free Market’ (p. 5). By presenting potato consumption as a matter of rational individual self-interest and personal freedom, eighteenth century debates laid the foundation for the contemporary insistence that ‘personal eating practices should be understood within the framework of informed choice’ (p. 81). The idea that ‘self-interest provided the most efficient way of organising economic exchange found its dietetic parallel in the conviction that the way to improving public health was by facilitating individuals in making sound dietary choices’ (p. 207).

Chapter 4 (Global Potatoes) provides a fascinating account of how the spread of the potato was inextricably connected to trade and colonial conquest. Potato promotion formed part of a ‘highly ideological narrative of disinterested European philanthropy’. For the colonisers in places such as the West Indies, India, Africa and North America the introduction of ‘new’ techniques and plants was a demonstrable benefit of imperialism and its promise of improvement and ‘progress’, vastly superior to the ignorance, backwardness and inefficient practices of the natives (p. 108). However as Earle rightly notes, the promotion of foodstuffs in the colonies was concerned ‘far more with legitimating particular forms of governance than with reducing hunger’, and symbolising a ‘kindly concern’ for colonial subjects (p. 114). Indeed the impact of British rule on India’s ability to feed itself was ‘largely destructive’ and potato promotion ‘was a way to blame Indians for hunger and famine, not a practical scheme to improve food security’ (p. 119).

In the nineteenth century, as sketched out in chapter 5, potatoes ‘became deeply embedded in arguments about the merits of capitalism’, regarded by some as a tool of liberation and personal freedom, by others such as William Cobbett as a tool of exploitation (p. 140). Moreover, there was a sea change in elite attitudes to the potato, which became seen as an obstacle to modernity and market discipline. In the view of many commentators the problem now was that the urban proletariat ate too many potatoes, not too few. This drew on advances in the science of nutrition that increasingly saw potatoes as nutritionally deficient and unsuited to providing the energy needed for industrial work. For their part, many of the English poor now ‘associated potatoes with an unwelcome transformation towards capitalism and the impersonal market’ (p. 142). As Earle comments, what labourers objected to was not potatoes in themselves ‘but being reduced to potatoes’ which was ‘a powerful shorthand for the immiseration of the working classes within the capitalist economy’ (p. 150).

This sea-change was exemplified in attitudes to Ireland – ‘the potato-eating Irish cottier’ – who was no longer lauded as an exemplar of the advantages of the potato but of its disadvantages, an impediment to the development of an economically successful capitalist state. During the eighteenth century Ireland had been lauded as premier example of the potato’s ‘beneficent power to increase the population of health and industrious workers’ (p. 151). As ‘revisionist’ Irish historians have argued, the response to the Great Famine of 1845-49 following failures of the potato harvest has to be seen in the context of this emergent political economy, exemplified in the dominance of Free Trade following the repeal of the Corn Laws in the UK in 1846. For the British government the famine proved ‘that a form of agriculture that its policies had done so much to encourage was in fact unsustainable’ and it was regarded as ‘a chance to reshape Irish society’ (p. 155). Increasing the magnitude of the calamity, and in line with the dictates of liberal economics, the very last thing that the government should do was to ‘prop up this archaic system with aid to the stricken Irish’ (p. 156).

The twentieth century witnessed a further reassessment of the value of the potato, becoming viewed again as a healthy staple (with the development of new and better varieties) and a vital component of attempts by the state to transform eating habits, influenced by the belief that the poor nutritional health of soldiers undermined military strength. Unlike in earlier times, governments could now draw on a whole suite of administrative tools and technologies to effect change; note, for example, the school dinner schemes introduced in the UK from 1904. Crucially influential were the food production programmes introduced in many countries during the World Wars, in which increasing the area under potatoes was a central element. As is broadly accepted, wartime experiences, especially during the Second World War, served to legitimise the role of government. As Earle specifically argues, wartime experiences helped to ‘redefine the relationship between food, the population and the state’ (p. 177). Food in general, and the potato in particular, was institutionalised in the postwar international architecture, encapsulated in the creation of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 1945. This, according to Earle, marked the institutionalisation of a consensus ‘that improving the nutritional health of the world’s population was an urgent political and economic goal’ (p. 188).

Overall, this book is a valuable addition to the literature on the economic history and politics of food and has contemporary relevance. In the concluding section, Earle reiterates the core argument that the history of the potato helps explain our conviction that eating is both a personal matter and ‘a legitimate area’ for state action, our ‘ambivalence about such intervention,’ and the dominance of the language of personal responsibility (p. 207). On the other hand, the potato has a ‘dual status’ both as a tool of the modern state and of the agency of ordinary people, linked to ‘smallholder innovation and peasant expertise’ (p. 22). Earle re-emphasises the need to acknowledge the importance of small-scale ‘peasant’ farming. A focus on individual potato promoters overemphasises top-down dissemination of scientific knowledge and ‘misrepresents the contribution of ordinary people to agricultural and dietary innovation’ (p. 205). This is central to contemporary ideas about food security and more specifically food sovereignty, in which the potato is central. Indeed, the designation by the UN of 2008 as the International Year of the Potato reflected a ‘very different understanding’ of ‘the contribution of subsistence agriculture to food security’ (pp. 193-94). Peasant agriculture is now celebrated as ‘flexible and adaptive’ rather than outmoded and inefficient, and praised for its contribution to food security. Rather than ensuring the persistence of outmoded smallholder practices, it encourages experimentation and innovation, is essential for biodiversity, and is a necessary counterweight to the forces of homogenised large-scale commercial agriculture. Indeed, recognising ‘peasant contributions to the history of the potato’ is both a matter of ‘historical justice’ and ‘relevant for our future’ (p. 206).


Alan Greer is Visiting Research Fellow at the University of the West of England. He is the author of numerous publications on the politics of agriculture and food.

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