Commodities, Culture and the Science of Food

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[This post is part of Foodscapes of Plenty and Want – a theme week at that features podcasts exploring a number of topics related to the interconnected histories of food, health, and the environment in Canada. For more information and a schedule for the week, see the introductory post here.]

As it travels from field to table, food transforms – and is transformed by – a whole range of social, cultural, economic, environmental, scientific, and political relationships.  Your morning bowl of Corn Pops, for instance, is more than just a surprisingly sugar-laden meal (12 grams of sugar per 30 gram serving!) but is the product of a complex international system defined by a whole array of agricultural subsidies, trade agreements, nutritional policies, massive marketing budgets, and the whims of distracted shoppers who meant to pick up something healthier but thought that it was a good sale and, really, deserve a treat once and a while!

Each of the talks below assess some of the complex ways in which the science, politics, and economics of Canada’s globalized food system have transformed our relationship with food and agriculture. Whether it was the battles over Canadians’ right to a (spreadable!) substitute to butter, the role of Nova Scotia apples in redefining our bodies and international markets alike, or the underappreciated role that fertilizer has played in transforming our bodies and landscapes, each talk provides a window into the way we can use food to understand larger historical processes.

Caroline Lieffers, “‘A Wholesome Article of Food’: Rhetoric of Health and Nation in Canada’s Margarine Debates, 1917-1924?

To listen to Caroline’s talk, click here (or save by right-clicking and selecting ‘save file as’)

As Caroline Lieffers shows in her talk, the seemingly mundane food product, margarine, provides a lively and useful site for understanding Canadian politics and society during the 1910s and 1920s. In 1886, the federal government outlawed the manufacture, importation, and sale of margarine in Canada. The product remained illegal until 1948, albeit with the exception of a brief hiatus between 1917 and 1924. Lieffers therefore explores the often overheated rhetoric employed by both sides of the debate during this seven-year period, which saw an intense propaganda war as butter and margarine supporters attempted to influence an uncertain legislative situation. She shows that, as a flexible concept with natural rhetorical weight, health emerged as a key battle cry: both sides recast their financial and political interests into this seemingly inviolable project of personal and national wellbeing. Indeed, as evolving models of food production and human nutrition intersected with an unstable economy and Canada’s new place in global affairs, the notion of “health” extended from the individual to the collective body.


Caroline Lieffers

Concern for Canadians’ welfare, Lieffers suggests, encompassed concepts as varied as adulteration and hygiene, calories and vitamins, ethnicity and civilization, economics and industry, nationalism and war. She therefore uses these issues to demonstrate how food embodied the larger social trends and tensions of its time: margarine was freighted with, among other things, Canadians’ confusion around food science, attitudes toward race and otherness, the reality of women’s political influence, and the emerging roles of both industry and government in dictating food choices. Moreover, as both sides appealed to the sacred importance of health, they also sought to control its definition and their respective products’ contribution to it. Margarine’s history, Lieffers argues, reminds us that health is a negotiated rather than absolute ideal.

James Murton, “Following the Body Through the Early Global Food Chain, from Nova Scotia to Britain.”

To listen to James’ talk, click here (or save by right-clicking and selecting ‘save file as’)

Around the turn of the last century, nutrition science increasingly pictured the body as something which could be made healthy through the ingestion, not of food, but of a proper set of nutrients.  In doing so it remade a 19th century conception of the body as something “porous and open” to its environment, wherein a healthy body was one in sync with its environment. In his talk “Following the Body Through the Early Global Food Chain, from Nova Scotia to Britain,” James Murton follows the body through the global food system, riding on the back of an early global food – Nova Scotian apples. Murton argues that conceiving of food as a set of nutrients able to nourish any body made the consumption of faraway foods thinkable.  But what, he asks, were the effects on human and environmental health of the severing of relationships between food, bodies and environments?  Apples (and fruit generally), he convincingly shows, are an especially interesting case, because unlike earlier global food commodities (sugar, salt cod, wheat), they were meant to arrive in homes and be consumed in an unprocessed form, to appear as if they had just come off the tree.  As Murton argues, achieving this goal required an increasingly intense application of industrial technology and state management, in a process that changed the relationships around this particular food in both producing and consuming places.  He therefore asks: how did the establishment of global food change the forces acting on the body?  How did it change the way the body was constructed?

Joshua MacFadyen, “‘The Chemistry of Food’: An Environmental History of Biotechnology and Synthetic Fertilizers in Canada, 1891-1940.”

To listen to Joshua’s talk, click here (or save by right-clicking and selecting ‘save file as’) 


Joshua MacFadyen

Joshua MacFadyen’s talk, “‘The Chemistry of Food’: An Environmental History of Biotechnology and Synthetic Fertilizers in Canada, 1891-1940,focuses on the work of the Dominion Experimental Farm and the dominion chemist Frank T. Shutt as a means of exploring the often untold and underappreciated history of synthetic fertilizers in Canada. Between the time of Shutt’s graduation from Chemistry at University of Toronto and his retirement in 1933, MacFadyen argues, German scientists had isolated the nitrogen fixing properties of legumes (1888), produced synthetic ammonia (1909), and developed the industrial nitrogen fixing processes (1931) that produced the intensive and petrochemical-based agriculture of the twentieth century. Some historians argue that over 3 billion people owe their existence to these technologies. Less determinist approaches try to understand why any farmer would adopt these expensive soil treatments.

As MacFadyen’s talk shows, at first Shutt was wary of “commercial plant food,” and he hoped that the Experimental Farm could help farmers become independent of expensive inputs by adopting a scientifically balanced mixed agriculture. However, the interwar period witnessed more revolutionary changes in food production and the birth of what Deborah Fitzgerald has called “The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture.” By the end of his career, Shutt had joined the revolution and, as MacFadyen argues, the Experimental Farm developed a “nitrogen lab,” appeared in industrial journals like the plainly titled “Better Crops with Plant Foods,” and advised farmers to incorporate synthetic fertilizers in lieu of locally available, organic options. By analyzing these developments, MacFadyen offers a new perspective on the agricultural revolution that transformed both Canadian farms and their diets.


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