Food has had a powerful influence on world history.

Tom Standage, business editor for The Economist magazine in England and author of “An Edible History of Humanity,” was at the Alltech International Animal Health and Nutrition Symposium in May 2011 and described six instances when food changed the course of history:

  1. The adoption of agriculture 10,000 years ago transformed us from a society of hunters and gatherers to one where only a portion of the people had to be hunters and gatherers.    
  2. Societal stratification. As people pursued occupations other than food production, it created elaborate social structures.
  3. World exploration. Christopher Columbus and others were searching for spice-trading routes when they ended up stumbling on vast new continents. The quest for spices redrew the maps and changed the world.
  4. Industrialization. Many of the early factories that processed sugar cane became precursors for other industries. In fact, sugar (and products made from sugar, such as jam) and potatoes underpinned the industrial revolution. They were important food sources for factory workers. “Industrialization is the process that transforms a society from being mostly farmers to mostly non-farmers,” Standage said.
  5. Food as a weapon of war. Napoleon and other military leaders learned the value of “living off the land” as they achieved their victories. The Cold War began with a food fight when the U.S. airlifted food supplies to the people behind the Berlin Wall. 
  6. Resurgence of the Asian economies over the past 30 years. Industrialization in these countries couldn’t happen unless the food supply was able to keep up. Besides importing food, the Asian countries have made strides in their own food production.

So, what is the next chapter?

“That’s where you come in,” Standage told his audience at the Alltech Symposium.

The next chapter hasn’t been written yet. But Standage and others at the Symposium mentioned the task of feeding a growing world population — one that will reach 9 billion people by the year 2050 — and doing it in an environmentally, economically and socially responsible way.

Mark Lyons, vice president of corporate affairs at Alltech, said there is an opportunity to help improve the health and vitality of mankind.

“I believe 80 percent of the people on this planet are malnourished,” he said, which means they are either not getting enough food or enough of the right food. He went on to use the term “malnourished obese,” which may sound like an oxymoron but accurately describes people who are taking in lots of calories from the wrong kinds of foods.  

“Obesity has become a massive and global problem,” Lyons said. “This is the single most important health issue in the world.”

He and others at the Symposium mentioned the promise of nutrigenomics, which is the enhancement of genetic expression and potential in food animals through nutrition. There is potential here for producing healthier food.

By improving the nutrient profile of the food, the whole game changes. Farmers aren’t simply in the food business anymore; they are in the human-health business.

It’s exciting to think what the next chapter will be.