September 26, 2011

How the calorie shapes food politics, past and present

Despite feeling like I'm sinking into a puddle of quicksand as my work piles up this semester, there is one thing that always keeps me going: the excitement of reading about food and agricultural studies. I know this makes me the biggest nerd ever, but my dream job is for someone to pay me to write about whatever I want related to food and the environment. I might not be the next Michael Pollan, but I have a lot of academics and authors that I really look up to because of their work in this field.

One of my favorite authors that I discovered last year is Nick Cullather, a diplomatic historian. His most recent book, The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia, is a great read for anyone interested in foreign affairs, food politics, and the Cold War. The first chapter of this book is based on his previously published article, The Foreign Policy of the Calorie. It begins in the 1890s, in the beginning of the Progressive Era, with Wilbur O. Atwater and his invention of the calorimeter.

Cullather describes how the neutral technology of the calorimeter becomes a tool of foreign policy making, writing that, "With a numerical gauge, Americans could begin to imagine the influence to be gained by manipulating the diets of distant peoples. The calorie, Atwater declared, would determine the 'food supply of the future'" (Cullather, 2007, p. 341). Interestingly, Atwater worked for a time with Ellen Swallow Richards, who I wrote about earlier (much of her later life's work was in nutritional science).

The calorie became what we might call a "boundary object"- something at the interface of science and policy. It is used to co-produce both scientific knowledge and social order. Cullather shows how although the calorie is an extremely reductionist measure of health, it was used to define the post-world war foreign policy agendas. He writes: 
Beginning with India’s 1946 crisis, “famine” came to be understood as a national caloric deficit rather than the strictly localized emergency defined by imperial famine codes.... Caloric accounting reversed the flow of information about famine; international authorities decreed emergencies, while officials in stricken areas complied with mandated remedies. (Cullather, 2007, p. 362-363)
The invention of the calorie established a metric for modernization. Cullather shows "the capacity of science to renew positivism by inventing new metrics and new ways of deploying them. Quantitative reasoning was not a singular approach that could be disproved, but a succession of rhetorics tied to particular ways of counting. The inception of new numbering schemes revived a mandate for international social engineering" (2007, p. 364).

This obviously has a lot of links to later international development, including the Green Revolution and the population bomb. The complex ideas of food security and family networks were reduced to the simple metrics of calories, land area, and population size, and used to justify large-scale modernization interventions in developing countries. Today, I often think about how we have perhaps replaced the rhetoric around calories with the rhetoric of carbon. Instead of calorimeters we have climate models. Instead of a mismatch of calorie production and consumption, we have a mismatch of carbon emissions and climate impacts. What sort of inventions are we justifying through the normative lens of science and technology?


Cravens, Hamilton, 1990. Establishing the Science of Nutrition at the USDA: Ellen Swallow Richards and Her Allies. Agricultural History 64(2):122-133.

Cullather, Nick, 2007. The Foreign Policy of the Calorie. The American Historical Review 112(2): 337-364.

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