Food for Thinkers: Medieval Soldiers and Modern Stunting

Posted by Nicola Twilley


At this point, I am beginning to feel like a magician giving away all my secrets, although I realize that my writing is far from magical, and the blogs I am showcasing during Food for Thinkers week are live to the world on the internet and thus hardly qualify as closely guarded secrets.

Nonetheless, here goes, the cat is being let of the bag: The source for a good three-quarters of the stories I write, as well as those I want to write (a much larger category) comes from a tip on Jeremy Cherfas and Luigi Guarino's Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog. I'd recommend adding it to your regular reading rotation right now.

For Food for Thinkers week, Cherfas ties the remarkable history of human stunting to the future of genetically engineered biofortified crops in order to explain the significance of agricultural biodiversity to human health, as well as environmental sustainability.

The post, titled "Medieval Soldiers Illuminate Modern Stunting," starts with two rather surprising sentences Cherfas came across in a (fascinating) Economist article about the forensic archaeological investigation of a mass grave from the Battle of Towton in 1461:

The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall [approximately 5 feet 7 inches]—just four centimetres [1.5 inches] shorter than a modern Englishman. “It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted,” says Mr Knüsel.

What's even more amazing than the fact that medieval people weren't stunted is the fact that, according to Cherfas, "Many of the countries that saw the greatest increases in farm productivity and food output in recent decades, thanks to the Green Revolution, also have some of the highest rates of child stunting in the world today." How can this be? Cherfas explains:

Like the Victorians, it isn't just that they don’t have enough to eat. What they do have to eat isn't very nourishing. They are missing micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals.

In other words, agricultural diversity matters as much, if not more, than overall productivity. Growing enough corn to feed the world is not enough to ensure human health. So is augmenting the micronutrient content of staple foods, whether by genetic engineering or old-fashioned hybridization, the answer? Not necessarily, according to Cherfas:

Am I being too cynical if I wonder how soon after the commercial release of, say, high-iron beans, we see traders offering ordinary beans at a premium? Identity preservation is going to be a huge issue for foods bred to contain more micronutrients. Fraud will not be as easy for crops where the added benefit is clearly visible, like extra-orange varieties, with their heavier cargo of vitamin A precursors. The seed market too is not above dodgy practices. Plant breeders now have a shiny new tool to analyse mineral levels in seed crops; will poor farmers buying seed have any guarantee that they are paying for the real thing? Caveat emptor? How about even poorer farmers, who do their own seed saving and plant breeding? How are they going to select the seed for next year’s crop if its superior qualities are effectively invisible?

Read Cherfas' argument in full at Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, and marvel at the way  food adulteration, global trade, population growth, urbanization, and the evolving practice of agriculture are tied together in ways that both shape human bodies and evade (most) human analysis.

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.