Look at a few packets in a typical kitchen cupboard, and you will notice a
disconcerting overlap between the labels of apparently completely different
foods. A handful of ingredients, some of them barely used as food in the west
before the second world war, crop up in everything from baby food to cat food to
processed meals. The same half-dozen heavily subsidised commodities - soya,
rapeseed, palm oil, corn, sugar and rice - are broken down into their individual
parts and endlessly reconstituted. They are sold back to us as processed food or
turned into animal feed to produce the factory meats that have conquered our
diets in the past half-century. How did such a transformation come about?
When you look back at the origins of much of today's industrialised food system,
what you see is the ebb and flow of empire. First there were the British
imperial ambitions that turned slave-produced sugar from the colonies into the
engine of emerging ...