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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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War relies on food, as Napoleon remarked of his armies, and war influences both the supply of food and what we eat. Furthermore, food has often been an underlying cause of armed conflict, and it is the very existence of a food surplus that has given societies that freedom of action and availability of manpower that are necessary preconditions of going to war.

While it may be, as some aver, that conflict is an ineluctable expression of masculinity, and the causes of war analysed by historians are never more than specious excuses masking the defects of gender, it seems reasonable to accept that concern about food resources may often underlie the dreadful progression of a nation or society towards war. The life-and-death struggle between Sparta and Athens was provoked, among other things, by Sparta’s apprehension that supplies from colonies in Sicily were about to be denied her by Periclean Athens’s command of the sea-lanes. The early imperial conflicts between Britain and Holland and Britain and France in the 17th and 18th centuries revolved around securing control of the spice trade or the plantation goods (particularly sugar) of the West Indies. Relationships between Native Americans and the European colonists often turned violent when access to the customary hunting grounds of the one were denied by the other, just as the ‘Cod War’ (luckily of limited impact) between Iceland and the United Kingdom broke out when Iceland excluded British trawlers from waters hitherto open to all.