Review

Book review: ‘Eating Anthropocene: Around the World in Ten Dishes’

Using the medium of comics helps explain the implications of what we choose to eat for the Earth’s health as well as our own.

In the issue of E&T that came out just before Christmas, Rebecca Northfield took a look ahead at what our festive meal might look like in 2050, from wearable technology that will check how much we’ve eaten to whether population growth will make the traditional joint of meat on the table a thing of the past.

Celebrating the year’s big religious and social milestones with a special meal has been part of human culture for millennia and isn’t likely to change. Feasting acknowledges that food is more than just the basis of life, but at the heart of how we interact with one another. Now we’re well into the human-influenced Anthropocene phase of world history though, what are the implications of what we choose to eat for the planet’s ecosystem?

Springer, better known for its more formal academic treatises, takes an unorthodox approach to addressing this vital question in a new ‘non-fiction science comic’ with the title ‘Eating Anthropocene: Curd Rice, Bienenstich and a Pinch of Phosphorus – Around the World in Ten Dishes’ (Springer, £19.50, ISBN 9783662504024).

This unconventional take on the politics of food has emerged from an interdisciplinary initiative at the Berlin-based Humboldt University which is looking at ways of explaining complex issues through the medium of comics and goes by the name of ‘the Cluster of Excellence Image Knowledge Gestaltung’.

Samuel Jaramillo’s illustration from the chapter ‘Kiribati and Fiji’ in Eating Anthropocene [© Springer]

In a series of stories examining the connection between diet, use of resources, environmental degradation and climate change – from the discovery of fire to the industrialisation of food production protagonists from five different continents highlight global trends through their favourite recipes.

Authors address issues ranging from the prospects for genetically engineered food to the potential for using insects as a source of protein. In one of the most engaging chapters, UNSW art & design student Samuel Jaramillo has put pictures to a story by Katerina Teaiwa, an Australia-based anthropologist from the Kiribati island of Banaba  and professor at the Australian National University who has investigated the history of phosphate mining on Banaba and its continuing impact on the island's people, land and food resources.

Phosphorus and phosphate play a central role throughout the book. Phosphorus is not only an essential element for all life on Earth; phosphate and its various compounds are also one of the main ingredients in fertilisers and have greatly increased global agricultural yield. What many people are not aware of, however, is that supplies of this resource are not unlimited.

Samuel Jaramillo’s illustration from the chapter ‘Kiribati and Fiji’ in Eating Anthropocene [© Springer]

Other stories take readers on journeys to Uganda, Morocco, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Micronesia, Norway and the United States. One of the characteristics of the comic is that the visual language is different for each story, because 12 international artists from the relevant countries were responsible for illustrating the stories.

A final joint chapter looks ahead at the future, with the ten protagonists writing postcards home about their journey to a foreign country in 2050. The subjective snapshots thus created of possible scenarios in the decades ahead form a very original conclusion to this complex book.

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