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Diet for a Large Planet

Industrial Britain, Food Systems, and World Ecology

Diet for a Large Planet

Industrial Britain, Food Systems, and World Ecology

A history of the unsustainable modern diet—heavy in meat, wheat, and sugar—that requires more land and resources than the planet is able to support.

We are facing a world food crisis of unparalleled proportions. Our reliance on unsustainable dietary choices and agricultural systems is causing problems both for human health and the health of our planet. Solutions from lab-grown food to vegan diets to strictly local food consumption are often discussed, but a central question remains: how did we get to this point?

In Diet for a Large Planet, Chris Otter goes back to the late eighteenth century in Britain, where the diet heavy in meat, wheat, and sugar was developing. As Britain underwent steady growth, urbanization, industrialization, and economic expansion, the nation altered its food choices, shifting away from locally produced plant-based nutrition. This new diet, rich in animal proteins and refined carbohydrates, made people taller and stronger, but it led to new types of health problems. Its production also relied on far greater acreage than Britain itself, forcing the nation to become more dependent on global resources. Otter shows how this issue expands beyond Britain, looking at the global effects of large agro-food systems that require more resources than our planet can sustain. This comprehensive history helps us understand how the British played a significant role in making red meat, white bread, and sugar the diet of choice—linked to wealth, luxury, and power—and shows how dietary choices connect to the pressing issues of climate change and food supply.


"The emergence of urban industrial capitalism is one way in which the history of Britain and the history of climate change are linked, but, as the environmental historian Chris Otter shows in his remarkable new book, Diet for a Large Planet, there is another version of this story. Instead of looking at factories, cities, and coal, Otter’s book is a history of farming, food, and animals. In the century before the First World War, Britain remade the planet in order to feed its own people, and in doing so transformed the environment forever."

Tribune Magazine

"He has written a really excellent book, and it deserves a wide readership."

London Review of Books

"In Diet for a Large Planet: Industrial Britain, Food Systems, and World Ecology, an impressive feat of scholarly work, Chris Otter goes back to the roots of the current environmental and health problems that have accompanied dietary changes in the West, focusing on the transformations in British diets in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Apart from the extensive array of sources, the greatest asset of his book lies in Otter’s thorough survey of the breadth of techno-logical, metabolic, and environmental transformations that produced the “large planet” diet,while never losing sight of its social and political consequences. By paying close attention to the way evolutions in British diets reshaped technological and ecological landscapes throughout the globe, and to the impact it had on British and colonial bodies, Otter offers what might be considered one of the most accomplished examples of food history. He goes beyond the merely quantitative or cultural dimensions of eating to analyze the political and material dimensions of the widespread reconfigurations of food systems that developed from the beginning of the nineteenth century. . . . this extremely ambitious work is a rewarding read and is bound to become a reference in the field."

Journal of British Studies

"Otter posits that the elements of 'large planet thinking' have shaped world ecology to suit capitalism and have led to inequities between classes and countries at the peril of the planet. Are we creating Malthus’s worst nightmare—a planet that requires more land than it possesses?"

CHoW Line (Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C.)

"Diet for a Large Planet: Industrial Britain, Food Systems, and World Ecology synthesizes a tremendous range of scholarship into a genuinely interdisciplinary narrative that draws from ecology, economics, history, science and technology studies, nutritional science, and evolutionary biology. Especially for the Victorian era, Otter’s primary source base is remarkably deep, most notably including medical journals, industry textbooks, a range of parliamentary papers, newspapers, farming treatises, surveys, cookbooks, and first-person accounts."

Victorian Studies

"Diet for a Large Planet is a marvelous accomplishment. Otter assembles a prodigious range of sources to show how British interventions remaking global foodways in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, linking contemporary planetary crisis to these intellectual, ecological, and agro-industrial transitions." 

Environmental History

Diet for a Large Planet is a brilliant, bold book that forces us to rethink the short- and long-term global implications of changes in what British people ate and how they thought about food in the nineteenth century. Otter masterfully weaves together scientific, technological, political, cultural, and economic histories into a magnificent study of the making of the modern, global food system. This book is a satisfying if filling meal that will appeal to the tastes of anyone interested in the history of food, environment, industry, consumption and global capitalism.”

Erika Rappaport, author of A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

“The British diet, like British dentistry, is a familiar punchline. But Otter shows that it is much more than this. He argues that Britain’s dietary transformation remade bodies and geographies, and the outsourcing of its nutritional needs paved the way for the global food system. Fast, filling, simultaneously nutritious and unhealthy, Britain’s appetite for meat, wheat, sugar, and dairy presaged the era of ‘Big Food’ as well as cheap food. If looking back is the key to looking forward with any optimism, Otter’s brilliant and pioneering account is an urgent as well as timely intervention.”

Philip Howell, co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History

Diet for a Large Planet arranges an impressive array of evidence from diverse sources into a powerful analysis of how Britain forged the modern world of food systems and their consequent effects upon human and environmental well-being. Few, if any, books link human and environmental health together in such a sustained and creative way. Otter is clearly a scholar of immense ambition, erudition, and passion.”

Matthew Klingle, author of Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle

"Diet for a Large Planet is an impressive book... A major contribution to the history of diets and the way in which one of them has gained global prominence..."

Food and History

Table of Contents


1. Meat
2. Wheat
3. Sugar
4. Risk
5. Violence
6. Metabolism
7. Bodies
8. Earth
9. Acceleration


American Historical Association: Jerry Bentley Prize

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