In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Food History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Commodity Histories
  • Agribusiness and Its Influence in Latin America
  • Pre-Columbian Food in Latin America
  • Colonial Latin America
  • The Green Revolution
  • Central America and the Caribbean
  • South America
  • Transnational Latin American Food Cultures
  • Food and National Identities
  • Labor in Food Industries
  • Social Movements and Food Sovereignty

Latin American Studies Food History
Enrique Ochoa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0057


Changes in food consumption, production, and nutrition patterns reflect the broad changes in Latin American history since before the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish. Food was closely intertwined with identity and local worldviews, and while food patterns varied depending on region, class, and local histories, most sedentary precolonial diets were largely vegetarian. With the onset of European colonization in 1492, indigenous culinary and food practices (foodways) began to sharply transform. In areas where Europeans settled, the introduction of Old World foods such as wheat, pork, and beef began to transform the landscape and diets. Coercive labor practices and changes in diet made indigenous populations more susceptible to disease and contributed to the massive deaths of indigenous populations. The forced relocation of Africans to the Americas through slavery also transformed diet in the Americas and introduced new crops and different ways of food preparation. Under the influence of the Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans aggressively transformed indigenous ways of life through dislocations of populations as part of an expansion of export crops. Social Darwinian thought linked indigenous foods to backwardness and European foods to modernization, leading to an array of policies generally focused on women, and aimed at promoting the consumption of foods associated with Europe. Despite efforts to erase traditional food cultures through production and consumption policies, indigenous and mestizo communities struggled to maintain and transform their traditional foodways. Popular revolutionary struggles throughout the 20th century forced many governments to prioritize food production for internal consumption. In many countries this boosted basic food consumption for growing numbers of people and provided some support for traditional producers. Populist policies fostered the formation of national cuisines that integrated traditional ingredients and foods in a modernized fashion. With the onset of neoliberal globalization in the 1970s and 1980s, emphasis on food self-sufficiency was replaced by market-based policies driven by free-market ideologies backed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. While proponents of free trade have argued that open markets would reduce the price of basic foods and increase consumption by the poor, there is mounting evidence that this has not occurred. Scholars have documented the growing inequality and rural poverty in much of Latin America, which has been exacerbated by the sharp increases in basic food prices from 2006 to 2008. This poverty has fueled migration and social unrest and has spurred renewed movements for land reform, indigenous and campesino (rural workers) rights, and food sovereignty.

General Overviews

While there has yet to be a general history of food in Latin America, there are several global studies that address Latin America as whole or as specific countries. Pilcher 2006 and Kiple 2007 provide overviews of food in world history with ample coverage of the global south and Latin America in particular. Kloppenburg 1988 gives a global analysis of how capitalism has transformed seeds into a commodity in ways that have enriched a handful of corporations while alienating peasants from the land. Kloppenburg provides a sharp contrast to Kiple’s view of globalization. Carney and Rosomoff 2009 demonstrates how, beginning with the Columbian exchange and slavery, Africa has had a profound botanical legacy on diets in the Americas. Lappé, et al. 1998 shows how the combined factors of capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism have shaped world hunger, malnutrition, and inequality while at the same time obscuring the real causes of hunger. Barkin, et al. 1990 underscores the detrimental impacts of the growth of feedcrops and how they exacerbate inequality. In its ethical and human rights analysis of food, Schanbacher 2010 is able to show how social movements and local producers offer a number of alternatives to the current global food system that more directly address the issue of equity and control over foodways.

  • Barkin, David, Rosemary L. Batt, and Billie R. DeWalt. Food Crops vs. Feed Crops: Global Substitution of Grains in Production. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 1990.

    An analysis of shifts in the capitalist world system since the late 1960s and its impact on world food-crop production. By focusing on different regions, the authors demonstrate how “feed” crops have come to replace food crops in many areas of the world, underscoring the detrimental impact this has had on rural populations.

  • Bello, Walden. The Food Wars. London: Verso, 2009.

    A critical analysis of recent food price increases, emphasizing larger historic and structural inequalities rooted in colonialism and imperialism. Chapters explore the 2006–2008 food crisis and its impact in a broader context in Mexico, Africa, and China. Chapters about agro-fuels and on popular resistance and alternatives provide several examples from Latin America.

  • Carney, Judith, and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

    An engaging overview of Africa’s botanical legacy in the Americas. Chapters explore African food crops in the slave trade, maroon subsistence strategies, the Africanization of plantation food systems and African animals in the Americas.

  • Kiple, Kenneth F. A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511512148

    Based on the Cambridge World History of Food, this is an interpretative volume of the longue durée of food and cultural exchange. The volume gives significant weight to the Columbian exchange and its impact on world history. Kiple sees globalization as an ongoing and largely beneficial process.

  • Kloppenburg, Jack Ralph, Jr. First The Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492–2000. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    An examination of the process of the commodification of seeds from the Columbian exchange to modern times. The author examines seed and germplasm transfer from a political economy perspective, providing an important analysis of the social history of plant technology.

  • Lappé, Frances Moore, Joseph Collins, and Peter Rosset, with Luis Esparza. World Hunger: Twelve Myths. 2d ed. New York: Grove, 1998.

    Originally written in 1986, this books links world hunger to global systems of political power. This is a highly readable and provocative book that takes on widely held beliefs about the origins and persistence of hunger. The authors draw on an array of research and many examples come from Latin America.

  • Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Food in World History. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    An engaging overview of the role of food in world history. Unlike most volumes that claim to address global history, much of this book focuses on the so-called third world. Throughout the volume there are important discussions of Latin American regional food production and consumption within a global framework.

  • Schanbacher, William D. The Politics of Food: The Global Conflict Between Food Security and Food Sovereignty. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010.

    An analysis of food-security and food-sovereignty approaches to the global food system. The author argues that the current food-security approach has not eradicated hunger because it is too dependent on free-trade corporate models. Instead, he argues that food sovereignty, sustainable production, and culturally relevant consumption is ethically, environmentally, and culturally preferable to the current system.

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