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Research suggests a European diet precedes the advent of a middle class, and middle class means democracy.

Nov. 28, 2016
By Stav Dimitropoulos

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New research from the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR) of the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia says that if human­ity wants to restore democ­racy, it had bet­ter shift the empha­sis on nutri­tion rather than income growth or lib­er­al­iza­tion of trade.

The work­ing paper titled A Recipe for the Democracy: The Spread of the European Diet and Political Change” tried to get to the bot­tom of the whole intrigu­ing ques­tion of how food and democ­racy relate.

Using a com­par­a­tive study with data from 157 coun­tries, the research found that a diet rich in dairy prod­ucts, olive oil, pro­tein, con­fec­tions and alco­hol — among oth­ers — bet­ter aligns with democ­racy.

The last thing a mal­nu­tri­tioned pop­u­la­tion has in mind is polit­i­cal activism.- Andrey Shcherbak, Researcher

No, it does not mean that con­sum­ing this kind of comestibles arbi­trar­ily makes peo­ple more demo­c­ra­tic. What the paper con­cluded pointed to was an indi­rect con­nec­tion between democ­racy and diet. Simply put, when peo­ple eat diverse, expen­sive and supe­rior food items instead of only bread and cere­als on a reg­u­lar basis, it is a strong sig­nal that democ­racy is well on its way.

The spread of a European diet’ — the diet with his­tor­i­cally unprece­dented high pro­por­tion of ani­mal pro­teins in its daily calo­rie intake — is con­sid­ered to be a proxy for the mid­dle-class expan­sion,” Andrey Shcherbak, senior research fel­low in the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research of the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Russia told Olive Oil Times.


A large mid­dle class is a struc­tural pre­req­ui­site for a tran­si­tion to democ­racy and suc­cess­ful con­sol­i­da­tion of it become more likely under a mid­dle class,” the researcher said.

But how could diet, a European type of diet in this case, pre­cede the advent of mid­dle class, and in turn, democ­racy? Shcherbak urged us to look back in his­tory, which evi­dences how the world’s top olive oil pro­duc­ers bore democ­racy.

Greece and Italy, two of the largest olive oil pro­duc­ers and con­sumers, are the birth­places of democ­racy and repub­lic. This is not a coin­ci­dence. Olive oil in Greece and Italy was an impor­tant source of fats and other valu­able nutri­ents for all peo­ple and a very com­mer­cially attrac­tive trade item. I believe these fac­tors con­tributed to the emer­gence of a large mid­dle class in ancient Greek and ancient Roman soci­eties,” says the Russian researcher, who goes so far as to say that maybe olive oil was one of the rea­sons why the polit­i­cal notions of democ­racy and repub­lic sprang from these areas.

But, despite the sym­bol­isms the wide­spread use of olive oil in the birth­places of Western-type democ­racy might dis­play, there are other rea­sons why nutri­tion might pre­cede democ­racy and not the other way round.

For a start, Shcherbak said that peo­ple who have per­ma­nent access to pres­ti­gious items like ani­mal and dairy prod­ucts are exis­ten­tially secure. They don’t need to ago­nize over daily sur­vival, and are free to embrace eman­ci­pa­tive val­ues. This makes it more likely for them to stand up for indi­vid­ual rights as com­pared to a soci­ety where peo­ple just scrape by.

Then, there is a social-polit­i­cal effect. Food auton­omy brings on polit­i­cal auton­omy. The last thing a mal­nu­tri­tioned pop­u­la­tion has in mind is polit­i­cal activism,” rea­soned Shcherbak. Poor and mal­nour­ished peo­ple can be eas­ily manip­u­lated. The rel­a­tive cost of their vote is very low for them. In some coun­tries, we observe large patron­age and clien­telist net­works that dis­trib­ute food for votes among the poor — mostly cheap, car­bo­hy­drate-rich items.”

Also, opti­mal nutri­tion equals good health. An enriched diet plays a cat­alytic role in the for­ma­tion of 29 vital organs includ­ing the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem, which deter­mines cog­ni­tive capac­i­ties,” notes the study. Look at children’s edu­ca­tional per­for­mance,” Shcherbak stressed. Poverty and mal­nu­tri­tion sig­nif­i­cantly reduce it. Generally, health­ier pop­u­la­tions tend to be bet­ter edu­cated and more active in terms of polit­i­cal engage­ment.”

It is wor­thy to be men­tioned that LCSR’s study poses new con­cerns for the form of the needed assis­tance to devel­op­ing coun­tries. If good nutri­tion is key to estab­lish­ing democ­racy, then per­haps human­i­tar­ian aid may be prefer­able to finan­cial assis­tance for poorer coun­tries,” was a key find­ing of the October 2016 research.

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