Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

November 25, 2010

In a breathtakingly vivid account of the history of food trade and its production and consumption, Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas offer a series of metaphors to illustrate the dilemmas facing our contemporary global food supply.

Their evidence draws on ancient Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire, the monastery-based food production and trading systems of medieval Europe, the trading outposts of the European overseas empires and on to the evolution of modern industrial agricultural production in the US and Brazil, with the feeding of China over the ages inserted into these interweaving narratives.

The commodities considered range from wheat and barley to spices, from tea and coffee to orange juice, from maize and rice to lettuce.

The book's focus is on the trading of food and its ecological dependencies and limitations across history. Food empires are defined as "the network of specialised farms that survive and support urban civilisations through trading". Each food empire over-extends itself, "shrinking back to the dregs of their empty storehouses when their farms fell into dust".

Ultimately, the demands of trading and consumption drain soil of its fertility or dislocate the natural ecosystem, thereby fatally weakening the crop and the land's resilience in the face of soil erosion, drought, pestilence and the combined effects of natural climate change.

Over time, traders have found new lands and crops to exploit, either taking indigenous production by force or cultivating virgin soil after extensive clearance. However, the comparative advantage of these new lands declines as the cycle of ecological loss sets in. Of course, human ingenuity provides new knowledge and technologies to take agricultural production forward again, but these face their own ecological limits, be they fertilisers based on guano or oil or advanced breeding techniques such as hybrid crops.

The warnings provided by the authors are certainly timely. Today, the world's food economy provides us with enough food to feed every person on the planet adequately, but fails to do so effectively, paradoxically leaving us with around 1 billion undernourished people and 1.6 billion obese people. Furthermore, the current population of around 6.5 billion is predicted to peak at 9 billion by 2050, demanding an increase in food production by an estimated 70 per cent. Will the current systems of food supply be able to meet the challenges of peak oil, the dislocations of human-induced climate change and the depreciation of the natural resource base of our ecosystems?

The cycle of ecological decline is depicted as an inevitable outcome of food empires, but what do the authors see as the way forward? More food stocks must be held in reserve, and we must think in terms of "nested bioregionalism" within the global trading environment.

International trade has been a constant in the history of humans and food since agriculture began, but more widespread biodiversity and variation in production at local and regional levels must predominate over current food-production specialisation and monoculture production. Consumption will see the end of cheap food, necessitating a cultural shift; at the same time, food production will become a more valued employment, lessening the exploitation of slave and cheap labour.

But how can such steps be achieved? The political and governance means to achieve such ends at national, regional and global levels are not detailed here. But in the wake of recent commodity price rises and given the future challenges identified, governance responses and their coordination must be a priority for policymakers everywhere.

Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

By Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas.Random House, 320pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781847945631. Published 2 September 2010

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