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

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

by Evan D. G. Faser, Andrew Rimas
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions


Using the colorful diaries of a sixteenth-century merchant as a narrative guide, Empires of Food vividly chronicles the fate of people and societies for the past 12,000 years through the foods they grew, hunted, traded, and ate—and offers fascinating, and devastating, insights into what to expect in years to come. In energetic prose, agricultural

Overview


Using the colorful diaries of a sixteenth-century merchant as a narrative guide, Empires of Food vividly chronicles the fate of people and societies for the past 12,000 years through the foods they grew, hunted, traded, and ate—and offers fascinating, and devastating, insights into what to expect in years to come. In energetic prose, agricultural expert Evan D.G. Fraser and journalist Andrew capture the flavor of places as disparate as ancient Mesopotamia and imperial Britain, taking us from the first city in the once-thriving Fertile Crescent to today’s overworked breadbaskets and rice bowls in the United States and China.
Cities, culture, art, government, and religion were founded on the creation and exchange of food surpluses. Complex societies were built by shipping grain up rivers and into the stewpots of history’s generations. But evenutally, inevitably, the crops fail, the fields erode, or the temperature drops, and the center of power shifts. Cultures descend into dark ages of poverty, famine, and war.
A fascinating, fresh history told through the prism of the dining table, Empires of Food offers a grand scope and a provocative analysis of the world today, indispensable in this time of global warming and food crises.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A panoramic overview of the vulnerability of global food networks to climate change. In a follow-up to their previous collaboration, Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World (2008), Fraser (Environmental Studies/Leeds Univ.) and Improper Bostonian managing editor Rimas draw important lessons from the past to inform their study. "For 8000 years, food empires have expanded as far as transport and topsoil and market would allow," they write, only to collapse when faced with the effects of inevitable climate shifts exacerbated by erosion, the deterioration of irrigation systems and the failure to maintain adequate storage facilities. Their message is stark: "A sustainable food empire can only exist if most of its farms are smallish, diverse and serving customers not too far away." The shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies helped create the emergence of large-scale farming of a few cash crops and laid the foundation for the expansion of major empires. Food became a commodity and only profit counted. In today's global economy, "urbanites around the world rely on just a handful of crops-wheat, maize, rice, and soy-to provide the majority of our nutrition," and these are usually grown in just a few primary areas ("Ukraine, the Great Plains and China's river valleys") Overuse of fertilizers and pesticides threaten productivity, and if oil supplies disappear, fertilizer will become unavailable and "[t]hree billion people would lose their daily sustenance." A two-degree rise in temperature would also bring the specter of mass famine despite "all [our] technological talent." Though the topic is serious, the authors provide plenty of enlightening stories,including the adventures of a 16th-century Italian merchant who spent 15 years circumnavigating the globe, and the work of St. Benedict of Nursia, who established a network of monasteries that became "a nucleus of industry and food production," producing agricultural surpluses, creating commercial networks and promoting technological advances such as iron plows and the use of oxen. Spanning the whole of human civilization, this is a compelling read for foodies, environmentalists and social and economic historians.
Publishers Weekly
The agricultural system that sustains modern society will eventually destroy it, argues this gloomy ecohistory. Leeds University agricultural researcher Fraser and Boston journalist Rimas survey a range of premodern civilizations, including Sumer, Han China, and medieval Europe, to distill the common features that allowed them to feed large urban populations: farming specialization, surpluses, trade, transportation, and food storage. Alas, the authors contend, these “food empires” bred soaring populations, exhausted soils, led to deforestation and erosion, which together with a turn in the climate, led to famine and collapse. They apply this neo-Malthusian lesson to our “cancerous” mega-agriculture, based on artificial fertilizer, fossil fuels, and mono-cropping. The authors' tour of food empires past, framed by an irrelevant narrative of a 16th-century Florentine merchant, is interesting but scattershot. Further, they fail to convince on why technological innovations in agriculture will fail, and lapse into a dubious brief for locavorism. (June 15)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781582437934
Publisher:
Counterpoint Press
Publication date:
03/20/2012
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
1,120,970
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.78(h) x 0.86(d)

Meet the Author

Evan Fraser is an adjunct professor of geography at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada and a Senior Lecturer at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds in the UK. His research is on farming, climate change and the environment. He lives in the Yorkshire Dales with his wife and three children.

Andrew Rimas is a journalist and the managing editor at the Improper Bostonian magazine; previously he was an associate editor and staff writer at Boston magazine. His work has frequently appeared in those publications, and in The Boston Globe Magazine and The Boston Globe.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >