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

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 ...
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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.
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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)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781582437934
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • Publication date: 3/20/2012
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,361,966
  • 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.

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Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Part I The Price of Food 1

The Three Gorges Dam 3

The Rise and Fall of Food Empires, Past, Present, and Future 7

Chapter 1 Fairs: The Food Trade 13

The Desert Fathers 16

Work, Pray, Eat 18

The Agricultural Revolution of A.D. 900 20

Fayre Is Fair 22

The Pendulum Swings 28

The Pendulum Swings Back 32

Manure from the Bones 37

Chapter 2 Larders: What Do You Do with Ten Thousand Tons of Grain? 41

National Security and a War on Terror 43

Bread Alone 46

Not by Bread Alone: Oil and Fish 49

Hannibal Lectured 52

A Question of Logistics 57

Grounds for Exhaustion 59

How to Feed an Empire, Cheap 62

The Larder Is Empty 64

Chapter 3 Farms: Growing Food for Profit and Environmental Rapine 69

The Grapes of Wrath 72

God in the Cup 79

The Weak Heart of Today's Food Empire 86

Part II The Price Rises 91

An Experiment in Survival 93

Chicken Little or a Lot of Chicken? 97

Chapter 4 Water: Irrigations Questionable Cure 101

Mesopotamia's Fix 104

In Praise of Grain 107

Oriental Despotism 110

Retreat of the Elephants 115

The Yellowing River 118

Water, Water Everywhere? 121

Chapter 5 Dirt: The Chemistry of Life 125

The Story of N 126

In Praise of Phytoplankton 129

Fecal Politics 131

War Empires 136

The Birds of Peru 141

Chapter 6 Ice: Preserve Us 145

How Food Rots and How to Slow It Down 146

It's a Jungle 150

The Industrial Garden State 152

Triumph of the Tomato 156

California Scheming 159

The Orange Juice Quandary 161

Part III Empty Pockets 165

Storm Clouds 167

Chapter 7 Blood: The Conquest of Food 173

Rebellion in the Spice Islands 179

Chiapas 183

The Moral Economy of Food 187

The Climate Trigger 193

Chapter 8 Money: Tea and Famine 197

A Foundation in Pirates 199

Victorian High Tea 203

Her Majesty's Drug Cartel 205

"In America, There Could Be No Famine…" 209

The Great Hunger 211

The Food Empires Ahead 214

Chapter 9 Time: Fair, Organic, and Slow 219

The Meaning of Fairness 222

Greener Pastures 230

The Snail Triumphant 235

Conclusion: The New Gluttony and Tomorrow's Menu 243

Acknowledgments 255

Notes 257

Index 289

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