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Empires of food: Feast, famine, and the rise and fall of civilizations

Empires of food

Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas
Published by Random House
Website: www.rbooks.co.uk
2010, 302pp, ISBN 978 1 84794 563 1(Hb), £20

A cursory glance at the past 10,000 years of history may present a reassuring growth in human technology, transforming food production and medicine and providing the prospect of continuing growth. A more searching look reveals that far from a straight-line increase in global prosperity and well-being, there have been numerous cataclysmic episodes that have destroyed civilisations and culled populations. What the authors of Empires of food describe in gripping detail is that "food, economics, agriculture and human empires are all strands of the same narrative." Ever since the development of agriculture, successive civilisations from the Sumerians and Romans, the Han Chinese and Maya to medieval Europe have used their inventiveness and energy to develop food supply by expanding production and trade over centuries only to have their empires collapse, often in a matter of decades. Each time expansion occurs during periods of benign climate and ends when the fertility of soil declines, climate changes and rains fail. "The shape of the pattern - a gradual rise in comestible wealth, ending in an unpleasant plunge - hasn't changed since the Fertile Crescent turned into a misnomer," they write.

Fraser and Rimas skilfully and tellingly weave a fascinating story. They draw lessons from the role of the monasteries in restoring the production, storage and trade in food lost when the Roman empire collapsed and the population of western Europe halved; the way deforestation and irrigation led repeatedly in Asia, Europe and the Americas to declining yields of water and food just as populations reached a peak and drought struck; and how trade in spices and tea led to the death of millions. The US, in particular California, and China are taken as examples of where modern technology sustains production, processing, preservation and transport of food: a handful of high-yield varieties of two or three crops are watered by rapidly declining groundwater, fertilised with nitrogen dependent on diminishing natural gas, protected by contaminating pesticides, and preserved, processed and transported using declining oil. The cost of food is driven down while the hidden costs to the environment and sustainability are ignored.

Empires of food is a "must read" for everyone associated with agriculture, especially policymakers who instinctively shy away from decisions that the electorate may not like, especially at this time of financial austerity. The authors conclude by addressing those who remain sceptical of such doom-mongering: "To anyone who doubts that the cycle of peaks and collapses will repeat - to anyone who doubts history - the clinching argument is nature…Will our technological brilliance save our food empire, or is it like the medieval agricultural boom? Is it a temporary fix before an inevitable reckoning?"

The lasting message of this book is that while mankind is innovative enough to devise technologies to maximise food production when climatic conditions are favourable, he cannot cope when temperature and rainfall move from the optimum. The authors have written an informative and entertaining book which provides a feast for thought; it complements Pandora's Seed, viewing the history of man and agriculture from another perspective but each book reinforcing the conclusions of the other.

Date published: November 2010

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