This review of Empires of Food is the third review of three on this site featuring books that peg the rise and fall of civilizations to the state of their food security.
Reviewed Here: Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations By Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas Published by Free Press in 2010
This is a wonderful book, and an absorbing read. Like the other authors I've reviewed in this series, Fraser, a geography professor, and Rimas, a journalist, peg civilizations' success or failure to the state of their agricultural systems. But they eloquently give us a much broader perspective of these systems throughout history, and I appreciated this broadness as much as I did David Montgomery's narrower focus on soil dynamics. I've read no other book that presents such a comprehensive examination of the history of agriculture, and the reasons why just about all farming systems through history eventually failed. How much did I like this book? I thought it was better than The Omnivore's Dilemma. Gasp!
There's so much richness to this book that I find it difficult to summarize. At the outset the authors highlight a simple truth: that no agriculturally-based civilization can exist unless farmers produce more than they can eat, there is a means of distribution of that surplus, and there is a way to store the surplus until it can be consumed. They argue that civilizations have always developed and thrived on fertile soil during periods of stable weather, but that they create the conditions for their eventual collapse by creating farming systems that wrongly assume those conditions to be immutable. Eventually, soil fertility is destroyed, the weather changes, farming systems fail, and civilization collapses.
The book begins in modern China in order to show us our civilization at its height of of both agricultural achievement and hubris. We learn of the astounding scale of the Three Gorges Dam and of efforts to develop rice varieties that can thrive in an ozone-choked future. Later we're introduced to Francesco Carletti, a 17th century trader about to embark on a years-long trading voyage around the world. Carletti, who kept detailed journals about his travels, becomes our window on the complexity of a global food system and the vulnerabilities it possesses as we proceed through chapters that focus on the various elements crucial to food systems: trading, storage, water, fertile soil, monocultures, and so on. By the end of the book the authors have highlighted the bleak reality that we have made gigantic leaps of faith about a food system that is incredibly fragile.
Blah, blah, blah, there's lots of books like that, you say. True. But few are so well-written and researched. After having invested a lot of time in reading about agriculture, I still find it difficult to grasp what's going on in the global food system as a whole. This book does that exceptionally well.
And this book doesn't represent the untenable view that the world could be saved if only we abandoned synthetic fertilizers and totally embraced small-scale, organic farming. Too often I hear advocates of organic farming arguing that we can both have our cake and eat it: that we can feed six or eight or nine billion people without synthetic fertilizers and monocultures, and without a significant decline in the lifestyle to which the world's inhabitants have become accustomed. The authors don't believe so, and neither do I. They point out that 40 percent of the world's people rely on protein created by synthetic nitrogen, and that without oil three billion people would go hungry from the loss of fertilizers. It's not that a world can't feed itself without fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizers, but it sure can't feed 6 billion people.
The authors aren't apocalyptic in their view. But they do create the metaphor of civilizations' progress as a pendulum that eventually reaches an arc before inevitably heading back in the other direction. And they believe ours is reaching its apex, as all past civilizations did. To prolong that inevitability, we will need to change our assumptions about food production. To stay on our current path will only hasten the coming regression.