Empires of Food – Book Notes

Empires of Food – Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas.  Published June 2010.  254 pages.

I really enjoy reading books by Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse) and David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations).  Those works explore the foundational elements around why certain societies succeed and others fail.  This was a pleasant contrast to how history was taught in school, where it was presented as a progression of major events but never really dived into why those events may have unfolded the way that they did.  This book takes a similar approach but examines it through the lens of food and food empires in particular, as the critical basis of a functional society that allows urban life to flourish.  In the authors’ words, “this book is about how food, economics, agriculture, and human empires are all strands of the same narrative.”

Food empires (from Egypt, to China, to today) exist if three criteria are satisfied: (1) Surplus – farmers need to produce more food than they can eat; (2) Storage/shipping – farmers need a practical means to store or preserve food such that it doesn’t spoil, and transport that excess food to willing buyers; and (3) Exchange – they need a mechanism for exchanging food between farmers and buyers.

In primitive forms, a food empire is a web of farms and trails, rivers and vegetation that deliver food from the cultivated land to a group of interested eaters

Food empires have a tendency to grow, almost cancer-like, until they exceed sustainable limits and implode.  Sometimes this is overextension is due to a sustained period of mild weather and rainfall before some climate change event (e.g., droughts that span multiple years, massive flooding, or cold weather such as the little Ice Age during the 1700s) that drastically reduce food yields.  Other times, it is rapid expansion into new farming grounds – cutting down trees and forests to plant crops that deplete the land of nutrients and exposes the soil to erosion.  Or, it is fixating on specific cash crops that eliminates diversity and makes the empire vulnerable to disease or pests.

The world believes that the modern food empire is sustainable, but that belief is based upon several mistaken assumptions: (1) The Earth is fertile, when in fact, modern food yields are the result of engineered breeds of specific crops (rice, wheat, soybeans) and clever fertilizers based on fossil fuels.  (2) The weather will continue to be sunny, mild, and with adequate rainfall.  However, the weather has always been dynamic, even setting aside the impact of human-induced climate change.  A slight change in average temperature can have a drastic effect on the length of the growing period.  We’ve had a great spell of good weather over the past century.  The major famines that have taken place during that time have had economic or political root causes – a failure of getting excess food from elsewhere to the right place, rather than uncooperative weather resulting in bad harvests.  (3) It is good business to do one thing well.  Planting one crop in one place might be good economics but terrible ecology.  (4) Food supply takes cheap fossil fuels for granted.

The information here is fantastic, and it’s presented in a way that is engaging and interesting.  For example, the book traces why monks began to brew beer.  It turns out that after the fall of Rome, monasteries formed the beginnings of a new food network for exchange.  The primary constraint to trade, without an adequate road system, was that food products would spoil before they could reach their markets.  In order to preserve their excess wheat for trade, the monks brewed beer, along with cheese from milk, and wine from grapes.  There were only certain food products that could be made available for trade.

Overall, this is an excellent and relatively short read.  I read it over two weeknights.  I noticed that not all of the Amazon user reviews were very positive.  The criticisms centered around balance in coverage and how the book jumps around, making it hard to follow.  Some also didn’t really appreciate the authors’ use of the adventures of a Florentine trader as a narrative device.  I think some of those comments are justified, but I found the individual chapters to be well written and packed with interesting tidbits and stories.  In addition to Part I that lays out the key points as summarized above, I found Chapter 5 (on Dirt and the importance of nitrogen and fertilizers), Chapter 6 (on Ice and refrigeration), and Chapter 7 (on how the spice trade became so bloody) to be particularly fascinating.  That’s actually most of the book, so for me, this was definitely time well spent.

P.S. If this is not available in the library, consider buying a used copy.  There’s quite a difference in price between used vs. new condition.

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