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

Evan Fraser , Andrew Rimas
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 15 2010
We are what we eat: this aphorism contains a profound truth about civilization, one that has played out on the world historical stage over many millennia of human endeavor.

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 twelve thousand years through the foods they grew, hunted, traded, and ate—and gives us fascinating, and devastating, insights into what to expect in years to come. In energetic prose, agricultural expert Evan D. G. Fraser and journalist Andrew Rimas tell gripping stories that 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, showing just what food has meant to humanity.

Cities, culture, art, government, and religion are founded on the creation and exchange of food surpluses, complex societies built by shipping corn and wheat and rice up rivers and into the stewpots of history’s generations. But eventually, 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. It happened at the end of the Roman Empire, when slave plantations overworked Europe’s and Egypt’s soil and drained its vigor. It happened to the Mayans, who abandoned their great cities during centuries of drought. It happened in the fourteenth century, when medieval societies crashed in famine and plague, and again in the nineteenth century, when catastrophic colonial schemes plunged half the world into a poverty from which it has never recovered. And today, even though we live in an age of astounding agricultural productivity and genetically modified crops, our food supplies are once again in peril.

Empires of Food
brilliantly recounts the history of cyclic consumption, but it is also the story of the future; of, for example, how a shrimp boat hauling up an empty net in the Mekong Delta could spark a riot in the Caribbean. It tells what happens when a culture or nation runs out of food—and shows us the face of the world turned hungry. The authors argue that neither local food movements nor free market economists will stave off the next crash, and they propose their own solutions. 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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"A panoramic overview of the vulnerability of global food networks to climate change....draws important lessons from the past....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." --Kirkus

"With a flavor of Jared Diamond, Empires of Food thoughtfully weaves the religion, military history, and science into a historical arc of how food undergirds civilization's rise and fall. Sprinkling discussions of monks and bird guano in with the Roman Empire and colonization, the book elucidates the inherent instability of how our current food infrastructure has evolved and will make you rethink how you eat."
--Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

"Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas vividly recreate centuries of spice-filled ships and grain silos to show that while the pen and the gun may be the visible tools of diplomacy, the knife and fork are often the true instruments of human change. Their unsentimental march through our history and into the future reaches a conclusion that is both inspiring and unnerving: civilization is what we eat."
--Sasha Issenberg, author of The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy

"Empires of Food deals with a subject of grave importance and profound implications for the political economy of the world. Although the subject is serious, it is written in a compelling and readable style. While not pedantic or ponderous in any way, it is of impressive academic rigor. This book needs to be read and thoughtfully considered by policy-makers and citizens everywhere. And if you enjoy lunch, don't fail to read it!"
--John Manley, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada

"With a breathtaking sweep, Empires of Food takes us on a rollicking culinary journey through the ecological history of civilization. The result is a rare treat: hard-hitting analysis cooked to read like a captivating novel. For pure pleasure or a deeper understanding of why civilizations rise and fall, it's a perfect choice for any curious mind."
--Peter Dauvergne, Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, author of The Shadows of Consumption

"This isn't just first class scholarship, it's energetic writing. Fraser and Rimas have a knack for the little detail that unveils the big thought. Empires of Food is a must-read for anyone who wants to know why every night a billion people got to bed obese and another billion go to bed hungry."
--George Alagiah, author of A Passage To Africa and A Home From Home

"Empires of Food is a panoramic and prescient book which presents the challenges that civilizations have faced with agricultural production and societal fashions for food. The authors approach the issue with refreshing pragmatism and urge us to move towards a "glocal" approach to consumption norms. Their compelling narrative recognizes the value of efficient global food systems while also appreciating the importance of local connections to reduce ecological impacts. Such a vision for our palates holds much promise in balancing the debate on food ethics and sustainable development."
--Saleem H. Ali, author of Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future

“In offering a compelling portrait of the interplay between imperial expansion and food systems across the millennia, Empires of Food lays before us the fragility of a 21st century food system beset by climate change, rising fuel costs and a shrinking agricultural frontier and wonders whether, like the empires of the past, we will sustain a delusion of a superabundance as we careen toward a world of famine and insecurity or whether we will we find the wisdom and the means to avert catastrophe.”

--Raymond C. Offenheiser, President, Oxfam America

"Forget the old stages of human history, the familiar stone, bronze, iron age sequence: University of Guelph geographer Fraser and journalist co-author Rimas make a convincing case that food—or rather, food surpluses—best explain the rise and fall of civilizations. If cultures produce more than farmers eat, and find a way to store, transport and exchange that extra, then urban centres can flourish. Trouble is, food empires have always, so far, grown to the limits of their carrying capacity, hanging on precariously until the weather changes or pests strike, and the whole thing collapses. It’s happened everywhere, as Fraser and Rimas demonstrate in their entertaining tour of past disasters. And maybe it’s happening again: in five of the past 10 years the world has eaten more than it has produced, causing us to draw down on our grain stocks. There may yet be a lot more food to wring out of technological progress; then again, there may not be." --Mclean's

"This is a book with a big thesis and panorama. Whether writing about ancient Rome, the Mayans, China, or mediaeval Europe, 19th century Britain and 20th century USA, the authors draw us inexorably to question whether the 21st century globalizing food system is poised to be punished for forgetting the laws of ecology. Fraser and Rimas propose that seemingly impregnable societies can falter and fail if they ignore the sustainability of their food supplies." --Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University, London

About 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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5.0 out of 5 stars This book is an education in itself. June 6 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book connects many apparently disconnected details so that, together, they show the fabric of the past. For example, the loss of fertility in the bread basket of the Middle East caused by over-irrigation, and how this still echoes in the history of the area. The book shows how, generation after generation makes the same mistakes in food production: monoculture, soil exhaustion and degradation. Particularly intriguing is the realization that a technical "advance" like refrigeration actually hastens the degradation.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vital Lessons About How Food Systems Work Oct. 31 2010
I found this book fascinating; an illuminating explanation of how food systems work. Using historical case studies and current data, Fraser and Rimas show us where we're at and how we got here - how culture, greed and industrialization have brought our food systems to a precarious turning point. And they propose steps we can take to stop repeating the mistakes of past civilizations. Reading this book taught me so much that I needed to know. Most highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A revelation in how food shaped history June 23 2010
Highly recommended.

Empires of Food is equal parts entertaining and enlightening - perfect summer reading for any foodie, environmentalist or history buff. Fraser and Rimas blend history with science to create a thoroughly enjoyable read that explores the impact of food on human history.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and topical Feb. 6 2011
Perhaps it was the ironic timing with what is going on in Egypt and the Middle East right now but I found this book both very informative and entertaining. Well written this book covers a wide range of subjects without any overkill. From how the Roman Empire fed itself to the meanings of Free Trade and Organic foods this book is recommended for the general interest reader as well as the specialist. This book will certainly open your eyes to how the world really works and not what the media thinks.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
68 of 77 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Disappointment Aug. 21 2010
By Richard R. Wilk - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was planning to assign this book for my graduate "Food and Culture" class this fall - it looked like it would be a good start for the class, putting food in the grand sweep of human history. Last time I used "Feast" which turned out to be very uneven. I am very glad I had time to order the book and read it thoroughly before the start of the semester (yes, professors do indeed assign books they have not read thoroughly), because it gave me time to cancel the order. Why? Partially because of an issue of balance. Just because in the past too many historians and archaeologists have left food entirely out of their reconstructions of the past, the answer is not to write a book in which food explains everything. The book reminds me of the work of Jared Diamond, also a geographer without formal training in archaeology, anthropology or theories of human cultural evolution. So the book becomes a selective trek through human history with the goal of telling a pretty simple-minded story. People learn to grow food; they clear land and increase productivity so population grows. Eventually they overshoot their productivity, they exhaust the soil, there is some climate change and there is a famine. End of civilization. Now, this model is still a minority position in archaeology, but most of us who studied cultural ecology back in the 1970s read a lot of work which poked huge holes in the theory. It only stands up if you ignore the counter-cases, like Tokugawa Japan. Or if you totally ignore the life work of important human ecologists like Robert McC. Netting, who spent his career finding examples of civilizations which maintained high population densities through sustainable agriculture and population control. Even better - he showed why some farming/social systems are sustainable and maintain high levels of fertility, controlling erosion, while others destabilize, lose their diversity and flexibility, and crash.

It sure would have been nice if the authors of this book had done their homework. But instead I fear they have chosen to tell a simple-minded little story with an obvious and misleading moral about inevitable catastrophe. Instead we need intelligent and informed analysis which will explain why systems sometimes fail, so we can work on practical measures to make sure we do not see billions of people starve in the next few decades, a ghoulish prediction which this book casts as inevitable.
33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars More errors than I can count Oct. 9 2010
By Luke - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Gosh but this book is bad. I started noting the historical inaccuracies, distortions and outright fibs but lost track. Here's a sampling (a small one):

- Apparently the population of Europe declined by half from 200 AD to 600 AD because of food. Um, possibly enormous civil wars, political collapse and the eruption of a plague that was as bad as the bubonic? I'm not even sure though who on earth was counting the population of Europe in 600 AD. In the same sentence we're told the city of Rome's population halved from 300 to 400 - um, yes, because Constantinople was founded as the new capital.

- Hideous, schoolboy factual inaccuracies, such as "when Diocletian split the Empire in two, Constantinople sucked the food supply East" - um, Constantinople was founded decades after Diocletian died. Seriously.

- Wilful distortion of dates: we're told in one sentence that the monastic food system had resulted in a surge of population "by the tenth century" which resulted (same para, no clarification of dates) in "universities being founded in oxford, etc.". You wouldn't know that about 300 years separated the tenth century and the foundation of universities. In the same section, they say that "Europe entered into hundreds of years of inflation" - they don't specify a starting date for this, but they seem to be referring to about 1300 or so. A few paragraphs later they mention that famine and disease caused prices to plummet by the second half of the 14th century. I mean, come on.

- The whole section on Mesopotamia seems to have been made up by the authors. No really. Their references in that section are thin, light and outdated, not to mention the fact that they got Sumer and Akkadia mixed up (this is like confusing England and France, or worse). I think they looked up "Uruk" and "Sumer" on Wikipedia.

Now, getting a couple of dates wrong doesn't entirely doom an argument. There is of course an interesting story to be told about the role of food production and control. It's a complex story and certainly important. But the authors are trying to make it unidirectional, as though food causes everything, and they obviously are only interested in history as anecdote that supports their story. If you're making an argument about causality you need to get the chronology and the events right. They don't.

I really fear the number of myths this book may implant in a general reader's mind, and hope that those who don't know the background to some of these periods will go and do some research before accepting this book's claims, most of which are bogus.

File on the Jared Diamond "grand theory with clever title but no foundation" shelf.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars an in-depth look at our food systems July 8 2010
By The Local Cook - Published on Amazon.com
When I read this book, I kept thinking about the refrain from Ecclesiastes, "there is nothing new under the sun." It was really interesting to read about the food empires and systems from long ago, and then compare it to where we're at today. It was really well written, although I must confess to skimming over a bit of the more historical chapters. Although they were quite entertaining (the authors have a great sense of humor), I wanted to focus more on today. I suppose that's my American impatience coming through.

The book didn't provide any easy answers (surprise!), but I do feel like I learned more about the context of our food system, and it doesn't seem quite so overwhelming, which is kind of strange because the solutions proposed are a bit more macro in scale than the other books I've read recently but somehow it seems doable. If you don't mind a bit of historical detail, it's a great book to help you think through the systems theory of our "food empire" and puts into perspective the threats that everyone keeps talking about. It also provides great motivation for eating local.

disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher. I was not obligated to do a review nor did it influence my opinions.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Mental Feast June 23 2010
By Daisy Wolf - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Empires of Food was a feast for my grey-cells! I love reading well-written history books(while sipping a crisp Provence rose and nibbling on a slice of local goat's cheese).Fraser and Rimas made me think about the historical origins of these delicacies(monks in the Middle Ages),their impact on our planet,(emerging China,water,climate,and population growth)and my own role as a concerned citizen as I make choices as to what I eat and where to buy it. A must read for all who care about the future of our food supply and the health of our planet.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Learning Food Lessons from History Aug. 10 2010
By Susan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is the most comprehensive book to date on the history of food systems and their important (and usually neglected) role in the collapse of civilizations. "The lesson from history," the authors write, "is that big civilizations are built on ground no firmer than the mud under their rice paddies. They, and we, are slaves to food."

Food empires? The authors are talking about the networks of a civilization's farms, plantations, orchards; its imports from abroad; its processing plants; and its distribution channels. The larger and more complex the civilization, the more complex the food networks must be--to the point where they deplete existing resources of soil and water, then falter, then fail. Interacting with climate variables and local geological factors (volcanoes, earthquakes), food empires are far more fragile than they appear to the people who live within them, who often take their available food for granted. When these systems fail, the civilization begins to fall apart, usually with a whimper rather than with a bang.

And our own industrial food empire? Despite our advances in technology, our food supply system is as fragile as those of the Romans, Mayans, or medieval Europe. But now, the problems are global. Every nation under the sun is facing soil depletion, water issues (including fertilizer pollution), and a dangerous dependence on limited fossil fuels to grow, process, and transport food to burgeoning populations. The result? "Modern agribusiness has the potential to translate a dry month in Brazil into red ink on a ledger in China into an empty shopping cart in New Jersey," Fraser and Rimas write. "There are no buffers left."

And no easy answers. Local food, slow food, bioregional systems that "nest" within a global trading network. But "easier posited than done," as the authors admit. What's really needed: a public insistence that their politicians begin to acknowledge and address these crucial issues. Again, easier posited than done.

What I like about this book: its breadth, inclusiveness, new-paradigm thinking, engaging writing. I also admire the authors for not trying to pull last-chapter rabbits out of the hat when it comes to solutions. Their message: don't expect answers to be handed to you on a plate.

What I dislike about the book: its hop-skip-jump presentation, which reminded me of the TV series "Connections." But even this now-here, now-there organization has its advantages: readers must actively participate in the authors' arguments in order to follow them. Lazy or uninvolved readers won't want to bother. But then, they're probably not the authors' intended audience.

Bottom line: an extraordinarily important book that offers important insights into a global challenge facing not just one country but all civilizations. I hope, by the time you finish it, you'll have decided that your lawn might be put to better uses than growing grass.
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