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

2010 nonfiction book by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas

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The role food supplies have played in the history of our world.

  • Nov 12, 2011
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"About our food empire, the doomsayers will continue to grumble while the optimists put their faith in technology or God.  The pessimists at least have the backing of history.  For ten thousand years, human beings have built food empires and whittled them back into parched earth and hunger." p. 171

Prior to the dawn of agriculture human beings were hunter-gatherers.  Essentially the men hunted and fished while the women gathered nuts and berries and cared for the children.  These hunter-gatherers were nomads who moved from place to place and lived in caves and shelters made of rocks, branches and animal skins.  Generally they lived in small bands of about 30 people. Then an extraordinary thing happened.  Along about 12,000 years ago the mammoths disappeared from the face of the earth leaving the men with precious little work to do.  History suggests that it was about this time that the concept of farming or agriculture took hold.  Over time men discovered that they had a new vocation in life.....trading commodities.  This development would change everything and mankind would never be the same again.  "Empires Of Food:  Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall Of Civilizations" chronicles the rise of agriculture and the impact it has had on civiizations through the ages from the Roman Empire to the ancient Mayans to the people living here in the 21st century.  And as authors Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas point out time and again in this book agriculture is a very risky business and human beings keep making the same deadly mistakes over and over again. The fate of civilizations hinge on their ability to feed the people.  You will discover precisely what caused the demise of many of the greatest civilizations in the history of the world and why we who reside in the 21st century should have plenty of cause for concern.  Needless to say there is plenty of "food for thought"  in  "Empires of Food".  

Fraser and Rimas explain that towards the end of the Dark Ages (around 900 A.D.) monasteries began to spring up all over Western Europe.  While most of the population lacked work and was mired in hopeless poverty the industrious monks figured out a way to grow and store food surpluses. This was in all likelihood the beginning of agriculture as we know it.  The one thousand year history of agriculture teaches us there seems to be a certain cycle of events that has repeated itself time and again.  Put simply when food supplies are plentiful people tend to have more babies.  And as the population increases farmers opt to clear-cut unused land and turn it over to crop production. When populations increase exponentially these practices will invariably result in severe erosion of the soil.  Likewise, failure to rotate crops will eventually result in soil exhaustion in those places. Large scale agriculture also exposes human beings to the fallout from damage done by extreme drought, climate change, pests and insects. The inevitable result is dwindling food supplies, famine, disease and death.  "Empires of Food" chonicles the catostrophic consequences of these events in places all over the globe from Mexico and India to Ireland, Italy and Ethiopia. Furthermore, the authors opine that our 21st century food empire is clearly unsustainable and that within a mere generation or two we are probably doomed to the same fate unless we make some rather substantial changes in the way we go about growing our food supply.  Clearly there are numerous obstacles to overcome if that is ever going to happen.  

  "Empires Of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall Of Civilizations"  is the first book I have read about these specific issues in a good many years.  I noted with considerable interest that a couple of  reviewers were quite critical of some of the "inaccuracies and distortions" in this book.  Whether or not this is true I am not qualified to say.  But what I am prepared to say is that reading "Empires of Food" has made me much more cognizant of all of the important issues surrounding the way we produce food in our world today.  The authors firmly believe that gradually returnng to more "locally grown" food supplies in the years and decades ahead might be the only to avert a disaster of monumental proportions.  And the history lessons found in this book would seem to back up that assertion.  At the end of the day I found  "Empires Of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall Of Civilizations" to be a well-researched and pretty well-written book.  It seems to me it would be well worth your time and attention.  Highly recommended!

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November 27, 2011
I HAVE to read this!
November 27, 2011
Too bad I didn't know this. I donated by copy to the local library. I would have been more than happy to send it to you.
November 28, 2011
Thanks anyway. I appreciate the thought.
About the reviewer
Paul Tognetti ()
Ranked #2
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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About this book


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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ISBN-10: 1439101892
Genre: Agricultural Sciences
Publisher: Free Press
Date Published: June 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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