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Planning After Our "Empire of Food"

 

Recently, a Briton armed with a metal detector uncovered a trove of more than 50,000 Roman coins, which archeologists believe was an ancient farming community's offering to the gods to ensure a bountiful harvest. Our own agricultural practices have moved past any pleas to the gods to incorporate instead an industrial-scale arsenal of petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetic modification.

Michael Dudley | August 3, 2010, 8am PDT
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Recently, a Briton armed with a metal detector uncovered a trove of more than 50,000 Roman coins, which archeologists believe was an ancient farming community's offering to the gods to ensure a bountiful harvest. Our own agricultural practices have moved past any pleas to the gods to incorporate instead an industrial-scale arsenal of petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetic modification.

Yet, as Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas persuasively argue in their highly entertaining and thought-provoking new book "Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations," the results will be the same: an inevitable collapse of the systems of food production and the society dependent upon them.

The literature re-evaluating our relationship with food has grown so substantial in recent years as to almost constitute its own sub-genre. Such authors as Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food), Karl Weber (Food Inc.), and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) have all added to a burgeoning collection of titles exploring not only our destructive farming and eating habits, but the newly rediscovered practices of urban agriculture.

That many urban dwellers are clamouring to raise their own chickens is just one indication of the reach this literature is having.

In fact, Empires is the authors' second foray into the field. Fraser, an academic geographer who divides his time between the Universities of Guelph and Leeds, previously collaborated with Boston-based journalist and editor Rimas on 2008's Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat and Muscle Shaped the World.

Like this previous book, Empires is an engagingly written history with an urgent message about the fragile unsustainability of our agriculture.

According to the authors, it is only through the massive use of artificial fertilizers, manufactured with finite supplies of natural gas, that we have managed to increase our numbers past six billion people.

Peaking fossil fuel supplies, combined with our abuse and destruction of topsoil, climate change and the depletion of aquifers mean that, sooner than we think, the global larder will be empty -- with all that implies for our ability to maintain current population levels.

Fortunately, this truly sobering message is presented with such clever writing, good humour and compelling storytelling that it prevents the book from descending into grim polemic.

The reader is taken on an informative journey through the systems of production, storage, trade and transportation -- those elements necessary for a food empire.

Each factor is given an historical treatment showing how agricultural innovations that may have at first brought bounty eventually delivered decreasing returns and unintended consequences.

The Mesopotamians of the Fertile Crescent constructed irrigation systems that ended up salting their soils; the Romans aggressively overworked their soils to feed a huge urban population and shore up their contracting military empire; and European kingdoms and monasteries deforested the countryside and depleted their soils before a changing climate, famine and the Black Death carried off almost 45 per cent of the population.

Fraser and Rimas demonstrate that any food empire is dependent on the combination of good soil, abundant water, a co-operative climate and a complex (and often inequitable) mesh of socio-political arrangements.

When such conditions exist, civilizations flourish, populations increase, and the associated complexity of that society also expands.

Yet the pendulum always swings back. The very complexity of food empires eventually heralds their collapse.

In the end, the ill-considered and abused interrelationships between nature and society swiftly unravel, as do the civilizations themselves.

The authors enliven this otherwise depressing argument with the recurring picaresque narrative of Francesco Carletti, a hapless 17th-century entrepreneur who set off on a 15-year global voyage to gather and market the foodstuffs of the Caribbean, South America and Asia.

Through Carletti's eyes, we are introduced to all the foods we now blithely take for granted, including chocolate, tea, potatoes and tomatoes. More significantly, the reader is shown how in subsequent centuries these and other comestibles were transformed into industrial commodities dependent upon ecologically devastating farming practices, genocide and exploitative labour conditions.

Between Carletti's tale and other key historical examples, Fraser and Rimas examine the globalized arrangements that fill our supermarkets with an affordable, appealing and seemingly endless supply of groceries and reveal them for what they are and always have been -- a destructive, cruel and doomed illusion.

The alternative, they propose, is a mix of diverse, small-scale farms serving local customers that are nested in a global trading system. Although the authors admit such things are much easier to suggest than realize, Empires of Food is a valuable contribution to a much-needed dialogue on working towards such a transformation.

 

Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
By Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas
Free Press, 302 pages, $35
 

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