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

Book by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas (Pub. by Free Press, 2010)

Empires of Food is a fascinating book that certainly reveals the old adage that “history repeats itself.” As we moved away from the hunter-gatherer paradigm to that of civilization, man has often been deceived by the pursuit of progress. From the Mayan, Greek and Roman empires to our present day society, many urban societies have mistakenly sought development through monoculture–an agricultural system that depends on limited crops like wheat, corn and soybeans.

However, these agricultural systems have always suffered grave consequences:
“These societies, these food empires, can only exist if three things happen: Farmers need to grow more food than they eat; they need a means of trading it to willing buyers; they need a way to store it so it doesn’t turn to sludge before reaching its economic apotheosis. When these three premises are met, urban life flourishes. Which is, in itself, the seed of the problem…When a food empire fails, mobs tear apart the marketplace, angry over the cost of bread. Governments raise armies to conquer greener, more fertile valleys. People uproot. Forest creeps back over old fences. Arable land falls into disuse, and society contracts. It happens again and again. And it’s happening now…..”

Reading this summation of agricultural history now as we face alarming governmental interference to thwart the emergence of a truly sustainable system struck me to the core. Inherent problems to all monocultures are the clearing of massive amounts of land ultimately ending in the total destruction of its fertility, disease to crops and climate change, most often in the form of warming and drought.  Also common is the inevitable abuse of governmental power as whoever controls the food, controls the people. Inevitably, urban society cannot ceaselessly survive in this unsustainable structure.

However, the wisdom of our current biodynamic, pasture farming movement is the answer to correcting the serious problems of our depleted food supply. Protecting biodiversity and our precious resources are essential elements of our survival. Furthermore, Fraser and Rimas discuss the importance of saving food surpluses and supporting a global sustainable farming network as insurance for times of shortage.

This book provides an enlightening historical journey through the problematic agricultural practices that led to the destruction of great societies that briefly flourished.  Although today we have stores full of varieties of cheap food never before offered—food that will only grow with fertilizers and insecticides made from petrochemicals—there will be an end to this system. Cheap food is not cheap.

The types of changes we have made with regard to our food choices, sources and our health in relation to the work of Weston A. Price we must also foster in relation to our entire global food system. Can we raise enough awareness and learn from history before it is too late? Can we become a society that chooses according to how our decisions will affect people for the next seven generations? I say we must.

Kathryne Pirtle

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