Following is a book review written by James Santigie Kanu, former official of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and currently Associate Editor of African Prospects Journal.
Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, And The Rise And Fall of Civilizations
by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas
This book is available in the library collection.
What has food meant to humanity throughout the ages? Will the “earth’s soil burn away into dust” because of adverse weather conditions due to climate change, and how will this affect food production? The authors persuade us that these questions were also paramount in the minds of our ancestors in the Euphrates five thousand years ago, as well as the ancient Mayan, Roman, Egyptian, and Greek farmers. Abundant harvests and regular food supplies to feed the human population has not been the norm throughout history. So what did our ancestors do to overcome the many challenges they faced in producing enough food for their growing urban cities?
Evan D.G. Fraser, an adjunct professor of Geography at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and Andrew Rimas, a journalist and the managing editor at the Improper Bostonian magazine, have produced in eloquent prose a well written book which sheds light on the role food has played in the rise and fall of ancient food empires in places such as Mesopotamia and imperial Rome. The book gives a vivid account of the development of agriculture in Uruk, the first city created by humankind on the once-thriving Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. The authors have also offered the reader an interesting account of our modern breadbaskets and rice bowls in China and the United States. The book is about how food, economics, and agriculture were intertwined to form the foundation of cities, the development of the arts, culture, science, religion and government, all of which are indispensable for a thriving civilization. The authors identified three main factors that were crucial in the growth of food empires. The first was, the ability of farmers to grow more food than they could eat. The second was the ability of farmers to sell their surplus food (wheat, olives and olive oil etc.), to willing buyers. Thirdly, imperial governments provided roads, ships, safe sea routes, as well as warehouses to store surplus food. According to the authors, “These three functions – surplus, storage/shipping, and exchange – are the pillars of every food empire from ancient Egypt to Victorian England. Just as there is no life without food, so there is no civilization without a food empire.”
We also learn that ancient food empires expanded in periods of good harvest, but contracted when harvests were poor because of bad weather or calamities such as droughts, floods and pests. The authors tell us that in Crete and ancient Rome, slow decay of food production was brought about by environmental degradation – soil erosion and a long stretch of bad weather. Food riots by angry mobs in urban areas over the high cost of bread took place in ancient food empires. In such cases, rioting mobs destroyed marketplaces, and governments were forced to raise armies to conquer greener pastures and more fertile lands to produce food. This was not always an easy task. Failure by governments to make the necessary land reforms and provide enough food for the growing population sometimes led to political instability. For example, we are told that three hundred people were killed in riots in Rome in 133 B.C. by rich land owners in the Senate who were opposed to the proposed land reforms, the day before the reforms were debated in the Curia Julia. The story of the development of agriculture in ancient Rome shows that farmers in the Rome region made use of the good qualities of the soil and the availability of water to produce food surpluses. However, towards the end of the Roman Empire, food produced by farmers in the Rome region was not enough to feed the imperial armies and the growing population. Rome had to rely on grain supplies produced sometimes with slave labour in far away places such as Egypt. Farming in the region of Rome was no longer sustainable. The agricultural land was adversely affected by deforested uplands due to intensive grain cultivation, soil exhaustion, and unpredictable rainfall. Techniques for the control of soil erosion were rudimentary. Even the Mayans who had developed some useful irrigation techniques could not always cope with droughts. They abandoned their cities during centuries of drought.
We follow the authors through two fascinating journeys in the development of our modern food empires. The first journey began at the turn of the seventeenth century when, according to the authors, for the first time in European history “a merchant could make a circuit of the earth, jumping on and off ships, buying and selling merchandise in the hope (usually deluded) of getting fabulously rich.” Europe was getting hungrier and poorer in that period.
In telling this story, the authors relied on the diaries of Francesco Carletti, an Italian from Florence who went to Spain in 1573 to seek his fortune, the first European to record a worldwide trading journey of a modern “food empire.” Francesco’s adventures were part of a broader push by Europeans towards the sea. The authors noted that instead of growing their own commodities, Spain and Portugal sent traders to fetch the goods they lacked. Men like Francesco blazed the first trails of the modern food empire. As the ships raised sail in Cadiz and Lisbon, Europe’s fortunes began to shift.
Francesco was part of a wave of European merchants, and adventurers who went to the new world in search of riches. Like many of their contemporaries, Francesco, and his father, Antonio, actively took part in the nefarious industrial slave trade by Europeans in West Africa, which inflicted untold suffering to millions of enslaved Africans and dislocated the political and economic fabric of countries in the region. European colonization schemes emerged and European nations became richer. At the same time the foundation of the United States, food empire was laid.
The second journey four hundred years later, took place in 2008, down the Yangtze River in central China through the heart of an industrial food empire. The authors view the Three Gorges Dam as symbolizing China’s modernity. They wrote, “No longer is it a nation of bent peasants eking out a living among the rice plants.” China is now part of the global food empire, despite the fears of some skeptics in the West who have suggested that China could not possibly feed itself because of its huge population. On the contrary, the authors noted, “China remains almost entirely self-sufficient, consuming only homegrown rice and mostly homegrown wheat.” For the future, however, the authors observed that, while China, America and other nations have made enormous strides in food production, “The increased harvest brought about by new seeds have come and gone in China and the West, and short of a yet-to-be realized genetically modified miracle, there’s not much foreseeable room for improvement. Climate change looms. In the face of heat, crowding, and the dwindling efficacy of our magic seeds, the world has no answers on how to keep the buffet open indefinitely.” Does this mean that the crash of our modern food empires is un-avoidable? It happened to the Roman Empire, when the soil was overworked and degraded due to environmental degradation and pro-longed seasons of bad weather. It happened to the Mayans who were unable to cope with persistent droughts, and today we seem to have reached the end of the road in finding solutions that could lead to sustainable food production to feed a hungry world. While arguing that the free market economy is unlikely to save us from following the fate of the food empires of our ancestors, the authors proposed their own solutions.