Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
By Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas
Free Press, 2010
Empires of Food is a fascinating book that certainly reveals the old adage, “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 cultures have mistakenly sought development through monocultures—agricultural systems that depend on limited crops like wheat, corn and soybeans. However, these restricted agricultural systems have always suffered grave consequences.
According to the authors, “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. The inherent problem of all monocultures is the ultimate destruction of soil fertility, crop disease 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 supply controls the people. Inevitably, urban society cannot ceaselessly survive in this unsustainable structure.
However, the wisdom of our current biodynamic, pasture-based 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 once flourished. Although today we have supermarkets full of varieties of cheap food never before offered—food that can only be grown with fertilizers and insecticides made from petro-chemicals—there will ultimately 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 makes decisions according to how those decisions will affect our offspring for the next seven generations? I say we must.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2011.