Jan 30, 2014

Empires of Food, by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas

This was an interesting book, though a little preachy at times. "Empires of Food" lays out the history of food empires, that is, political powerhouses that grow because of their ability to produce, store, and ship immense amounts of food, but then inevitably fall when that food runs out. The relevance is obvious: Earth is its own food empire right now, connected as all the countries are by dizzyingly complex trade agreements. Fraser and Rimas argue that extreme specialization - when one geographical area cultivates only one product - is dangerous. Environmentally, specialization is horrific. It strips the earth of the nitrogen plants need to thrive and destroys ecosystems by eroding soil, which in turn pollutes the water sources. A single crop is also terribly vulnerable to an insect or disease that can wipe out an entire region of fields, leaving nothing to sell, let alone eat. This in turn leads to famine and starvation, causing deaths and political destabilization, and riots that can bring down governments and bring countries to a standstill.

The science was all quite new to me, though I knew the rough basics. The history, and the conclusions drawn therefrom, were a little less informative. I found that a lot of the conclusions seemed very obvious, though it's difficult to say whether that's from a college education in history, or perhaps just the critical thinking I'd been taught. Or maybe that's the point, that these mistakes are so obvious and yet ignored that it takes someone like Fraser and Rimas to take the time to point it out to us. The fact of the matter is, the environment is suffering because of the way we grow food, and the earth is warming up. Arguing about why that's so is beside the point. Specialization and over-reliance on international trade will fail to feed a population expected to hit 9 billion people soon. The authors suggest a food economy much more focused on local producers and in-season food, with plenty of planting diversity and no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. They don't deny that we will have to, to some degree, continue the trading; after all, trading food is how cultures first connected. But we need to start stockpiling for the dry skies ahead (which resonates quite strongly for me as California eases itself into another drought), and we need to farm smart.

A quick note on the writing: it was a little silly. Engaging, yes, and it has to be as the book is meant to be consumed by laymen. But some of the metaphors really push the bounds of good writing; while it may not be inaccurate to compare the Roman empire to a rotten pumpkin surrounded by flies, it is, however, utterly ridiculous. They tried too hard to be cute and funny, and it ends up falling a bit flat. All in all, though, a though-provoking and educational book, and I'm glad I read it.

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