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Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations Hardcover – June 15, 2010

3.6 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Great City Maps by DK
30 of the World's Greatest Historical City Maps
A beautifully illustrated history of the world's most celebrated historical city maps, from the hubs of ancient civilization to sprawling modern mega-cities, created in association with the Smithsonian Institution. Learn more
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The agricultural system that sustains modern society will eventually destroy it, argues this gloomy ecohistory. Leeds University agricultural researcher Fraser and Boston journalist Rimas survey a range of premodern civilizations, including Sumer, Han China, and medieval Europe, to distill the common features that allowed them to feed large urban populations: farming specialization, surpluses, trade, transportation, and food storage. Alas, the authors contend, these food empires bred soaring populations, exhausted soils, led to deforestation and erosion, which together with a turn in the climate, led to famine and collapse. They apply this neo-Malthusian lesson to our cancerous mega-agriculture, based on artificial fertilizer, fossil fuels, and mono-cropping. The authors' tour of food empires past, framed by an irrelevant narrative of a 16th-century Florentine merchant, is interesting but scattershot. Further, they fail to convince on why technological innovations in agriculture will fail, and lapse into a dubious brief for locavorism. (June 15)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"A panoramic overview of the vulnerability of global food networks to climate change....draws important lessons from the past....Though the topic is serious, the authors provide plenty of enlightening stories, including the adventures of a 16th-century Italian merchant who spent 15 years circumnavigating the globe, and the work of St. Benedict of Nursia, who established a network of monasteries that became "a nucleus of industry and food production," producing agricultural surpluses, creating commercial networks and promoting technological advances such as iron plows and the use of oxen. Spanning the whole of human civilization, this is a compelling read for foodies, environmentalists and social and economic historians." --Kirkus

"With a flavor of Jared Diamond, Empires of Food thoughtfully weaves the religion, military history, and science into a historical arc of how food undergirds civilization's rise and fall. Sprinkling discussions of monks and bird guano in with the Roman Empire and colonization, the book elucidates the inherent instability of how our current food infrastructure has evolved and will make you rethink how you eat."
--Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

"Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas vividly recreate centuries of spice-filled ships and grain silos to show that while the pen and the gun may be the visible tools of diplomacy, the knife and fork are often the true instruments of human change. Their unsentimental march through our history and into the future reaches a conclusion that is both inspiring and unnerving: civilization is what we eat."
--Sasha Issenberg, author of The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy

"Empires of Food deals with a subject of grave importance and profound implications for the political economy of the world. Although the subject is serious, it is written in a compelling and readable style. While not pedantic or ponderous in any way, it is of impressive academic rigor. This book needs to be read and thoughtfully considered by policy-makers and citizens everywhere. And if you enjoy lunch, don't fail to read it!"
--John Manley, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada

"With a breathtaking sweep, Empires of Food takes us on a rollicking culinary journey through the ecological history of civilization. The result is a rare treat: hard-hitting analysis cooked to read like a captivating novel. For pure pleasure or a deeper understanding of why civilizations rise and fall, it's a perfect choice for any curious mind."
--Peter Dauvergne, Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, author of The Shadows of Consumption

"This isn't just first class scholarship, it's energetic writing. Fraser and Rimas have a knack for the little detail that unveils the big thought. Empires of Food is a must-read for anyone who wants to know why every night a billion people got to bed obese and another billion go to bed hungry."
--George Alagiah, author of A Passage To Africa and A Home From Home

"Empires of Food is a panoramic and prescient book which presents the challenges that civilizations have faced with agricultural production and societal fashions for food. The authors approach the issue with refreshing pragmatism and urge us to move towards a "glocal" approach to consumption norms. Their compelling narrative recognizes the value of efficient global food systems while also appreciating the importance of local connections to reduce ecological impacts. Such a vision for our palates holds much promise in balancing the debate on food ethics and sustainable development."
--Saleem H. Ali, author of Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future

“In offering a compelling portrait of the interplay between imperial expansion and food systems across the millennia, Empires of Food lays before us the fragility of a 21st century food system beset by climate change, rising fuel costs and a shrinking agricultural frontier and wonders whether, like the empires of the past, we will sustain a delusion of a superabundance as we careen toward a world of famine and insecurity or whether we will we find the wisdom and the means to avert catastrophe.”

--Raymond C. Offenheiser, President, Oxfam America

"Forget the old stages of human history, the familiar stone, bronze, iron age sequence: University of Guelph geographer Fraser and journalist co-author Rimas make a convincing case that food—or rather, food surpluses—best explain the rise and fall of civilizations. If cultures produce more than farmers eat, and find a way to store, transport and exchange that extra, then urban centres can flourish. Trouble is, food empires have always, so far, grown to the limits of their carrying capacity, hanging on precariously until the weather changes or pests strike, and the whole thing collapses. It’s happened everywhere, as Fraser and Rimas demonstrate in their entertaining tour of past disasters. And maybe it’s happening again: in five of the past 10 years the world has eaten more than it has produced, causing us to draw down on our grain stocks. There may yet be a lot more food to wring out of technological progress; then again, there may not be." --Mclean's

"This is a book with a big thesis and panorama. Whether writing about ancient Rome, the Mayans, China, or mediaeval Europe, 19th century Britain and 20th century USA, the authors draw us inexorably to question whether the 21st century globalizing food system is poised to be punished for forgetting the laws of ecology. Fraser and Rimas propose that seemingly impregnable societies can falter and fail if they ignore the sustainability of their food supplies." --Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University, London

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books; 1 edition (June 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439101892
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439101896
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #843,548 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was planning to assign this book for my graduate "Food and Culture" class this fall - it looked like it would be a good start for the class, putting food in the grand sweep of human history. Last time I used "Feast" which turned out to be very uneven. I am very glad I had time to order the book and read it thoroughly before the start of the semester (yes, professors do indeed assign books they have not read thoroughly), because it gave me time to cancel the order. Why? Partially because of an issue of balance. Just because in the past too many historians and archaeologists have left food entirely out of their reconstructions of the past, the answer is not to write a book in which food explains everything. The book reminds me of the work of Jared Diamond, also a geographer without formal training in archaeology, anthropology or theories of human cultural evolution. So the book becomes a selective trek through human history with the goal of telling a pretty simple-minded story. People learn to grow food; they clear land and increase productivity so population grows. Eventually they overshoot their productivity, they exhaust the soil, there is some climate change and there is a famine. End of civilization. Now, this model is still a minority position in archaeology, but most of us who studied cultural ecology back in the 1970s read a lot of work which poked huge holes in the theory. It only stands up if you ignore the counter-cases, like Tokugawa Japan. Or if you totally ignore the life work of important human ecologists like Robert McC. Netting, who spent his career finding examples of civilizations which maintained high population densities through sustainable agriculture and population control.Read more ›
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Gosh but this book is bad. I started noting the historical inaccuracies, distortions and outright fibs but lost track. Here's a sampling (a small one):

- Apparently the population of Europe declined by half from 200 AD to 600 AD because of food. Um, possibly enormous civil wars, political collapse and the eruption of a plague that was as bad as the bubonic? I'm not even sure though who on earth was counting the population of Europe in 600 AD. In the same sentence we're told the city of Rome's population halved from 300 to 400 - um, yes, because Constantinople was founded as the new capital.

- Hideous, schoolboy factual inaccuracies, such as "when Diocletian split the Empire in two, Constantinople sucked the food supply East" - um, Constantinople was founded decades after Diocletian died. Seriously.

- Wilful distortion of dates: we're told in one sentence that the monastic food system had resulted in a surge of population "by the tenth century" which resulted (same para, no clarification of dates) in "universities being founded in oxford, etc.". You wouldn't know that about 300 years separated the tenth century and the foundation of universities. In the same section, they say that "Europe entered into hundreds of years of inflation" - they don't specify a starting date for this, but they seem to be referring to about 1300 or so. A few paragraphs later they mention that famine and disease caused prices to plummet by the second half of the 14th century. I mean, come on.

- The whole section on Mesopotamia seems to have been made up by the authors. No really. Their references in that section are thin, light and outdated, not to mention the fact that they got Sumer and Akkadia mixed up (this is like confusing England and France, or worse).
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Format: Hardcover
When I read this book, I kept thinking about the refrain from Ecclesiastes, "there is nothing new under the sun." It was really interesting to read about the food empires and systems from long ago, and then compare it to where we're at today. It was really well written, although I must confess to skimming over a bit of the more historical chapters. Although they were quite entertaining (the authors have a great sense of humor), I wanted to focus more on today. I suppose that's my American impatience coming through.

The book didn't provide any easy answers (surprise!), but I do feel like I learned more about the context of our food system, and it doesn't seem quite so overwhelming, which is kind of strange because the solutions proposed are a bit more macro in scale than the other books I've read recently but somehow it seems doable. If you don't mind a bit of historical detail, it's a great book to help you think through the systems theory of our "food empire" and puts into perspective the threats that everyone keeps talking about. It also provides great motivation for eating local.

disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher. I was not obligated to do a review nor did it influence my opinions.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Empires of Food was a feast for my grey-cells! I love reading well-written history books(while sipping a crisp Provence rose and nibbling on a slice of local goat's cheese).Fraser and Rimas made me think about the historical origins of these delicacies(monks in the Middle Ages),their impact on our planet,(emerging China,water,climate,and population growth)and my own role as a concerned citizen as I make choices as to what I eat and where to buy it. A must read for all who care about the future of our food supply and the health of our planet.
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