Empires of Food
Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas
Free Press, 2010
Predicting the end of the world has become something of a trend lately. Everyone's doing it. Whether it's global warming, alien attacks or mass pandemics, the fragility of modern society seems to be troubling people who like to put pen to paper and sell their books in shops. Rimas and Fraser are no different, except that they're looking at the issue in an unusual way - in the context of food.
And it's a seemingly sensible argument - well grounded in historical trends. Since the neolithic revolution 10,000 years ago, civilisations have thrived and perished as a direct result of agricultural flourish and failure. The patterns are frighteningly repetitive, and have been around as long as agriculture itself. We farm, we improve our technique, we exploit the land until it's dry, and then we starve.
Attempts to safety-blanket civilisation and so break this process are not new either. The Roman horreum was one of the most impressive attempts to prevent starvation caused by poor harvests. The horrea were stocked with enough food to supply Rome's million-strong population for seven years when emperor Septimius Severus died in 211 AD, but his forward-planning was not continued for long by his successors - and so the Empire starved.
Rimas and Fraser use historic case studies such as this, along with some unpleasant mathematics, to dish out inconvenient truths about the state of today's global food supply. Unsustainability is the buzz word of the moment - and it's particularly pertinent to a rapidly expanding global population who need feeding. Yet it doesn't seem to ruffle the feathers of the ordinary, Starbucks-slurping, vintage cheddar and balsamic onion panini-munching western individuals - ï¿½The New Gluttonists", as Rimas and Fraser call them. ï¿½Eating is what animals do, but humans do it beautifully", is one of my favourite lines from the borderline Neo-Malthusian pair.
The crux of their argument is that the long-standing dangers of over-consumption that we all know about, and yet choose to ignore (to our peril), are still very much with us today. It's all very insightful and interesting, but simultaneously frustrating and depressing. Should I feel guilty the next time I order a fish supper and a bottle of wine? Or should I lick the plate clean and order two desserts, just in case tomorrow the cod population disappears, grapes shrivel in the heat of global warming and cocoa beans become diseased? I've read the book and I still don't know.