In Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, authors Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas examine current problems with the global food system by taking a look at examples from world history. The authors, who previously wrote Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World, show the reader how current problems in the food system and the environment are not unique to today’s world, but are similar to problems faced by civilizations throughout history. Fraser and Rimas examine how both governments and individuals in modern times are repeating the same mistakes that caused the downfall of some of the most powerful empires in history.
The Roman Empire is a key example in Empires of Food that illustrates the extent to which a population’s access to food factored into the success or failure of a civilization. According to the authors, Romans waged wars, enacted powerful naval laws, and depleted their surrounding lands in the name of providing food for the Empire’s citizens. Toward the Empire’s collapse, when food became scarce, peasants were driven to rioting in the streets by starvation, and foreign invaders took over. The authors of the book do not necessarily suggest that entire countries will fall to invaders because of insufficient food supplies, but they do indicate that future wars will be fought over food and water resources if the world continues to produce food in an unsustainable way and waste water resources.
The authors go on to examine some of the often-overlooked pieces of the food system, such as fertilization, preservation, and soil. Many readers would probably be surprised to know how controversial bird dung became in the mid-1800s, or how one man set out to bring ice for food preservation from North America to India by boat. Although arguments about bird feces and shipping ice across the Pacific may no longer be relevant to the modern food system, the authors make connections to the current debates over potentially poisonous fertilizers and the intensive use of fossil fuels in preservation methods. These examples illustrate the overall message in Empires of Food; that the root problem of how to feed people sustainably has not changed significantly over time, and that the global population continues to make the same mistakes. Fraser and Rimas believe that by learning from centuries of errors, it is possible to change the food system today to avoid the fate of extinct civilizations.