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Empires of Food

Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

List Price: $16.95

March 20, 2012 | Paperback | 6 x 9, 320 Pages | ISBN 9781582437934
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“A panoramic overview… plenty of enlightening stories… Spanning the whole of human civilization, this is a compelling read.” —Kirkus Starred Review

Using the colorful diaries of a sixteenth-century merchant as a narrative guide, Empires of Food vividly chronicles the fate of people and societies for the past 12,000 years through the foods they grew, hunted, traded, and ate—and offers fascinating, and devastating, insights into what to expect in years to come. In energetic prose, agricultural expert Evan D.G. Fraser and journalist Andrew capture the flavor of places as disparate as ancient Mesopotamia and imperial Britain, taking us from the first city in the once-thriving Fertile Crescent to today’s overworked breadbaskets and rice bowls in the United States and China.

Cities, culture, art, government, and religion were founded on the creation and exchange of food surpluses. Complex societies were built by shipping grain up rivers and into the stewpots of history’s generations. But evenutally, inevitably, the crops fail, the fields erode, or the temperature drops, and the center of power shifts. Cultures descend into dark ages of poverty, famine, and war.

A fascinating, fresh history told through the prism of the dining table, Empires of Food offers a grand scope and a provocative analysis of the world today, indispensable in this time of global warming and food crises.

Praise

“A panoramic overview… plenty of enlightening stories… Spanning the whole of human civilization, this is a compelling read.” —Kirkus Starred Review

“With a flavor of Jared Diamond, Empires of Food thoughtfully weaves religion, military history, and science into a historical arc of how food undergirds civilizations’ 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 Cook 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

“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 go to bed obese and another billion go to bed hungry.” —George Alagiah, author of A Passage to Africa and A Home from Home

“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 twenty-first-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 superabundance as we careen toward a world of famine and insecurity, or whether we will find the wisdom and the means to avert catastrophe.” —Raymond C. Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America

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

“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 U

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