New Book Explores How, Why Food Shapes the World

June 21, 2010 - News Release

Well-meant initiatives such as Barack Obama's Feed the Future and "buy local" efforts will not end the world's food crisis, according to a University of Guelph professor.

Evan Fraser, a new U of G geography professor and agricultural expert, explores why such one-solution plans historically fail in his just-published book, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilization.

Written with U.S. journalist Andrew Rimas, the book looks at how and why human culture depends on food, what happens when a culture runs out of it and what can be expected in years to come.

For example, Fraser says the U.S. president’s plan and others focus on struggling countries' reliance on crop specialization and exportation. “It’s a dangerous strategy,” he said, adding that overspecialization damages land, producing less bountiful harvests.

“Then the food is exported, taken out of the regions where it is needed most. Essentially, it means you feed the rich, and the people who are starving starve faster. History has shown us this over and over again.”

And “buy local” movements that encourage people to purchase goods produced within a 100-mile radius put too much pressure on regions to produce everything for everyone. “When you try to do everything yourself, you end up doing nothing well,” he said.

In the book, Fraser and Rimas explain how it’s possible that, in an era of astounding agricultural productivity, groundbreaking technology and genetically modified crops, food supplies are in peril.

It’s a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” said Fraser. Throughout history, cities, culture, arts, government and even religion have been founded on the creation and exchange of food surpluses. “But eventually, inevitably, the crops fail, the fields erode or the temperature drops.” The result is famine, poverty and devastation, he said.

Using the colourful diaries of a 17th-century food merchant as a guide, Fraser and Rimas chronicle the fate of people and societies for the past 12,000 years through the foods that they grew, hunted, traded and ate. This includes discussing the shift that took place about 10,000 years ago from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settled agriculture, which they say wiped out soil’s fertility. They then chronicle food’s cyclic history, covering everything from how medieval monks traded beer and cheese as they spread Christianity through Europe to the French famine that sparked a revolution to California’s emergence as a produce supplier of America.

The authors also delve into why and how today’s environment is paying the price for practices of the past. “In the 20th century, there was plenty of good weather, abundant soil and fertilizer, things grew, and there was bountiful supply,” said Fraser.

“But the lessons of history cannot be avoided, and what we experienced in the 20th century will not be repeated in the 21st century. Soil is eroding and degrading all over the world, we’ve created an extremely inefficient and highly fragile monoculture, and we have more people than we have food.”

To make a difference, governments will have to step up efforts in everything from labelling to regulations, he said. “And we need to get the consumers as excited about food as they are about things such as the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s cool and exciting to be engaged with food.”

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