Food for thought

Empires of Food" is a delightfully entertaining and sometimes disturbing history of the food trade as it relates to economic power among nations. If this sounds rather dry, it is emphatically not.

For one thing, authors Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas create vivid portraits of Mesopotamian food enterprises, irrigation projects, storage efforts, and the class and religious structure that supported a top-heavy bureaucracy and a god-like king. They write evocatively about the huge Roman metropolis of 1 million souls, each and every one eager for bread and wine. Digging deeply into the domination of Europe by Franciscans and Benedictines —Orders that solved the storage problem by perfecting fermentation — the authors paint brilliant portraits of times and places which, though far distant from ours, are not so much different. The production of food for cities, governments, armies, and eventually, empires, comes down, as it always does, to power.

The authors are, respectively, a professor of geography in Canada and a managing editor at the Improper Bostonian magazine. Together they have created a book that outlines the progressive commodification of food by nation states, while at the same time providing a fascinating overview of agricultural organization in four separate periods of history — the Roman Empire, the High Medieval Period, Imperial Britain, and the modern regime of highly technical, genetically engineered capitalist trade.

Fraser and Rimas weave their story of power and food into finer portraits of people like Francesco Carletti, a 16th-century Italian merchant and wanderer who managed, in his eventful lifetime, to circle the globe as a trader, visiting Panama, Peru, Mexico, the Philippines, Macao, Goa in India, Indonesia, the Cape of Good Hope, and, after being captured by Dutch privateers on St. Helena, the Netherlands. Carletti's story, which acts as a kind of fulcrum for the book, is not the only lovely portrait of a food trader, but it is the most vital and charismatic.

The writers are hardly dogmatists, but it is impossible to ignore the central lesson of food empires. Cities, civilizations and empires require huge amounts of storable, transferable, fungible food, edibles for masses of consumers, armies or slaves.

The story of corn, rice and wheat is the story of denuded hillsides, polluted rivers, wasted soil and exploited working classes. It isn't hard to see in barren, rocky mountains and plains of Greece, once forested and running with pure, crystalline streams of water, a Gulf of Mexico, destroyed in the pursuit of oil, shrimp and redfish. And it isn't hard to see in the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, essentially about access to the wheat-growing regions of North Africa and Egypt, a mirror image of the Japanese invasion of northern China in a search for access to food and energy or the struggle between Israel and Syria over the Golan.

The book grows grimmer as one nears the present. What with the world's population at 6 billion and climbing, fresh water access dwindling for increasing numbers of the poor in Africa, India and the Middle East, China's incessant push for material resources, and incipient global warming, one hardly wonders that the authors counsel caution.

After all, the earth tells us what it needs — diversity and sustainability. The modern agribusiness of corn and wheat monocultures, dripping with chemical pesticides and herbicides, awash in packaging and energy-inefficient, hardly qualifies. Draining our aquifers to grow corn to feed to cattle to slaughter the cattle to send porterhouse steaks to Japan hardly qualifies as sustainable. Yet the Empire demands such transactions and the national legislature readily provides the legal framework for huge, tax-subsidized, water-subsidized, capitalist organizations to exist and prosper. Naturally, big corporations like MacDonald's are more than ready to promote the obesity craze by advertising and selling their fat, salt and wheat as food to children and their compliant parents.

If there is a fault in the book it lies in the author's neglect of fishing and its related industries. And, on occasion, the writers indulge in flippancy, taking for granted the conclusions to be drawn from the points raised.

But overall "Empires of Food" combines agriculture, religion, economics and science into a formidable tale reminiscent of Jared Diamond's work on the rise and fall of civilizations from the point of view of natural resources.

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