The history of the decline of world powers is also a history of hunger.
In their new book, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of- Civilizations (Free Press) Canadian agriculture expert Evan Fraser and U.S. journalist Andrew Rimas examine how societies from the Roman empire to imperial Britain crumbled as their food supplies crashed.
And we may be facing the same fate, warns Dr. Fraser, a specialist in food security, senior lecturer at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds and soon-to-be professor of geography at the University of Guelph.
Dr. Fraser, who spent his childhood and teenage summers toiling on his grandfather's diversified vegetable farm west of Niagara Falls, Ont., says that history suggests that we need to alter the way we produce, store and consume our food before it's too late.
In your book, you identify three major mistakes made throughout history. Can you explain?
Food empires tend to emerge in periods of time when, over a couple of centuries, the climate's really quite nice. So the first assumption is that there is good weather, and there is always going to be good weather. Unfortunately, there isn't - human-induced climate change completely aside, the weather is cyclical.
The second one is food empires tend to expand when there's abundant unplowed, fertile, virgin soil all over the place. They expand by cutting trees down, plowing the fields, and grow quickly based on that initial explosion of productivity. That also isn't a sustainable, long-term strategy. In our society, we have masked this with our technology [in fertilization and irrigation] but there's serious doubts whether we'll be able to continue to do that.
The third assumption is more of an economic and ecological one. Farmers specialize on one or two things that they have a unique advantage in. That works on a relatively small scale. But when you say, "Let's turn all of the Midwest into a grain belt, and California into a tomato field," you end up with highly efficient systems, but no resilience. Pests, droughts, fires, that sort of thing cause very, very big problems.
Our landscapes are similar to Ireland before the potato famines?
Exactly. On a whole bunch of different scales, we have created very, very, specialized food producing landscapes. These highly, highly homogeneous landscapes are just accidents waiting to happen.
How have we repeated the mistakes of the Roman empire?
One of Rome's problems was trying to keep the cupboard full. In our world, we don't keep very much in the way of food in reserve from one year to the next. It's very expensive to store food, so business people and governments don't want to do it for any longer than they absolutely have to. But what that means is we don't have much of a buffer.
In 2008, which had come on the heels of a couple of bad harvests globally, when food prices started to go up, there were very few days left in the reserve of the global food supply. We were down to a very small amount of soybean stocks, and similarly, wheat and rice stocks were very, very, very tight that year.
It's the difference between having your grandmother with tons of food in the cold cellar, or me with a tiny little fridge and one bag of pasta on the shelf. It's that sort of thing on a grand scale.
Is it fair to say corporations hold the power in today's empire?
They do wield enormous power, these agri-industrial companies. This is especially apparent in the companies that produce the seeds, the chemicals that would be used to treat the seeds...and then [control]the end-of the-chain stuff, like buying the cows and slaughtering the cows. So almost all of the inputs and almost all of the value-added processing, post-farm stuff is controlled by a very, very small handful of companies.
How does that compare with the medieval European monasteries?
I think it's a very direct and good analogy. The monks, for example, owned all the mills, all the breweries, all the distilleries and were the only ones who could afford all the oxen and heavy plows that were used to farm. And the peasants found themselves increasingly marginalized and removed from the land.
So what can we learn from the monasteries' failures?
Those monasteries grew very powerful and very large by exerting all this influence, but ... they also created this highly specialized landscape that couldn't sustain the decline in temperature that happened. Diseases were able to travel very, very quickly.
So I think the lesson of the monks is that we need to be wary of the power those agencies wield in creating this fragile food system, and we need a food system far more diverse in its landscape, a far lighter touch on the soil, and built specifically to keep it resilient to climate change.
Is such a thing as a sustainable food empire possible?
I don't think in the very long term, because at some point, soils get exhausted and climates change. I think what is sustainable is something where we accept that we need trade, we need specialization, we need technology for some commodities, some of our grains and whatnot, but we need to think very carefully about how we produce those.
And for things like vegetables and livestock, we really want to focus on local food. So, we need a nested system that has a little bit of the global and a lot of the local.
Wency Leung is a writer with Globe Life.