A panoramic overview of the vulnerability of global food networks to climate change.
In a follow-up to their previous collaboration, Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World (2008), Fraser (Environmental Studies/Leeds Univ.) and Improper Bostonian managing editor Rimas draw important lessons from the past to inform their study. “For 8000 years, food empires have expanded as far as transport and topsoil and market would allow,” they write, only to collapse when faced with the effects of inevitable climate shifts exacerbated by erosion, the deterioration of irrigation systems and the failure to maintain adequate storage facilities. Their message is stark: “A sustainable food empire can only exist if most of its farms are smallish, diverse and serving customers not too far away.” The shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies helped create the emergence of large-scale farming of a few cash crops and laid the foundation for the expansion of major empires. Food became a commodity and only profit counted. In today’s global economy, “urbanites around the world rely on just a handful of crops—wheat, maize, rice, and soy—to provide the majority of our nutrition,” and these are usually grown in just a few primary areas (“Ukraine, the Great Plains and China’s river valleys”) Overuse of fertilizers and pesticides threaten productivity, and if oil supplies disappear, fertilizer will become unavailable and “[t]hree billion people would lose their daily sustenance.” A two-degree rise in temperature would also bring the specter of mass famine despite “all [our] technological talent.” Though the topic is serious, the authors provide plenty of enlightening stories, including the adventures of a 16th-century Italian merchant who spent 15 years circumnavigating the globe, and the work of St. Benedict of Nursia, who established a network of monasteries that became “a nucleus of industry and food production,” producing agricultural surpluses, creating commercial networks and promoting technological advances such as iron plows and the use of oxen.
Spanning the whole of human civilization, this is a compelling read for foodies, environmentalists and social and economic historians.