News / USA

History Repeats Itself with Rising Food Prices

New book explores feast, famine and the fate of civilizations

'Empires of Food' author Evan Fraser says the sharp rise in food prices in 2008 and the food riots that followed remind him of the period leading up to the bloody French Revolution. (Prise du palais des Tuileries by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux)
'Empires of Food' author Evan Fraser says the sharp rise in food prices in 2008 and the food riots that followed remind him of the period leading up to the bloody French Revolution. (Prise du palais des Tuileries by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux)

Multimedia

Audio

Today's steep rises in food prices, driven up by Russia's drought-devastated wheat harvest, present a worrying echo of the past for the authors of a new book.

In "Empires of Food,"  the authors say civilizations rise and fall on the backs of their food supplies, and the modern world is repeating mistakes that led earlier empires to fall.

Co-author Evan Fraser teaches sustainable development at the University of Leeds in England. But if he had his way, he would have liked to have been born in the Middle Ages.

"Being born somewhere around 1240, 1250 in Western Europe - relative to the centuries before or after that - was actually a really nice time," he says.

Medieval bounty

It was a time of high culture, when great cathedrals were built and renowned universities were founded. The society fed itself through a sophisticated continent-wide trading system, where each region specialized in a few crops and transported them to far-flung markets.

'Empires of Food,' by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas
'Empires of Food,' by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas

Fraser gives much of the credit to networks of monasteries across Europe, whose monks had spent the preceding few centuries cutting down Europe's forests with evangelistic zeal.  He says that newly deforested land was tremendously fertile and productive.

"They created this huge amount of food that allowed people to move to the cities and created enough wealth in society that people could invest in universities and build cathedrals," he says. "So that was great."

But it wouldn't last. The soils wore out. Productivity declined. And then, Fraser says, "1315 comes along. The weather started to cool a bit. A bunch of rains destroy the crop. Fifteen percent of Europe dies suddenly over a four-year period in a series of catastrophic famines."

Where they went wrong

Europe had over-extended itself, he says. And it wasn't the first society to do so. In "Empires of Food," Fraser says this arc repeats itself over and over throughout history, from Mesopotamia to Rome to Han dynasty China and beyond: Civilizations grow when the weather is good and soil is fertile. Their farmers specialize in a few crops and trade for the rest of their needs with faraway suppliers.

But farmers eventually exhaust the soil. Climate changes. And when crops fail, specialized agriculture and faraway suppliers become a liability.

And Fraser says we're doing it all over again today.

"The reason we wrote the book," he says, "is that we haven't learned these lessons. The modern world is committing the same series of mistakes that the Sumerians, or the ancient Chinese, or the ancient Romans, or the medieval monks all made."

Fraser is among those who say modern agriculture's reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and vast fields of single crops is not sustainable. With the predictions for climate change, he says, it's time to make some changes. Those include a shift away from globalized, industrialized agriculture toward more organic and local production methods.

Food crises past and present

He says the sharp rise in food prices in 2008 and the food riots that followed remind him of the decades preceding the bloody French Revolution in the 18th century.

"Historically speaking, when these things are allowed to progress unchecked, one of the first symptoms is inflation and one of the last and most extreme symptoms is civil war," he says.

It doesn't always end that way, he adds, but 2008 should serve as a warning.

Scientific solution

"Some of the points he makes are very valid," says Fran Pierce, professor of crop science at Washington State University and president of the American Society of Agronomy.

"We're not going to have more water than we have right now," he says. "We're not going to have more land than we have right now. Our fertilizers are not infinite. And our fuel and energy sources are not going to be there the way they are right now. Those are all true. He's correct there."

But, Pierce says, Fraser left out an important factor. "He doesn't talk about what we've been able to do when we've applied scientific principles to the production of food and fiber and feed."

Pierce notes that scientists made major advances in food production in the last half-century that averted famine in large parts of the world. And we're more technologically advanced than ever before, he says. So he's hopeful that science can help avert the next major famine and keep our modern societies from suffering the fate of food empires of the past.

You May Like

IS Militants Release 49 Turkish Hostages

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reports that no ransom was paid and no conditions accepted for the hostages' release; few details of the release are known More

Photogallery IS Attacks Send Thousands of Syrian Kurds Fleeing to Turkey

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 300 Kurdish fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey to defend a Kurdish area from attack by the Islamic militants More

Video Sierra Leone's Ebola Lockdown Continues

Thousands of health workers are going door to door in the West African country of 6 million, informing people of how to avoid Ebola, handing out soap More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’i
X
Jeff Seldin
September 20, 2014 10:28 PM
Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid