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.


    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

    You May Like

    US, Somalia Launch New Chapter in Relations

    US sends first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years; diplomatic presence and forces pulled out in 1993, after 18 US soldiers were killed when militiamen shot down military helicopter

    Brexit Vote Ripples Across South Asia

    Experts say exit is likely to have far-reaching economic, political and social implications for a region with deep historic ties to Britain

    Russian Military Tests Readiness With Snap Inspections

    Some observers see surprise drill as tit-for-tat response to NATO’s recent multinational military exercises in Baltic region

    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.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapides’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora