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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs