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

Video In Ukraine's Nikishino, No House Untouched by Fighting

Ninety percent of homes in one small village were damaged or destroyed as government forces failed to stop a rebel advance More

Pakistan’s 'Last Self-Declared Jew' Attacked, Detained

Argument about the rights of non-Muslims in Pakistan allegedly results in mob beating well-known Jewish Pakistani More

Turkey Cracks Down on Political Dissent, Again

People daring to engage in political dissent ahead of upcoming general elections could find themselves in jail 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.
In Their Own Words: Citizens of Kobanii
X
Mahmoud Bali
March 06, 2015 8:43 PM
Civilians are slowly returning to Kobani, after Kurdish fighters backed by coalition airstrikes fought off a four-month siege of the northern Syrian town by Islamic State militants. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Mahmoud Bali talked to some of those who have returned. We hear about the devastation of Kobani through their own words.
Video

Video In Their Own Words: Citizens of Kobani

Civilians are slowly returning to Kobani, after Kurdish fighters backed by coalition airstrikes fought off a four-month siege of the northern Syrian town by Islamic State militants. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Mahmoud Bali talked to some of those who have returned. We hear about the devastation of Kobani through their own words.
Video

Video In Ukraine's Nikishino, No House Untouched by Fighting

In the village of Nikishino, in eastern Ukraine, recent fighting has brought utter devastation. Ninety percent of the houses are damaged or destroyed after government forces tried and failed to stop rebels advancing on the strategically important town of Debaltseve nearby. Patrick Wells reports for VOA from Nikishino.
Video

Video Crime Scenes Re-Created in 3-D Visualization

Police and prosecutors sometimes resort to re-creations of crime scenes in order to better understand the interaction of all participants in complicated cases. A Swiss institute says advanced virtual reality technology can be used for quality re-creations of events at the moment of the crime. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Sierra Leone Ebola Orphans Face Another Crisis

There's growing concern about the future of an orphanage run by a British charity in Sierra Leone, after a staff member and his wife died this week from Ebola. The Saint George Foundation Orphanage in Freetown is now in quarantine, with more than 20 children and seven staff in lock-down. The BBC has agreed to share Ebola-related material with Voice of America because of the difficulties faced by media organizations reporting the crisis. Clive Myrie reports from Sierra Leone.
Video

Video Growing Concerns Over Whether Myanmar’s Next Elections Will Be Fair

Myanmar has scheduled national elections for November that are also expected to include a landmark referendum on the country's constitution. But there are growing concerns over whether the government is taking the necessary steps to prepare for a free and fair vote. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman was recently in Myanmar and files this report from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.
Video

Video Nigeria’s Ogonis Divided Over Resuming Oil Production

More than two decades ago, Nigeria’s Ogoni people forced Shell oil company to cease drilling on their land, saying it was polluting the environment. Now, some Ogonis say it’s time for the oil to flow once again. Chris Stein reports from Kegbara Dere, Nigeria.
Video

Video Fuel Shortages in Nigeria Threaten Election Campaigns

Nigeria is suffering a gas shortage as the falling oil price has affected the country’s ability to import and distribute refined fuels. Coming just weeks before scheduled March 28 elections, the shortage could have a big impact on the campaign, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA.
Video

Video Report: Human Rights in Annexed Crimea Deteriorating

A new report by Freedom House and the Atlantic Council of the United States says the human rights situation in Crimea has deteriorated since the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March of last year. The report says the new authorities in Crimea are discriminating against minorities, suppressing freedom of expression, and forcing residents to assume Russian citizenship or leave. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video 50 Years Later African-Americans See New Voting Rights Battles Ahead

Thousands of people will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic civil rights march on March 7th in Selma, Alabama. In 1965, dozens of people were seriously injured during the event known as “Bloody Sunday,” after police attacked African-American demonstrators demanding voting rights. VOA’s Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights pioneers who are still fighting for voting rights in Alabama more than 50 years later.
Video

Video Craft Brewers Taking Hold in US Beer Market

Since the 1950’s, the U.S. beer industry has been dominated by a handful of huge breweries. But in recent years, the rapid rise of small craft breweries has changed the American market and, arguably, the way people drink beer. VOA’s Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More