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Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

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3.79  ·  Rating Details ·  243 Ratings  ·  39 Reviews
We are what we eat: this aphorism contains a profound truth about civilization, one that has played out on the world historical stage over many millennia of human endeavor.

Using the colorful diaries of a sixteenth-century merchant as a narrative guide, Empires of Food vividly chronicles the fate of people and societies for the past twelve thousand years through the foods
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ebook, 320 pages
Published June 15th 2010 by Atria Books
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(showing 1-30)
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Susan Albert
The most comprehensive book to date on the history of food systems and their important (and usually neglected) role in the collapse of civilizations. "The lesson from history," the authors write, "is that big civilizations are built on ground no firmer than the mud under their rice paddies. They, and we, are slaves to food."

Food empires? The authors are talking about the networks of a civilization's farms, plantations, orchards; its imports from abroad; its processing plants; and its distributio
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Michael
Oct 05, 2010 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I gave the book four stars because it is well written and serves a very important purpose. It provides an introduction to the concept of unsustainable food production as the basis of our civilization. Because it is entertaining and non-technical, it offers an entry point for readers who may not yet understand that we are all food insecure and that unchecked population growth and global climate change are leading us toward a bottleneck for human beings. Not all of us will get through it, and thos ...more
Keith Akers
Aug 23, 2010 Keith Akers rated it it was ok
The basic outline of the book is good and the authors cover a lot of material in a basically competent way. Furthermore, this is an important subject. The positives of the book are that they basically discuss the history of food during all of world history. I especially liked the discussion of the guano wars (or near wars) of the 19th century. They discuss key issues like "fair trade" and "organic."

Also, the book is entertainingly written. You won't fall asleep. I thought that their conceit of f
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Evan Fraser
Mar 15, 2010 Evan Fraser rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)  ·  review of another edition
As the author of this book I can't help but encourage everyone to read it. But I'm biased. So, I'll quote some advanced praise for the book:

"A panoramic overview of the vulnerability of global food networks to climate change....draws important lessons from the past....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
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Racie
Sep 16, 2010 Racie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book will be interesting to anyone who is a fan of learning food history; if you liked Omnivore's Dilemma then I think this will be right up your alley. The authors write history that flows like poetry and the story is told in a very interesting and compelling way. My one complaint is that it isn't written chronologically, which normally does not bother me but in this case didn't seem to contribute to the story and so was distracting to the point.
Laurie
Mar 25, 2015 Laurie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was loath to put this book down once I started it. It held my interest like a well-crafted novel would- for the most part. The author’s premise is that empires expand when they have good sources of food (mainly grain), and then, when the food sources fail the empire collapses. They present the Mayans, Mesopotamia, the Romans, the British Empire, modern China, and modern America among others, and they paint a pretty scary picture.

Sadly, their scholarship doesn’t match their writing. The Britis
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AJ
I didn't enjoy this book, but maybe it's mostly because I've already read at least 10,000 books about food, history, sustainability, the environment, organics, and every permutation of those subjects. That said I did learn a couple of new things so it wasn't a total waste of time.

Fraser and Rimas try to pepper the narrative with tales of Francesco Carletti, a 16/17th Century entrepreneur who traveled the world to make and lose a fortune on the food trade. I found the story interesting but largel
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Louis Bouchard
Jan 17, 2013 Louis Bouchard rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book was very disappointing.
It makes an argument for a Malthusian trap based on agricultural collapse, and does so poorly.

The argument is based around the fact that there have been historic agricultural collapses, but ignores the larger long lasting, and ongoing trend toward both an increase in agricultural productivity and total output.
The authors mention relevant factors such as top soil loss, soil depletion, and soil salinity, however they seem to be unaware of how these are mitigated by
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Chuck
Jul 18, 2014 Chuck rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilization" by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas discusses food related issues through out history.

The book generally follows a format where each chapter covers an historical anecdote and then has a short discussion on some general historical food related issue, such as soil depletion. Often the anecdotes are from the world travels of a 16th Century European merchant.

The book certainly has tremendous color, good writing, and global view
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Maria
Jan 18, 2012 Maria rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked "Empires of Food", because it provides a good-to-read introduction into our current problemn of food production and consumption, giving a lot of thought on how to change your own attitude towards food and agricultural goods.
The historical background is well researched, although as an archaeologist I had some serious problems with the writing of these historical parts that seemed to me a little bit too flimsy and easy going. I know, in order to make other people understand the essence of
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Andrew
Sep 29, 2010 Andrew rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a well-written, well-researched book that gives a good overview of the role food has played in the collapse of civilizations. It also does a fine job of comparing the delusions of our current civilization about our own food security with the delusions of these past civilizations, leaving the reader with some obvious implications without overstating their case for an imminent food collapse in the modern world. I actually wish this book were longer, since you can tell some of the more fasc ...more
Joan
Jul 22, 2010 Joan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read a book a couple years ago called the end of food, which was about the world needing better ways to get food. This one compared our current empire to past ones. I must say, I'm not recalling much of the ancient information, but it's good to know that all empires have struggled with the food situation. So therefore, knowing that we could fail as a civlization because of food strikes me as fascinating because I kind of see obesity in America's future for awhile. And Africa is struggling with ...more
brotagonist
Feb 15, 2015 brotagonist rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book takes a look at how food production and availability has governed the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history. Man has conquered problems of spoilage, drought, delivery, etc., but never without straining the bounty of the planet. It illustrates how fragile is our current food empire... that it is perilously close to collapse, unless a major change in the way food is produced is implemented. Perhaps this kind of message is sounding redyed, but you need to read it. It is a very ...more
Ron
Nov 08, 2011 Ron rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
A dreadful bore of a book that has been done so much better by Jared Diamond and others. Fraser is a geologist and may have some interesting things to say about soil, but his lack of experience with humanity and the humanities is evidenced by the fact that he utilized the journalist Rimas to ghost write the book. Sadly, Rimas is an utterly abysmal writer who can't make the science interesting or sensible. The book is also undercut by the fact that Fraser has a very bland, mainstream view of hist ...more
Maxime Ouellet-payeur
Dec 19, 2012 Maxime Ouellet-payeur rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food
Well-made book, with an excellent background on the history of food empires. This talks about agricultural history and how food made entire nations rise and fall. If this topic interests you, you will like to read the book.

However, the end, where the authors talk about the current perspectives of our food empire is lacking. I believe the authors spent more time researching the history of food empires and are unable to foresee the future of ours. But their conclusion (that our food system will, e
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Jennah
Nov 13, 2012 Jennah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition


A well written, fascinating view of the rise and fall of civilizations through their food production systems with a foreshadowing of a similar fate in our own future. The story is interwoven with the diaries of a merchant witnessing the dawn of truly global food trade/distribution and tales of individual geographical exploitations (and the subsequent busts of those areas). It is told with an impassioned plea for awareness of the global food future we are creating and what must be done to preven
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Asma
it was a good book. it gave basic information about history of food and the way it was cultivated from ancient civilizations till the modern world. i found that there was many information repetition. plus it gave just brief insight on certain problems facing some countries and then i get surprised to find some of those problems discussed in depth on other chapters. in other words there was no balance of information.
Dave Stark
Apr 10, 2012 Dave Stark rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2014
One of the most interesting books I have ever read. Most "this is why our civilization is unsustainable" books focus on pollution or global warming or dwindling oil supplies or disease outbreaks but this book looks at lessons from history and says that our current lifestyle/civilization will fail because at some point we will run out of food. As they note, this won't cause an Armageddon, more like a gradual shrinking of current population levels.
Chris Nitsch
Very well written history of food. It is great for anyone who is interested in the historical aspect of food, but not so good for anyone looking for a platform. The authors do a good job of delivering a cyclical history, but offer no insite in where we are heading, which is fine. If you shop local and have been, it isn't a surprising book, but for those who don't (who will never read the book anyway) it is eye opening.
Mundi
Oct 09, 2011 Mundi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you have any of your own cultural roots in the soil, if you know a farmer, if you wonder where your produce comes from, or simply if you EAT, this book will be of value to you. The authors clearly delineate the historical cycle that humans have committed against their environment over and over again. I wonder, can we learn from this history of empires, or are we doomed to repeat it? Well researched.
Kari
Feb 08, 2013 Kari rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book combines history and food, two of my favorite things. It's an interesting follow up to "Guns, Germs, and Steel" as it explores the ancient food empires, then brings in the state of our food system today. The conclusion felt a bit loose and rushed, but I can't really disagree with anything that was written.
Carol
The more things change, the more they stay the same. It isn't surprising that the GATT works the same way as the ancient Roman Empire, and other empires. The most interesting part for me were the last couple of chapters about Fair Trade, Organic agriculture, and the Slow Food Movement. The subject is treated in a pretty balanced way.
Aimee
Jun 07, 2013 Aimee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars

I don't know if I agree that food is the main reason for empire expansion ambitions (rather than the fuel to make it happen), but the authors do make an interesting case. It will certainly change the way you look at the politics of food production, food distribution, and the environment.
James Montgomery
Feb 08, 2015 James Montgomery rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very good book and well worth the read. The cynic in me though has trouble with this story of how human populations have grown throughout history, outstripped the land and subsequently contracted with massive drop offs in population...written by someone with three children. Pot calls kettle black. C'mon, ironic yes??
Jason Ruggles
Jun 18, 2011 Jason Ruggles rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food
This book was very interesting. A bit sporadic, though. There was a running narrative throughout the book on some Italian merchant that always seemed like a stretch. Still, even that part was interesting. The book is very doom and gloom with an upbeat attitude. It's basically saying we're all going to die, but that's ok.

Tlaloc
Oct 15, 2010 Tlaloc rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: social-sciences
Enlightening, more from a historical perspective than a modern day one. So now I can better appreciate the food-distribution prowess of the ancients, but I don't think it'll help me keep food on the table should we have scarce times ahead.
Katie
Oct 02, 2010 Katie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, food
Pretty solid. They certainly have a message that they want you to see: our food system is unstable and in for a bad time, which has clear parallels in history. The style wore on my a bit, as they sort of harp on that theme a lot.
Henry
Jan 22, 2015 Henry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ah! We forget, since history is written by the winning great men, that we learn a chronicle of names and dates, when, as Evan Fraser make clear, food is the real driver of civilizations. And, their collapse.
Beth
Feb 01, 2014 Beth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food, sustainability
Great summary of historical food supply issues that mirror those we face in modern times. The incessant metaphors and similes were obnoxious, but in the end the data and stories made it a worthwhile read.
Frank Harris
Mar 01, 2012 Frank Harris rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: educational
Very interesting, but very depressing. I wish there was more positives and solutions scattered throughout, instead of just tacked on in the last chapter or so; as it was, I was just desperately looking forward to the historical trivia amongst all the doomsaying.
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Most of my professional work — which is either about analyzing data and writing papers for other academics or researching the history of food for popular books — comes out of my lifelong involvement with nature and the environment. This began in kindergarten, where I horrified teachers and amazed fellow students by bringing in pickled moose bits I had dissected with my naturalist father while acco ...more
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“The aristocrats had to force them to do their jobs. After all, human beings are not badgers. We aren't molded to stoop.” 2 likes
“Eating connects us to our histories as much as it connects our souls to our bodies, our bodies to the earth.” 1 likes
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