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

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  313 ratings  ·  44 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
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published June 15th 2010 by Atria Books
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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
Oct 05, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
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
Evan Fraser
Mar 15, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)
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
Sep 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
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.
Mar 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 11, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
Louis Bouchard
Jan 17, 2013 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
Jul 18, 2014 rated it liked it
"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
Jan 18, 2012 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
Sep 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 22, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Nov 13, 2012 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 preve
Maxime Ouellet-payeur
Dec 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Chris Nitsch
Jan 06, 2011 rated it liked it
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.
Oct 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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.
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 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.
Jason Ruggles
Jun 18, 2011 rated it liked it
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.

Sep 26, 2011 added it
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.
Feb 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.
Jun 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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??
Jul 09, 2010 rated it really liked it
A 5 for content -- but oh my gosh this book is depressing. Does a good job of tying together lots of strands of evidence and keeping things interesting. Oh, and please support diversified/sustainable/organic/low fossil fuel farming. No, really. Please.
Oct 02, 2010 rated it liked it
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.
Oct 15, 2010 rated it liked it
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.
Frank Harris
Mar 01, 2012 rated it it was ok
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.
Feb 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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.
Fredrick Danysh
Feb 09, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
The abundance or scarcity of food has been an important factor in the rise and fall of civilizations. The authors look at how technologial advances and soil depletion affect available food and thus the civilizations.
« previous 1 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Why our agricultural empire will fall 1 5 Aug 26, 2010 09:30AM  
Global Food Security, local food, and the pending food crisis 1 2 Jul 28, 2010 05:44PM  
AOL coverage on the pending food crisis 1 3 Jul 19, 2010 02:33PM  
discussions on the history of food and sustainablity 1 4 Jul 08, 2010 12:18PM  
Is Local and Organic Really the Answer? 1 3 Jun 30, 2010 11:32PM  
Blog on food and sustainability 1 3 Jun 25, 2010 01:48AM  
New Review for Empires of Food 1 4 Jun 25, 2010 01:42AM  

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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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