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The Group Talks with Authors > " Empire of Food " by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas

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message 1: by M (last edited Mar 30, 2010 01:58PM) (new)

M (wwwgoodreadscomprofilem) | 337 comments The documentary film " Food Inc " directed by Robert Kenner investigates in the primary phase of the chain, right into the animal factories and agricultural fields.

Do you think that consumers can actively promote sustainable production by buying the right food three times a day?

A lot of Americans reason that they cannot beat fast food prices by cooking themselves, because a hamburger is cheaper than a piece of broccoli. We know a similar situation in a lot of European countries.
What do you think about the prize of fruits and vegetables ? Which kind of elementary product information do we need to buy food?


message 2: by Evan (new)

Evan Fraser | 6 comments Michelle,

Thanks for starting this good discussion. Maybe an interesting way of answering your question – “What are we eating?” – is to start with the old cliché, “we are what we eat” and then work backwards to food. So what are we? In my opinion, we are all the products of a throw-away consumer society that is addicted to cheap fossil energy and has little regard for the social or environmental costs of our behaviour. The food we eat, by and large, mirrors this. Michael Pollan articulates this beautifully in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals especially where he shows the part corn starch and corn syrup play in the modern food industry.

But in many ways, I worry that this conversation we’re having risk’s missing an even bigger point: the un-sustainability of the modern food system is nothing new and major civilizations across history have fallen into the same rut as we have (less the part about fossil fuels – they are obviously a modern issue).

Consider this: whether we’re talking about modern America or ancient Rome, complex urban society can only emerge if three things happen. (1) Farmers need to grow more food than they eat (thus providing a surplus for urbanites to live on); (2) they need a means of trading it to willing buyers in the city; and (3) they need a way to store food so it doesn't dissolve into sludge before reaching its destination. When these three premises are met, urban life flourishes and people (like me) are spared a life of working the soil and can engage in e-discussions about food.

But I’m worried because complex urban societies have a tendency to grow past sustainable boundaries until they implode. For instance, urban societies (including I think our own) often grow large during a period of good weather but when the climate turns foul they hastily shrink (let me know if anyone is interested in specific examples on this point). Or an urban society may form by creating specialist producers to feed its hungry cities. But this means cities depend on huge monocultures that are vulnerable to droughts, floods, and pests. Or urban societies may form by continually ploughing fresh soil and reaping a short-term surplus that then dwindles as the soil becomes exhausted.

But this discussion leads right back to the basic problem of what should we eat. And this, then becomes a very tricky question because every type of “food system” I can imagine comes with some very serious negatives. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this though and engaging more thoroughly on this topic.

Cheers!

Evan


message 3: by M (last edited May 02, 2010 01:30PM) (new)

M (wwwgoodreadscomprofilem) | 337 comments Evan,

Thanks for your post, the different points that you have developed about the question " What are we eating" ? . The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan is an excellant book. I'll also recommend Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.
I totally agree with you about this fact " we are all the products of a throw-away consumer society that is addicted to cheap fossil energy and has little regard for the social or environmental costs of our behaviour " But, is it only our own responsability? Do we need more informations about the food system, the quality of food ? In my opinion, It's a part of your question " What should we eat ?

Could you give us more details about the similar points between " our modern food sytem and the major civilizations across history which have fallen into the same rut as we have " ?
What do you think about the situation of the food system between developing and developed countries?

" Consider this: whether we’re talking about modern America or ancient Rome, complex urban society can only emerge if three things happen. (1) Farmers need to grow more food than they eat (thus providing a surplus for urbanites to live on) "

Why do farmers need to produce more? How and where are redistributed the surplus?
What are the consequences for food quality and health of a surplus that depleted soils?

Cheers!

Michelle


message 4: by Evan (new)

Evan Fraser | 6 comments Michelle,

With regard to the question of how past civilizations have fallen into the same “rut” as us, a good example (but by no means the only example) is the Roman Empire. It developed a massively complex large-scale food system based on shipping grain, olive oil, fish products and wine from all over the Mediterranean, Northern and Eastern Europe, and North Africa to Italy. This system exploited producers and abused the environment to keep food costs low. The system expanded during a period that climatologists have named “the Roman Warm Period”, a point of time when weather patterns were much like the 20th century. However, the system could only support itself by growing. This was because of a number of feedbacks. Consider the following progression:
(1) as Rome (and the other cities) grew they needed to be fed;
(2) while the soil was fertile this could be achieved locally;
(3) as the local soil degraded rural wages declined and some people moved into the city, thus increasing the city’s demand for food;
(4) this created an outward pressure to expand to new areas;
(5) new areas were brought under cultivation but as they too became infertile rural wages declined, more people moved to the city in search of jobs and the pressure to expand mounted.
(6) This continued until the end of the Roman Warm period when the productivity of the entire continent declined and (to mis-quote Yeats) the centre couldn’t hold and anarchy was loosed on the land.

Now, of course these six brief points are a massive simplification so if you are interested in following this line of reasoning up, I can provide ample academic references that elaborate on this. Or you could look up my new book when it’s out later this year.

To be honest, I worry that the situation today is all that different. Although we now use fossil fuel rather than slave labour as the main energy input to our food system, in most other ways, I think that our food system and the one that kept the Roman citizen in bread and olive oil share striking similarities.

Consider the recent media about how major Western, Asian and Arab multi-nationals are buying up large tracts of land in Africa in anticipation of declining domestic yields and rising domestic demand for food (http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/201...). How different is this than the Roman Empire annexing Gaul or Iberia to use as grain fields? If we agree that there are similarities between Rome at its peak and today, I suppose the real question is “how do we prevent a repeat of the 4th century” when life became much more difficult for millions of people.

The answer to this question has to be a mixture of a local food system, where many products are bought and sold within relatively small geographic boundaries, and a global system where regions are allowed to specialize and trade so as to use land efficiently.

So, where I live in the hilly part of the Northern UK, it would be silly to try to be self-sufficient in grains as this would involve a massive expansion in arable land that would be extremely costly (in labour, money and energy) and damaging to the soil. However, this part of the world is extremely suited to producing grazing animals (especially hardy cattle breeds and sheep). So, I think for Yorkshire, a “buy local meat and dairy” system makes a lot of sense so long as it’s matched with an organic / fair-trade trading system that brings grain in from parts of the world that are suited to these types of crop.

Cheers for a stimulating conversation.

Evan


message 5: by Evan (new)

Evan Fraser | 6 comments Some of you many be interested that my co-writer, Andrew Rimas, has just started a blog at Psychology Today called "The Considered Table" where he is exploring issues related to food, sustainability, culture and history. This material is drawn from our upcoming book called

Empires of Food: Why Civilization Revolves Around the Dinner Table as well as our first book Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World

Andrew's blog can be found at:
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/t...


message 6: by Evan (new)

Evan Fraser | 6 comments In the following two pod casts, Andrew Rimas and I discuss the history of food and its role in shaping society.

http://www.thetakeaway.org/2010/jul/0...
http://beta.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/201...


message 7: by M (new)

M (wwwgoodreadscomprofilem) | 337 comments Evan wrote: "In the following two pod casts, Andrew Rimas and I discuss the history of food and its role in shaping society.

http://www.thetakeaway.org/2010/jul/0...
http..."


Thanks for the links !


message 8: by Evan (new)

Evan Fraser | 6 comments The following two pod-casts are discussions on global food security and the pending food crisis.

http://wpr.org/wcast/download-mp3-req...

http://castroller.com/podcasts/KerasT...


In them, Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas discuss the themes in
Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilization Empires of Food Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilization by Evan D.G. Fraser


message 9: by M (last edited Jul 29, 2010 11:54PM) (new)

M (wwwgoodreadscomprofilem) | 337 comments Evan wrote: "The following two pod-casts are discussions on global food security and the pending food crisis.

http://wpr.org/wcast/download-mp3-req...

http://castro..."


Thank you for these podcasts, Evan and Andrew. You are among the writers who are looking at past events and history in the field of environmental issues about food.
How does it contribute to our understanding and our food choices?


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