Arrow £8.99 (302pp). £7.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Empires of Food, By Evan DG Fraser and Andrew Rimas
Friday 22 July 2011
Written in lively style by two American academics, this book questions the stability of the "food empire" on which humanity depends. We are complacent, they claim, due to four assumptions: there will be more "biochemical fixes" to maintain bumper crops; continuation of the "mild, sunny weather" of recent centuries; dependence on fragile monocultures; reliance on cheap fossil fuels to power freezers and synthesise fertilisers. "For a hundred years," the authors point out, "our industrial food empire has been astoundingly successful but all empires stumble and fall."
This is a reiteration of the line taken by Thomas Malthus in the early 19th century (who oddly doesn't appear until page 98). His dire projections of unsustainable population growth were rendered null by improvements in agricultural efficiency – at least until now. Utilising historical parallels, Fraser and Rimas say we are living on a knife-edge.
Unfortunately, their book is undermined by annoying stylistic quirks and inaccuracies of detail.
While it may be reasonable to try for a wider readership, this is not achieved by anachronistic razzmatazz that borders on the nonsensical. British readers may be confused by the assertion that "medieval history is packed with goonish holy men". This is not a reference to Milligan et al but "goon" in the American sense of enforcer. When the text touches down on the Yorkshire Dales, a reference to "the Brontes's woolly swordsmen" left this reader scratching his head.
Minor factual mistakes distract from the authors' message. Their conclusion that "On account of the Cistercian food trade, Yorkshire had ceased to be a wilderness" ignores the scale of Britain's largest county. Cistercians may have put "hundreds of thousands of acres" under cultivation but Yorkshire contains almost four million acres, much of which was prime farming land before the arrival of the monks.
As these examples indicate, the book jumps about in time and place. Their attempt to bring together the strands by tracing two journeys, one by a Renaissance merchant, the other down the Yangtze in 2008, fails to gain traction due to constant deviations.
Like their verbal fireworks, this fluttery narrative is prompted by a lack of faith in the reader's attention span. Their message would have gained strength from lucid expression and considered structure.
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