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How We Eat, Produce Food Could Bring Down Society

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In a time when "super-sized" and "combo specials" are the way to order, it seems America will never face a food shortage. But a new book, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, takes a hard look at how American habits — in farming, eating and treating the environment — could lead to a food famine. Host Guy Raz talks with co- author Evan Fraser about how food empires fail and if America is next.

GUY RAZ, host:

The primary cause of those fires in Russia is a severe drought that's also disrupted the grain harvest there. Russia is a huge grain exporter. And this week, the country announced it will stop exporting wheat because of low yields. That decision sent wheat prices skyrocketing, and has left countries like Egypt, which is the world's largest grain importer, wondering where to turn.

It's a scenario that could've come right out of a new book by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas. It's called "Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations." And Evan Fraser joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. EVAN FRASER (Co-Author, "Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations"): Thank you.

RAZ: Now, you have sort of connected the dots between the decline of great empires - the Roman Empire and the Mayan empires, for example - and then the collapse of their food structures. Can you explain that theory?

Mr. FRASER: In every single historic case that Andrew and I were able to look at, something at some point went wrong with the food system. And the cities, then, no longer were able to feed themselves, and people floated away.

RAZ: So what happened in Rome, for example?

Mr. FRASER: Well, what happened in Rome is as the empire expanded - or the republic expanded and turned into the empire - they, first of all, exploited the soils and caused a lot of soil erosion, which was one of the reasons why they had to go, continually expand outward in search of new soil.

The second thing that they did, which was a mistake, was that they grew large and dependent on the food that they were able to obtain during a period of time when the climate was relatively nice. It was relatively easy to get good harvests.

So those two combination of factors, though, didn't last. So what's called the Roman Warm Period tailed off into a fairly cool five, 600s A.D. in Europe, and the soil was exploited. And so those two things meant that it was very difficult to keep the surplus food out of the countryside and driven into the cities.

And when that stopped, the tax revenue collapsed; it became too expensive to keep the legions going; the merchants no longer were able to move what little wares they did have into the city; and the whole system - relatively quickly -unraveled.

RAZ: You've written that at the birth of the modern world, something went wrong with the food system. What was that?

Mr. FRASER: In the modern world, we've made the same three mistakes that the Romans made and the Mayans made. And that first mistake is that we, too, have come to depend on fertile topsoil. And we have ignored the fact that the topsoil is eroding. Now, we've masked our problems with topsoil with chemical fertilizer, but that just swaps one dependency for another.

The second mistake we've made is the fact that we've come to depend on harvests, which we get from relatively nice climates. And the late 20th century was pretty good, generally speaking, for growing season - say, between 1930 and 1990, there were no major climatic shocks in the world's bread baskets. Things are likely, however, to change.

The third mistake we've made in the modern age, which also echoes the historic antecedents, is that we have caused our farmers to grow economically efficient by specializing in one or two products. And while this makes wonderful economic sense, it's terrible ecology.

RAZ: I mean, it's hard to imagine, certainly in developed countries, that - you know, I don't know - there could ever be a, kind of an Irish potato famine again. I mean, are you suggesting that something like that could happen - I mean, that we could be headed in that direction?

Mr. FRASER: I don't think there will be a famine in American supermarkets any time soon. I think that the problem is much more complicated, and possibly much more insidious. So, for example, let's imagine a bad drought in Northern China - or, for example, Russia, which we're just experiencing right now. I can see that causing a country like China to suddenly buy up most of the world's rice supplies, which given that there's not a huge amount of rice traded, wouldn't be that hard for a country like China to do that.

So if China starts buying up a lot of wheat and a lot of rice, then I can imagine - say, countries like the Philippines or Thailand, which normally export to say, the Middle East or East Africa, suddenly stopping selling to those markets and selling to China. I can then that - see causing a major subsistence crisis linked with increased food inflation in already politically volatile parts of the world.

And that setting off urban migration, migration across national borders, and increased disease threats as poor, hungry, malnourished people start coming in contact with each other and moving long distances. And then that starts creating a cascading effect. And the ensuing hysteria, political hysteria, could then cause a very, very serious problem for the global food system.

RAZ: Is there a country that is doing it right today? I mean, is there a - sort of a model, I guess, food empire out there right now?

Mr. FRASER: At the country level, most of us are completely invested in this global food system, which is built on some very, very rickety pillars. I think, however, there's a lot of interesting stuff that goes on more on the municipal level - with farmer's markets, community-supported agriculture, with food policy councils, which are springing up all over cities and towns in Canada and in the U.S.

And these are really talking about trying to shorten supply chains, create a level of food sovereignty at a local level, invest in things like soup kitchens and community kitchens, which act as an insurance policy against food shocks for economically poor people. So I think the most innovative stuff is actually happening at a small scale across North America.

And there's very little attention to this issue being placed at a national or international scale.

RAZ: That's Evan Fraser. He teaches geography at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and he is the co-author of the book "Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations."

Evan Fraser, thanks so much.

Mr. FRASER: Thank you very much.

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