My 2700-word column on the rehab process from Tommy John surgery, with comments from a TJ surgeon, a rehab specialist, and three pitches who had the operation, is now up for Insiders.
The point of Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, by Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas, is a good one: Civilizations, like ours today, have risen during times of plenty, periods where favorable weather and trading booms have led to rapid growth of populations and cities, but that they tend to fall, often catastrophically, when the food supply is interrupted. We are nearing the end, they argue, of an unusually good era for agriculture, but a cataclysm approaches as climate change, irresponsible farming techniques, water waste, and profiteering all catch up to us and put our future food security at risk. These are all issues that we as consumers should consider when deciding what to eat and where to get it, but a book that’s full of histrionic statements like “cancerous is exactly the state of our twenty-first-century global food empire,” factual errors, and serious omissions isn’t the way to argue the point.
The point of Empires of Food is to show readers the history of the food supply and how civilizations rose and fell with their sources of food, and in that regard Fraser and Rimas largely succeed in their efforts. They use the story of Francesco Carletti (link in Italian; Carletti’s memoir, My voyage around the world, is available used on amazon), a Florentine merchant whose disastrous eight-year trip around the world brought him into contact with many trading societies of the late 1500s and early 1600s, as the narrative hook to connect the various chapters, each describing a key variable in the construction of “food empires.” Those variables are fundamental to agriculture, husbandry, and food commerce – water, soil, distribution channels, refrigeration – with the final additions of “blood” (not just war, but subjugation and oppression in prime growing areas of the world) and money before their one chapter with an iota of hope, describing movements toward organic farming, slow food, and fair trade. The framework is here for a powerful wakeup call to anyone willing to step back and examine his larder and his table.
Unfortunately, when it comes to connecting problems to prescriptions, the authors fall back on hysteria and run light on facts. You can’t do an entire chapter on the declining quality of soil, including descriptions of the effects that heavy tilling and overfarming have on soil erosion rates, without even a single mention of no-till farming as a potential solution, even a partial one, to the very real problem at hand. Similarly, you can’t talk about nitrogen loss through waste and erosion without discussing the same problem of phosphorus, an absolute gating factor on the amount of life that this planet can sustain. (Untreated sewage dumped into the ocean sends loads of phosphorus to to the bottom of the sea, where it’s of little use to life on land.)
The authors’ sins aren’t limited to science or agriculture. They openly praise Marxism with nary a mention of the food shortages that have plagued every society that implemented (always via political repression) Marxist economic policies, including famines in North Korea and milk rationing for Cubans over the age of eight. Meanwhile, they excoriate capitalism and misstate Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” by accusing him of advocating cost-plus pricing. Rather than point out how government subsidies can distort market decisions, or argue for taxes that reflect the externalities they (correctly) point out are not reflected in free-market prices, they want to throw capitalism overboard and send us back to the Middle Ages. They’re similarly dismissive of comparative advantage without considering its wealth-generating capabilities – if you want to argue that localism trumps comparative advantage, acknowledge the latter’s benefits and explain why the former is in our best collective interests.
There are even the sort of tiny errors that don’t necessarily affect the larger point of the book but serve to undermine the credibility of the text because checking these facts is so easy yet wasn’t done. The authors repeat the dubious story of Roman commanders salting the earth around Carthage (per Wikipedia, which has a solid source for this, “ no ancient sources exist documenting this. The Carthage story is a later invention, probably modelled on the story of Shechem.”) They also mention the million-plus city of “San Jose, Texas,” which is probably news to the residents of the San Jose in California or to the residents of San Antonio, Texas.
The intent of Empires of Food is a good one, I think – raising awareness of the fragility of our current infrastructure for feeding the world. It’s certainly relevant to me out here in Arizona, where we depend on dwindling water resources and import much of our food because the local environment isn’t ideal for agriculture (and a lot of local farms out here are selling out to developers). But it’s relevant to anyone in the U.S. because, even though we’re not necessarily the world’s greatest offenders (China is the real villain of the book, although the authors seem too skittish to say so explicitly), we are in the best position to do something about it. The problem with the book is that it gets sloppy and devolves too often into a polemic rather than sticking to well-argued advocacy.
Next up: Nearly done with Charles Bukowski’s bizarre twist on the detective novel, Pulp.