Today's Q&A is with E. N. Anderson, author of Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China. In it, Anderson provides an account of the development of the food systems that coincided with China's emergence as an empire. Before extensive trade and cultural exchange with Europe was established, Chinese farmers and agriculturalists developed systems that used resources in sustainable and efficient ways, permitting intensive and productive techniques to survive over millennia. Fields, gardens, semiwild lands, managed forests, and specialized agricultural landscapes all became part of an integrated network that produced maximum nutrients with minimal input—and can also be a model for moden sustainable agriculture around the world. In this Q&A, Anderson gives us a glimpse into the place food held (and holds) in Chinese culture, as well as pointing to resources for more information.
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Penn Press: You cite the strategies of old China and Indonesia as good places to look in order to start adopting change since “the world has run out of agricultural land, and a collapse inward has begun . . . to urbanization and erosion.” Can you elaborate on these strategies? What other immediate, sustainable changes can we make in order to reverse this inward collapse? Or are we already too far gone?
E. N. Anderson: China, southeast Asia, and Indonesia developed ways to produce a great deal of food, sustainably, on very little land, and intensified this over time. Modern-day permaculture and similar agricultural methods have built on this to develop even more productive yet sustainable systems of production. Homegardens, small-scale farms, and some of the organic farming techniques are related and offer hope. Millions of acres worldwide are now under modernized yet intensive and sustainable systems of this kind, and really it is largely the political power of the oil, chemical, and agribusiness companies that stops us from transitioning rapidly to such systems. I have emphasized lessons from China and southeast Asia in my recent book Caring for Place (AltaMira 2014) as well as my earlier The Food of China (Yale University Press 1988).