A Brief and Fascinating History of Agriculture

September 27, 2018
Rice Fields

Picture of a rice field across from my house in Bali. Notice the forested area in the background.

The word agriculture brings to mind rustic images of villages covered in long, green fields of wheat, rice or maize (corn) and farmers sowing seeds, removing weeds or ploughing the fields. It feels like something that has existed forever, something we take for granted. We know that agriculture is what provides us our food and therefore is as vital to us as the air we breathe or the water we drink. But is it really? Let’s see.

Humans appeared on earth about 2.5 million years ago. And agriculture? About 12,000 years ago. If we condense the entire human existence of 2.5 million years into a single year of 365 days with today being 12 midnight on Dec 31st, we started agriculture bright and early at 7 am on Dec 30th! It seems that we were doing fine without it for most of our existence. So how did we get our food before? By hunting wild animals and eating berries, fruits and occasional beans and grains which grew in our environment, just like wild animals do today.

The story of agriculture, repeated to us in schools and the media is this: It was a great leap forward and allowed us to move from the dangerous, hungry and constantly moving life of hunter-gatherers into a comfortable, satisfied and settled life of farmers. Turns out, this story is pure fantasy.

To start with, lets see if humans had an easier or harder time acquiring food  after agriculture first appeared. Writes Lierre Keith in her vitally important book The Vegetarian Myth:

“The average hunter-gatherer works seventeen hours a week, which leaves plenty of time for creative endeavors, spiritual concerns, gossiping, and the all-important nap. Agriculturalists work from dawn to dusk and then some, and even in modern America, with all our…technology, the average US citizen works over forty hours a week, which doesn’t even include life maintenance tasks…like cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing.”

To add to this, the work of farmers was extremely hard and the human body was not designed for those tasks. Writes Yuval Noah Harari in his fascinating book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind:

“The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias.”

But we don’t need archeologists to tell us how hard farming is. The place where I live in Bali is surrounded by rice fields and apart from ploughing the fields with tractors, most of the work is done manually. And it is hard labour, sometimes in scorching heat, sometimes in heavy rain.

Why is agriculture so hard? Because the farmer is literally fighting against nature!

Lets consider a piece of land covered in thick forest. Hundreds of varieties of trees, plants and shrubs are living here, alongside animals, insects, birds as well as bacteria and fungi. Each organism performs a vital role in the ecosystem. The trees take in the sunlight and nutrients from the soil and produce both food and oxygen for the animals, birds and insects. The larger animals that cannot digest the plants directly, like tigers, wolves etc. eat the animals that can – deers, rabbits, buffaloes etc. All these animals urinate and defecate. They also eventually die. Bacteria get to work on their urine, feces as well as their dead bodies, breaking them down into essential nutrients for the trees – nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium as well as calcium. Without these, trees cannot survive. Notice that the second part of the equation – trees eating the animals with the help of bacteria – is just as necessary for the ecosystem as the first part – animals eating trees. Even birds, insects (who pollinate the trees) and fungi have vital roles in the ecosystem. They’ve all evolved to fill in an empty position in the ecosystem and their resume is a perfect fit. They’re all working in concert towards the one goal of all life – to produce more life.

Scene II – Enter agriculture. The farmer comes in with his axe (or this modern version) and his plough (or this modern version). First he cuts down all the trees and kills all the large animals. Any animals or birds that survive also die as they have nowhere to go. And the small animals – rabbits, snakes, mice are killed by the millions every year by the farmer. He then ploughs the field and plants a single plant – wheat, rice, maize etc. for the consumption of a single species – that’s us humans. But now since the trees and animals are gone, the ecosystem has been destroyed and he has to provide the plants with all the nutrients they need. For Nitrogen (N) and potassium (K) he has to keep domesticated chickens, ducks, cows  and so on, for Phosphorous (P) he has to crush rocks. For water – he needs to carry buckets on his back from the river. And now, since all other native plants are considered weeds, he has to continuously remove them, another back-breaking task. Same goes for pests, locusts and birds, he has to keep removing and killing them.

At this point, I know what you are saying. This is all old history, today we have tractors to plough the fields, fertilizers to provide for all the nutrients, herbicides and pesticides to kill all the weeds, insects and pests and dams and canals to provide water. Alas, just like in life, so in agriculture –  there is no free lunch. The tractors and all other machines run on fossil fuels (mainly petroleum) and also need fossil fuels for their manufacture and transport. All the synthetic fertilizers for N,P and K also require massive amounts of fossil fuels. Lets just take the example of Nitrogen fertilizer. It is manufactured using something called a Haber-Bosch process. Hydrogen and Nitrogen are fused together using tremendous amount of heat and pressure. How are the heat and pressure generated? Of course, fossil fuels and electricity (which again just means fossil fuels). Same goes for Phosphorous and Potassium fertilizers. And now guess how herbicides and pesticides are manufactured and transported? Agriculture all around the world now depends from start to finish on fossil fuels. So much that an acre of maize (corn) requires about 200 liters (!) of fossil fuels.

And as we all know (but seem to not think or talk about it), fossil fuels are non-renewable and are finishing fast. We’ve already reached peak oil and are now sliding down the deep dark abyss on the other side of Hubbert’s curve.

And here’s the big irony – Fossil fuels are also just animal blood and bones – not of cows, chickens or pigs but pre-historic animals like dinosaurs and mammoths, fossilized millions of years ago. As we’ve moved from hunter-gatherers to agriculture based on domesticated animals to agriculture based on fertilizers, nothing has changed – trees are carnivorous and still need animal blood and bones to grow.

Lets look at water. In an ecosystem for a particular region, the trees and plants that grow there are adapted to the amount of water that’s naturally available to that region through rainfall and rivers. Palm trees grow in the tropics, Redwoods in California and Maple trees in Canada – adapted precisely to the amount of rain and river water available in those regions. But our farmer has cut them down and planted grains, which require large quantities of water. So either he needs to carry buckets of water (12,000 years ago) or build dams and canals (today). There are three major problems with dams. First, of course, dams and canals need massive quantities of fossil fuels to build. Secondly, building dams on rivers destroys the river’s ecosystem of fish (thousands of dead fish accumulate at the bottom of the dam trying to swim to lay their eggs), animals and trees.

But there’s an even bigger problem, visible in plain sight if we just look. The grains need so much water that most of the rivers that used to reach oceans are now drained for agriculture and run completely dry for hundreds of kilometers before the ocean. The Ganga (Ganges) in India, Indus in Pakistan, the Mississippi in US, the Yellow river in China and so on. Writes Lierre Keith:

“Two-thirds of India’s crops are dependent on underground water. Wells in northern Gujarat [and I know this is true for Vidharbha region, my hometown] once filled with water at thirty feet. Now wells at 1,300 feet run dry. Entire districts in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are being depopulated. As the floods from the rivers fade, first into desert and then into myth, another flood takes their place: a flood of people from the countryside into slum-bloated cities.”

Rice, wheat, corn… are thirsty enough to drink whole rivers. Irrigation doesn’t “just” destroy wetlands and riparian systems. As the water table drops, any trees left standing behind the plow die of thirst as their roots no longer reach water. All that’s left is dust. And the dust builds into storms, spreading, for instance, from China’s wheat fields across Asia, “choking lungs in Beijing, closing schools in Korea, dusting cars in Japan, and raining onto mountains and across the Pacific in western Canada.”

All this is visible in plain sight, if we just look around [I’m thinking of Rajasthan as well as what’s happening in Vidharba] – drying (or, more appropriately, dying) rivers, large trees disappearing, fertile land turning to dust and then to desert.

The World Health Organization reports:

“Fifty-two thousand square kilometers are turned to desert each year; about the area of Hong Kong is turned to desert each week. The UN reports that desertification threatens the livelihood of one billion people in 110 countries.”

Now let’s look at what happened to health and nutrition when agriculture appeared 12,000 years ago. Leaving aside the toll that agriculture took on human spines, bones, knees etc as mentioned before, the nutrition itself provided by agricultural foods was significantly worse. We evolved for 2.5 million years eating a variety of meat, vegetables, berries and fruits. The variety ensured that the hunter gatherers received all the necessary nutrients. Farmers, on the other hand usually ate a very limited diet, sometimes literally a single crop. Even today, for example, rice is consumed in Southern india and most of Asia for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Writes Richard Manning in his book Against the Grain “..health deteriorated during the changeover.”  There was a sudden rise in “malnutrition, osteomyelitis and periostitis (bone infections), intestinal parasites, yaws, syphilis, leprosy, tuberculosis, anemia (from poor diet as well as from hookworms), rickets in children, osteomalacia in adults, retarded childhood growth, and short stature among adults.” Writes Lierre Keith “Medical anthropologists can look at a bone and tell in a glance whether the subject lived in a hunter-gatherer or an agricultural society. The hunters [bones] look great. The farmers are falling apart.” To top it off, we now spray poisonous pesticides and herbicides on these plants that cause cancers, tumors, toxify rivers and oceans and create a host of other problems.

At this point, you might be wondering: was there anything good about agriculture at all? At least, it provided us with a consistent source of food rather than the uncertainty of hunting and gathering since we had control over the food itself, didn’t it? Unfortunately, agriculture failed on this count as well. While agriculture did provide us with a consistent and abundant supply of food, the food did not simply get distributed between the existing number of people so all could have plenty of food. Instead, the population increased dramatically, resulting in unequal distribution and increased malnutrition. This was true then and it is true today. About 815 million people still go hungry everyday. Any innovation in agriculture simply translates into more population rather than equitable distribution of food to the existing population. Take for example the Haber-Bosch process for manufacturing synthetic fertilizers. Since 1947, synthetic fertilizers started being industrially manufactured using this process, which removed our dependence on domesticated animals and natural cycles. This freed up land for more food production since we did not need grasslands and pastures to feed cows and chickens. The result – population grew from 2.5 billion in 1947 to 7.2 billion today.

So the question remains: Why did we do it? Why did we give up a life of comfort and good health to that of hard labor and bad nutrition? This is not easy to figure out from the bones and archeologists have many theories. Let’s look at one of the most interesting ones.

Domestication –  what does this word mean? On the surface, it means bringing a plant or animal under human control, as in, with agriculture, we domesticated some plants (wheat, rice, maize etc.) and animals (cows, pigs, chickens etc). But if we dig a bit deeper and think about it from the point of view of the domesticated plants and animals, things get interesting.

Lets take wheat as an example: Before agriculture, it was a wild grass somewhere in the Middle East covering very small areas. Within 12,000 years (a very short period in evolutionary terms), it now covers an area of 2.25 million square kilometers around the world. If we consider evolutionary success solely based on the total number of that species, wheat is probably the most successful plant amongst all plants and probably amongst all animals. So then the question arises, who has domesticated whom? Could it be the other way around – that wheat has domesticated us? Writes Yuval Noah Harari:

“Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was defenceless against other organisms that liked to eat it, from rabbits to locust swarms, so the farmers had to guard and protect it. Wheat was thirsty, so humans lugged water from springs and streams to water it. Its hunger even impelled Sapiens to collect animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.”

But how did wheat get us to do all it’s work? Things get even more interesting here. To understand that, we need to understand that trees speak the language of chemicals. They produce millions of chemicals with all different purposes – to attract, to repel, to immobilize or even to kill animals. They use chemicals to communicate with each other – for example, when a giraffe starts eating acacia leaves in Africa, the tree sends out ethylene gas as a distress signal. On detecting this gas, nearby acacia trees start pumping tannins into their leaves, which can make the giraffe sick. Similarly grains like wheat, rice, and most beans contain chemicals called lectins which are bad for humans. Why? Because grains and beans are actually seeds (in other words, plant babies) and the plant wants them to be replanted rather than cooked and consumed by humans. That’s why we need to soak, ground, sprout and most importantly, cook grains in order to remove these chemicals as much as possible. And why are fruits so sweet? Because trees can’t walk! They need animals, who can walk, to carry their seeds and spread them far and wide. So the trees wrap their seeds in pulpy sweetness and bright colors – to tempt animals to eat the fruits and “discard” the seeds to new, potentially fertile, ground. And besides all these chemicals that we know about, there are millions of chemicals that trees produce that we still have no idea why.

But there are one other set of chemicals produced by trees that we know only too well. These are the opioids, cannabis, DMT, psilocybin, mescaline and so on. These chemicals are used in drugs – both the good kind (supposedly) that your doctor prescribes and the bad kind (supposedly, although it might be the other way around) marijuana, magic mushrooms, cocaine, heroin etc. Turns out that grains also contain opioids called exorphins which affect the brain in the same way that other opioids do, just to a lesser degree. As we know, people can get addicted to cookies, candies, cakes and breads, all carbohydrates made from grains. And here’s the big finish – the first plant to be domesticated was not wheat or rice, it was opium and no one is domesticating opium for food!

In short, the theory is that the plants domesticated us, instead of the other way around, by making us addicted – want some cookies, anyone?

But setting aside the theories of why we did it, the facts remain: Agriculture is a war on nature, is bad for our health, is unsustainable, carnivorous and has probably got us all addicted!

At this point, you might be thinking:

This is all too crazy. I’ve never heard of any of this. In fact, it’s the opposite of everything I’ve heard in my school and the media. There must be something wrong here! If so, I ask you to verify all this for yourself, either from the referenced books in this article, or, more importantly, by going out of the city and into the villages and countryside.

Secondly, note that I’m not proposing we stop agriculture tonight and go back to being hunter gatherers tomorrow. The article is meant to be a brief history (and the current state) of agriculture. It is meant to make you aware that these are the biggest problems that mankind is facing – we are running out of fossil fuels and clean water, fertile soil is turning to dust and then to desert and forests, the lungs of our planet are being cut down for more agriculture – and no one seems to be talking about it.

Lastly, you might be saying (and I hope you are): Yes, all this makes sense but what do you propose? Well, stay tuned!

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