Slaves or Masters

Most people believe that early agriculture enabled humans to build settlements, and that subsequent agricultural improvements have made humankind better off.

In his thought provoking book, Against the Grain – How agriculture has hijacked civilisation, Richard Manning disagrees on both issues. In particular, he questions the traditional view that the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture led to “the surplus of food that allowed the leisure and specialisation that made civilisation.”

He also argues that it was only when hunter-gatherers, particularly fisher folk, started to live in settlements that agriculture could take form. He writes, “the archaeological evidence suggests that…sedentism—the radical human experiment with staying put, made agriculture possible, and not vice versa. Agriculture did not arise from need as it did from relative abundance. People stayed put, (and) had the leisure to experiment with plants.”

He is also an early exponent of the argument that agriculture has turned mankind into slaves. He writes, “We tamed the plants and animals so they could serve us, a sort of biological slavery, but if coevolution is true, the converse is also true. In biological terms, wheat is successful; its success is built on the fact that it tamed humans. Wheat altered us, altered our genome, to use us…. To a hog in a pen it must appear that he has enslaved the farmer. Why else would the guy show up twice a day with a buck full of feed? The hog believes this until the day he dies.”

Finally, he argues that somewhere along the line we have stopped eating food and begun eating commodities.

“Consider the range of plants humans consume, the hundreds of species. That’s food. Consider that two thirds of our calories come from wheat, rice and maize. Add sugar and you have a nearly complete picture of commodities. It is an oversimplification, but a useful one, to assert that these commodities have a fundamental and key distinction from the rest of food; they are storable and interchangeable and close to currency in their liquidity; in fact they are traded in markets just as currency is. They form the basis of wealth, and have done so for ten thousand years.”

Rice, he argues, is different, because “well over half of rice consumed is eaten by the same people who grew it.” He continues, “True, rice is storable, tradable, a dense package of carbohydrates that meets the definition of a commodity, but because it is the most important foodstuff of the world’s poorest people, it has many of the hallmarks of food.”

Yuval Noah Harari took up many of the same themes in Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. He writes,

“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word domesticate comes from the Latin ‘domus’, which means ‘house.’ Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the sapiens….What then did wheat offer agriculturists..? It offered nothing for people as individuals. Yet it did bestow something on Homo Sapiens as a species. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and therefore enabled Homo Sapiens to multiply exponentially….This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”

But is that really true? It would be true if we all lived in farming villages, wracked by disease and the occasional famine. But we don’t. Most of us live in comfortable cities. In the U.S. only one percent of the population is still engaged in farming. In Europe the figure is 4 percent; the global average is 28 percent.

Agriculture has enabled 99 percent of the U.S. population—and 72 percent of the world population—to escape the drudgery and hard labour of farming. Meanwhile, technology has lightened, at least a little, the workload on the farm. Agriculture has enabled all of us to live better lives.

At the same time agriculture has, along with improvements in health care, been one of the main enablers of our growing population. This is now putting a strain on the earth’s ecosystem. Agriculture has also contributed to environmental degradation through deforestation, reduced biodiversity, and climate change (through GHG emissions). To some extent, therefore, agriculture has become a victim of its own success.

The solution, however, is not to go back to some mythical golden era. The solution is in developing new technologies to improve the way in which our hard working farmers grow food, in order to reduce agriculture’s negative impacts on the environment.

This is already work in progress, and unlike Richard Manning, I am sure that it will succeed.

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