Agriculture – a way to fight off Mother Nature’s murder attempts

If Mother Nature was an actual mother she wouldn’t be a very good one. She would probably be one of those manic depressive alcoholics whose benevolence it would be impossible to count on – she could come home either with a brand new bike or an eviction notice.

There is actually a point to this rant as this entry (and the following two) will focus on the issue of food production. I will be looking at how the efficient revolution has taken place in food production and how I believe it could ensue in the future in both farming as well as meat production.

In a way the history of human subsistence can be seen as a continuous struggle to stave off the innate efforts of our environment(s) to destroy us. Some might consider this a modernist view but I want to emphasise that I do not see it that way. It is only from the relative safety of the modern society that we can afford to consider nature somehow a benign being. And predictable food production is naturally one of the most important prerequisites for societies to avoid an early grave.

Agricultural revolution

At first, there was nothing very revolutionary about the move to agriculture from the hunter-gatherer ways. The early farmers suffered from various diseases resulting from cramped accommodations (excellent conditions for infectious diseases to spread); and had much simpler diet (less protein) than their wilderness-treading contemporaries. Among other things, humanity got significantly shorter after settling down.

Average height dropped from 175 cm to 160 cm (Ötzi) and started slowly growing. Romans (168 cm) were as tall as the average man during Napoleon. Average height has been steadily climbed since industrial revolution to 171 cm in 1973 to 178 cm in 2014

Average height dropped from 175 cm to 160 cm (Ötzi) and started slowly growing. Romans (168 cm) were as tall as the average man during Napoleon. Average height has been steadily climbing since industrial revolution to 171 cm in 1973 to 178 cm in 2014

There were clear advantages in the long run, however.

Simply put, acquiring food (by any means) is merely a form of (bio)energy production and it really does matter how you produce the required calories for both human societies as well as individuals.

In terms of required land per head, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were terribly inefficient, requiring 1000 hectares for each person to support his/her survival, compared to less than one today. In addition, while the bounty could be plentiful, there was always a fairly good chance to go to sleep with an empty belly. In other words, hunting and gathering was rather time and land consuming business with random chances of success. (Some of the poor luck was self-inflicted as our Stone-age ancestors were partly responsible for the extinction of several large mammal species, such as the mammoth).

While it might sound a bit counterintuitive, farming actually shrank humanity’s relative ecological footprint compared to hunting and gathering.

Agriculture, on the other hand, can be seen as means to deliberately redirect natural flows of nutrients and energy so that there is less need for direct human action – freeing pairs of hands (and more importantly, brains) to focus on other pressing issues. One example being how to make the process of food production even more efficient – leading to better practices, tools, crop varieties and so on thus reinforcing the positive feedback loop and releasing ever more hands for duties that have even less to do with the practice of (bio)energy production. The surplus of food (and time) thus helped new professions to emerge and enabled individuals and societies to specialize and engage in trade with others.

All these developments further improved societies’ chances to adapt to the random murderous whims of Mother Nature.

The second agricultural revolution

Despite the efficiency resulting from improved techniques and crops over the millennia, vast majority of human population still worked in the (bio)energy sector (forestry, agriculture and animal farming) at the turn of the previous century. While the productivity gains from agriculture were unprecedented, the real efficiency jump (required input of human labour and land per yield) took place only with the onset of the industrial revolution. By combining breakthroughs in several fields, such as chemistry (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides), engineering (e.g. tractors) and biology (plant breeding) the yields went through the roof and food production started to detach from efforts of physical human labour.

One of the most important things in farming is to make sure the plants receive enough nutrients, key building materials for the plants. Over the years, plants use up the soil’s own feedstock of nutrients and the farmer has to find an external source or stop using the track of land for a while to let the resources build up again. For millennia animal manure, crop rotation, shifting cultivation and flooding were used to get over the issue but limitations of each technique held back the true potential of agriculture.

It was through discoveries and practical appliances of several entrepreneurial scientists that helped to develop a big enough source of nutrients in the form fertilizers. Processes that derive nutrients from natural gas and mineral ores could carry forward the productivity boost that had taken place in Mid-18th Century with the discovery of guano islands. (Yes, bird droppings helped to feed parts of the world for a while).

Feed the world!

Feed the world!

It is all well and good to have the nutrient composition in balance but farming is still very hard work. Unsurprisingly, the industrial revolution helped to alleviate this aspect of farm work and truly started liberating ordinary men, women and children (and animals) from the yoke of the earth. Mechanized farming usually brings to one’s mind the tractor but it also includes a mind-bogglingly long list of jobs that mechanization has replaced. As a result of this productivity boom, an ever greater share of population could go to schools, move to cities and get jobs in the fledgling manufacturing industry.

An interesting unintended consequence of industrial farming was also the fact that it detached production from animal labour as well. As a result the need for bio-energy hungry draft animals collapsed. The sudden and dramatic drop in need for draft animals partly alleviated the pressure the quickly rising population was putting on food production.

The Green revolution

Still, all were not impressed. Throughout the past two centuries there have been many who believed that food production could not keep up with population growth. One of the worriers was the economist and reverend, Thomas Malthus, who predicted in 1798 that England would soon be starving as food production could not rise on par with population growth. A more recent Malthusian prediction was made by the celebrated ecologist, Paul Ehrlich, who stated as late as 1968 that, the developing world (and especially India) would be suffering from mass famines by the mid-1970s.

What he didn’t predict was the Green Revolution. A productivity boom initiated by Norman Borlaug, “the most important person you have never heard of”. Borlaug helped to cross breed a wheat variety that was physically short and high yielding (tall high yielding crops had reached certain limits as they would end up being too heavy and fall over). Despite initial resistance Borlaug’s varieties had huge impact on yields, especially in the developing world.

yields

Borlaug and others helped to push the limits of the planets carrying capacity further away to accommodate the growing hunger of an exploding human population. But in order to sustainably satisfy the needs of 9 billion people, food production needs to develop further . The step cannot be “back to the land” or to organic farming as the productivity losses would be too great. The future of food production has to follow the same logic of efficiency as the leaps in the past.

The next revolution?

These days, only few percent of the workforce “work the field” while the human population is better fed than ever. We can increasingly dedicate our lives and productivity to areas of ‘lesser significance’, such as health care, teaching or being pet psychics.

While industrial farming has several drawbacks and limitations, the described transition should be celebrated as it has enabled humanity to wean off the practice of backbreaking labour and unpredictable hardships of acquiring food under the random benevolence of Mother Nature.

In my next entry I will try to address how this development could further continue with the advances in biotechnology among others. There is even a prospect that we could liberate vast land areas from the land and resource consuming practices of today.

5 comments

  1. Nice explanation. Food production needs to become more intensive to support modern populations- and to free us from the drudgery of peasant labour. Farming and the Green Revolution allow us to increase carrying capacity, which humans do with their technology- hence Malthus was wrong. Just a thought about early hunters wiping out the mega fauna- one theory I have heard is that the easy prey allowed us to expand populations and spread throughout the world; pressure from over-hunting may ultimately have been one of the reasons we were nudged towards agriculture.

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