Thursday, November 14, 2013

Agriculture: the worst mistake in the history of the human race???

A few words in defense of farming

By Jim Wood

I’m feeling a bit defensive. You see, I study traditional, subsistence-oriented farming – that is, farming in the absence of fossil fuels, commercial inputs, mechanization, seed from outside the local area, anything other than organic fertilizers, easy access to markets, extensive government meddling, etc. etc. etc. I’ve devoted much of my professional life to the topic. I’ve hung out with traditional farmers in several parts of the world, tropical and temperate, talked with old men who as young adults handled plows pulled by oxen (and not because they were hippies), discussed with young men how to judge soil quality by taste, seen mind-boggling arrays of local crop varieties, gotten to know cattle, pigs, sheep (and sheep dogs), water buffalo, and countless chickens. I really like a lot of the farmers I’ve met (okay, some are jerks, but that’s true of everyone). I think they’re really smart and mostly pretty solicitous about their own environments. They have to be if they and their families are going to survive. Yet most of my colleagues in anthropology firmly believe that, to quote the title of an all-too-often-cited article by Jared Diamond, agriculture was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

Nineteenth-Century Persian Drawings of Rice and Wheat Cultivation
(Oriental and Indian Office Collections, British Library, London)
This strange idea is being spread rapidly by introductory anthropology textbooks. And the evidence mounts every day that it’s becoming widespread among the American public. (See how many books lauding the “paleodiet” are listed on The last straw, I have to admit, landed on my metaphorical back as a result of reading the excellent post that Anne Buchanan recently put up on the MT about the Land Institute and its director, Wes Jackson. I respect both tremendously (all three if you throw in Anne). But Anne’s post inspired me to check out the Institute’s website, where I was immediately confronted with the following statement: “At the Land Institute, we believe that a solution to the 10,000 year old problem of agriculture – soil loss and degradation, environmental destruction, and high energy use – is not only necessary, but possible.” The 10,000 year old problem of agriculture? You mean going back to the early Neolithic in the Near East?? Are you talking about the worst mistake in human history???

Is there anyone out there other than me who’s willing to say something nice about traditional farming?

Let me take the charges leveled by the Land Institute’s website in reverse order. High energy use? The very antithesis of traditional farming. Traditional farming regimes of all forms, even the most intensive, are very low energy-input systems by our standards, and almost all energy (other than solar) is biological – i.e. human or animal labor (plus a bit of wind and water power). Such system are also, admittedly, low energy-output systems, which is why they support comparatively small populations. But – and here’s the critical point – various studies have estimated that overall energy efficiency (the ratio of energy output to input) is something like 3-5 times higher in traditional farming than in modern industrialized agriculture. To lump the two together is just plain wrong. And it’s by no means clear that hunter-gatherers are any more energy efficient, although they probably do have lower inputs on average.

How about soil loss/degradation and environmental destruction? Can these happen under traditional farming? Yes, of course – just as they can happen under hunting-and-gathering, as when hunters burn wide swathes of the landscape to scare out game. No one can look at the record of soil salinization caused by traditional irrigation methods in some parts of the world, or the deforestation sometimes associated with shifting cultivation, and deny the fact. But degradation and destruction are not the inevitable consequences of farming. The agricultural geographers Piers Blaikie and Harold Brookfield have pointed out that it’s a matter of balance:

net environmental degradation =
(natural degradation + human damage) – (natural regeneration + restorative management)

At any one time, the condition of the land is a dynamic equilibrium among these forces. Traditional farmers have devised countless ways to ameliorate and repair environmental degradation, but there’s no doubt that such farmers are capable of damaging the environment, at least locally, and sometimes incapable of putting things right again. Thus, the question is not whether environmental degradation or soil loss occurs under traditional farming – they most certainly do – but whether processes of regeneration, natural or human, can keep up with it. History and ethnography suggest that mostly they can, especially if you focus on small-scale, politically and economically autonomous, self-subsistent farming systems rather than big state-organized ones (see the case of soil salinization, mostly the result of large-scale irrigation).

Leveling padi surface with buffalo, Na Savang Village, northern Laos (© Shinsuke Tomita) 

The literature on traditional farming is filled with examples of practices that minimize or repair environmental damage. A short and incomplete list of examples might include long fallows, multicropping, crop rotations, terracing to stop erosion, use of nitrogen-fixing legumes as both food crops and green manures, and transplanting of other nitrogen-fixing plants such as water ferns of the genus Azolla in irrigated rice fields or casuarina and alder trees in long fallows. Manures of many kinds are generously applied: green manures, animal dung where available, human waste (euphemistically called “night soil”), crushed limestone, old roof thatching, straw bedding for livestock (a rich source of nitrogen from urine), food scraps, pot ash (whence potash and potassium), even seaweed in some areas. The only pesticides and herbicides used are human hands and hoes. Technical analysis has shown repeatedly that such measures can maintain soil quality – and local biodiversity – indefinitely if not stressed by growing population or outside interference. There are even areas, such as the western islands of Ireland, the Sibenik Archipelago off the coast of Croatia, and parts of the rocky highlands of Ethiopia, where generations of traditional farmers have created soil where only stone once existed.

To borrow some recent jargon from ecology, traditional farmers are “niche constructors” or “environmental engineers” – that is, creatures that actively transform environments to their own benefit and often to the benefit of many other species. So are beavers and termites and earthworms and all sorts of animals. Environmental engineering, whether by humans or other species, by definition transforms the local ecosystem but does not necessarily degrade it. In fact, traditional farms (like beaver ponds) have been shown to increase wild plant and animal diversity compared to surrounding natural habitats. Come to think of it, we wouldn’t call a beaver pond “unnatural” so why do we carefully distinguish a traditional farm from nature?

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, does a nice job of pointing out that most of the environmental (and health) problems we associate with farming are really concomitants of industrial farming and are therefore very recent. A convenient start date might be 1909, when Fritz Haber first publicly demonstrated his method for fixing atmospheric nitrogen as ammonia for use in commercial fertilizer. (Vaclav Smil has called this “the single most important technical invention of the twentieth century” because “the single most important change affecting the world’s population – its expansion from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to today’s 6 [now 7+] billion – would not have been possible without the [industrial] synthesis of ammonia.”) To place Haber’s demonstration on a human time scale, I note that it occurred during my own father’s infancy.

I should note that environmental degradation is not the only sin pinned on traditional farmers. Here’s the longer rap sheet on farming, according to many, many anthropologists:
· The advent of farming led to a narrowing of dietary breadth, an over-reliance on high-carbohydrate seeds, a reduction in dietary protein, and a general lowering of nutritional status, as evidenced by archaeologically-recovered skeletons of early farmers that show the pathological signs of a poor diet.

· Traditional farmers are infamously subject to food shortages and occasional famines, often accompanied by elevated death rates.

· Farming led to larger populations and a more sedentary form of settlement, both of which led to unhygienic conditions and thereby exacerbated ill-health and mortality from infectious diseases.

· The domestication of livestock exposed early farmers to a variety of zoönotic (animal-borne) infections, further worsening health.

· Farming led eventually to social and political inequality, making life more difficult for a large fraction of humanity.
In my opinion, it’s a bum rap. Here’s why:
· Almost all the traditional farmers that I know of maintain a wide dietary breadth, either by planting a huge variety of secondary crops or by continuing to hunt and gather wild forest products (or, most often, by doing both). In addition, re-study of hunter-gatherer groups (for example, the !Kung) has actually shown them to have comparatively high prevalences of under-nutrition, not appreciably or consistently lower than those of farmers. And as my colleagues and I have long argued (e.g., here, "The Osteological Paradox"), the skeletal evidence on past health and nutrition is much more equivocal and difficult to interpret than many people think.

· The only empirical work done to date on the frequency and severity of food shortages and famines indicates that hunter-gatherers are at least as vulnerable to them as agriculturalists. In fact, the greater ability of sedentary farmers to store and protect food in bulk may actually buffer them more effectively against such environmentally-induced catastrophes.

· The “crowd diseases” that require large populations to persist (e.g. measles, smallpox, influenza) actually require populations that are several orders of magnitude larger than those of traditional farming communities. And pathogens that depend on poor local hygiene for reliable transmission, e.g. helminthes (worms), are actually quite common among modern hunter-gatherers. Besides, owing to the problem of competing causes of death (discussed frequently on this website by Ken Weiss), there is no simple linear relationship between the number of pathogenic agents present in a population and the mortality rate of that population. So even if agriculture increased the number of infectious diseases present in the local community (which is far from certain), that would not necessarily have worsened health and survival at the population level. Finally, a big unanswered question: If early farming was so damned injurious to human health, how did the farming population grow in the first place? Special pleading that fertility must have increased won’t cut it: the fertility rates of modern-day traditional farmers do not differ consistently from those of ethnographically-attested hunter-gatherers.

· Recent DNA evidence suggests that important diseases that probably did originate in animals that eventually became our domesticates (e.g. TB from bovids) actually jumped to humans several millennia before the origin of animal domestication. In addition, modern hunter-gatherers are exposed to a wide variety of zoönoses, many of them quite nasty. HIV and Ebola virus, anyone?

· Farming led to social and political inequality? Yeah, well, maybe – but only after several thousand years! Plenty of comparatively egalitarian farming communities survived well into the twentieth century and have been described by ethnographers. At most, agriculture is necessary but not sufficient for the development of significant sociopolitical inequality.
The fact that most traditional farmers – including even intensive wet-rice cultivators in Southeast Asia – continue to hunt and gather successfully in the surrounding forests is, I think, important. It means that they retain the technology, skills, and local knowledge needed to exploit wild resources. In light of that fact, one has to wonder: if farming is such an obviously rotten way of life, why is there next to no evidence of farmers reverting to full-time hunting-and-gathering? Did farming make people stupid?

I am in no way suggesting that traditional farming communities are paradise on earth. They are not. Traditional farmers work hard, are materially poor, suffer higher mortality rates than we do, especially among the very young – and they do indeed need to weather the occasional food shortage or outright famine. I’m just suggesting that hunter-gatherers were not in notably better shape. Perhaps it’s time to explore the possible advantages of agriculture compared to hunting-and-gathering, the very advantages that led people all over the world to adopt it.


Ken Weiss said...

A very fine post, Jim., thoughtful and thought-provoking as usual.

From an evolutionary point of view agriculture has been an unprecedented boon for humans and other species (cows, pigs, chickens, spaniels, maize, rice…). That's because evolution doesn't and can't look forward. So, to date, even industrial-scale Ag has been great in that sense, I say as I eat summer fruit here in my office in November. This is even beside your point that Ag itself need not be destructive. But if agriculture is a cultural fact whose evolution were ultimately, in what happen to be globally predominant circumstances, to lead these species (and our own) to extinction, it isn't Ag's fault per se, but cultural evolution's. Of course big-Ag would argue that cultural evolution (i.e., their technology) will keep the catastrophe at bay.

I think Wes Jackson would point to the many instances when Ag was self-destructive, at least on a nation-state scale, going back at least to the Greeks. But he also has said that the problem really is 'portable fuel', basically meaning fossil fuel. These days he expresses it in terms of carbon. In that sense, big-Ag isn't the problem but is a consequence of cultural evolution.

From an ethnological point of view, I think categorical statements like Diamond's mix cultural evolution as a phenomenon with a kind of perhaps originally Marxism-based view of inevitable lineal change (somewhat analogous to the old ethnological Band/Tribe/Chiefdom/State idea). So he is saying that Ag itself is awful, when what he may mean is that the evolution of Ag in state systems has been awful.

At least, in that sense, I think your perspective and Wes's need not be at odds (though one can't give a pass to Diamond, who based on his self-asserted expertise, gets to say anything he wants and, like Richard Dawkins, everyone assumes it's gotta be true).

James Goetz said...

I guess that revolutionary new stone age that preceded civilization was not that bad of an idea after all :-)

Jennifer said...

those that claim that it's the worst mistake in the history of the human race - what do they suggest should have been the alternative? Farming is capable of supporting 7 billion, although not necessarily in an eco-friendly way or in a fair way. But 7 billion hunter-gatherers would not work out well, I don't think. Or is the suggestion that the population only would have grown to a sustainable number?

Jim Wood said...

Good question, Jennifer. Guestimates of the world population just before the Neolithic are often in the range of a million or less, despite the fact that humans were living on all the continents except Antarctica by then. Nobody thinks h-g could support 7 billion people. In fact nobody thinks trad farming could support 7 billion people. And there are those who suspect that modern, industrialized farming can't support 7 billion people in perpetuity, that is, without causing massive environmental damage (not to mention the 10 billion projected for the not-too-distant future). Currently, the world's people are fed by a complex mix of industrialized agriculture, small-scale intensive (i.e. European) semi-industrial agriculture, partially "developed" (post-Green Revolution) third-world farming, a few islands of more-or-less-traditional farming, and a tiny, tiny number of still-existing hunter-gatherers (who mostly are no longer traditional: the !Kung work for Herero cattle ranchers, the Hadza increasingly rely on eco-tourism, the Inuit hunt with snowmobiles). No one believes this mix is stable, but the current commercial pressures are for everyone to move toward US-style mega agrobusiness. If nothing else, think of all the local knowledge and practical farming expertise that will be lost!

No, 7 billion hunter-gatherers would not work out well. Would they have stabilized at sustainable numbers? We'll never know because they didn't -- they became farmers.

Jim Wood said...

The great pacifist-anarchist thinker Paul Goodman used to describe himself as a "Neolithic Conservative." I've always liked the phrase.

Jim Wood said...

Jennifer, I should have that recent guestimates of peak population of hunter-gatherers just before the Neolithic are often in the range of 5-10 million or so. But it doesn't really matter because all the numbers are fictitious.

Manoj Samanta said...

"Would they have stabilized at sustainable numbers?"

I do not think this 'steady state' or 'equilibrium' mentality is consistent with what we see in nature. Cyclical changes in population through huge losses and gains is reality.

Ken Weiss said...

The real problem is that we, here now, want sustainability for the future of which, even after we ourselves die, we can think about as if it's 'ours'. For example,that may affect our kids and grandkids generations

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, problems such as agriculture, pollution, peak oil, water contamination, water table depletion, and the like, are simply variant symptoms of the disease of too many people on the planet.

The disease will be cured. With our consent and participation or without.

Andrew B.

Jim Wood said...

Here's a lovely quote that I really should have used in my post. It's from a book written by an agricultural economist named J.K. Hatch, "Corn Farmers of Motupe" [Motupe is a small village in the Pacific Lowlands of the Andes region].

"Small farmers are vastly more knowledgeable than most of us can imagine. In fact, despite their lack of schooling, small farmers too are professionals. They have to be in order to survive! Through a lengthy apprenticeship which begins in childhood, small farmers are taught to use a very complex manual technology. They learn to make and use their own work implements. They learn to “read” the soil, the weather, and the heavens. They learn to study their crops for disease, insect and rodent damage, and water requirements – often on a plant-by-plant basis. They learn to follow a specialized farm task calendar, meet sequential task deadlines, and keep careful count of the passing days. They learn to build irrigation structures which are adjusted to soil quality, slope of the land, crop requirements, and water availability. They learn to make maximum use of their entire property, allow no part of their harvest to be wasted, and even collect weeds and stalk residue to feed to their animals or to use as fuel. They learn to salvage all they can when their crops are destroyed by rain, floods, droughts, wind, insects, and other calamities…. The very durability of such methods, and of the people who have survived terrible adversity using them, is reason alone to treat them with a great deal of respect." – J. K. Hatch (1974: 7-8)

Hatch started his fieldwork by doing a formal economic survey, but ended up thinking that he'd missed something fundamental. So he basically advertised himself as a slave: "I'll do farmwork for you for free if only you tell me why you're doing what you're doing." Talk about FIELDwork!