Mae Humiston & Sara Gardner | Let’s Talk About Food
A crash course in agriculture
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2012 08:10
Agriculture began at least 10,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens stopped chasing animals and foraging long enough to make the connection between seed and plant. This probably happened when our ancestors stared at feces, to be perfectly honest. After years of trial and error, humans in what is now the Middle East were growing the best of the wild. They selected the foods they liked most, picked out the seeds, planted them and began a lifestyle centered on these cultivated spaces. This, most anthropologists argue, birthed the world’s first cities. Good growers began to focus solely on growing, good builders on building, good weapons makers on weapon making and so on. Agricultural specialization, however rudimentary, gave rise to our world’s first civilizations. And it’s been creating problems ever since.
While this new specialized agriculture system led to population booms, it also led to widespread nutritional deficiencies as many of the wild plants that people relied on for sustenance on were removed from everyday diets. Additionally, as populations increased exponentially, growing spaces were forced further and further away from city centers. These spaces simultaneously expanded and diversified to feed more mouths. Expansion necessitated innovation, which gave rise to techniques such as weeding, slash-and-burn clearing, letting fields lie fallow and irrigation.
These seemingly intuitive techniques opened up a previously untapped world of agricultural production, the basics of which are the very foundation of modern industrial farming technology.
Skipping over the several thousands of years during which humans domesticated horses and maize (2000-4000 BCE), discovered tea (roughly 3000 BCE), created windmills (roughly 1000 CE), refined sugar (around 0 CE), traded coffee from the Middle East (roughly 1500 CE) and popularized greenhouses (0 CE), we arrive in the 1700s. People had figured out how to seed, weed, harvest, fertilize, irrigate and store innumerable types of plants by then. Specialization was on the rise because intensive production of one unique product meant standardization, efficiency and increased profit. We’re greeted by the British Agricultural Revolution, which fed an exploding population and resulted in the popularization of nitrogen-fixating crop rotation.
Chemical fertilizers arrived on the scene in the 19th century and scientists like Gregor Mendel started throwing ideas about genes around as well. Getting into the 1900s, we essentially arrive at the beginning of modern industrial agriculture and the infusion of agriculture into American policy-making. According to Tim Griffin of the Friedman School — Tufts’ graduate school of nutrition — the development of the steel and railroad industries, the popularization of the tractor, the invention of hybrid corn and advances in food preservation were all necessary elements to forming modern industrial agriculture. These paved the way for a “Green Revolution” in the 70s that temporarily, yet dramatically, increased crop yields by using chemicals and genetically modified seeds. The revolution ultimately pushed many small farmers out of business due to their greater financial demands.
We’ve come from nibbling wild greens to producing food on unimaginably massive scales. However, because of our agricultural “advances,” most farmland is in the hands of very few and it is cultivated using genetically engineered plants, chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer. This land is largely devoted to monocultures of wheat, corn and rice. Its financiers — corporations — hold heavy clout with policy-makers. Despite improvements in technology, people are still suffering nutritionally, ecologically, financially and/or politically because of modern food production. It’s a complicated and convoluted history, and we’ve barely skimmed the surface. If you want to go deeper and engage with this incredibly important history, feel free to email us!
Sara Gardner is a freshman who has not yet a declared a major. She can be reached at Sara.Gardner@tufts.edu. Mae Humiston is a senior majoring in anthropology. She can be reached at Mae.Humiston@tufts.edu