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The History of Agriculture


In this paper I will attempt to answer four related questions about the history of agriculture and agricultural methods. In our modern times, and especially in such a developed nation such as America, it is easy to forget that the earliest farmers could barely grow enough crops to feed their own family. A stark contrast to the industrialized corporate mega-farms today where a few workers can produce enough calories to feed an entire city. First, I would like to examine the beginning of agriculture and expand into how it allowed civilization to develop and flourish. Then, I will begin to discuss modern concerns towards agriculture. Specifically, I examine the impacts of the global shifting to intensive agricultural practices and how organic farming could mitigate the negative impacts of intensive agriculture.

Although chronologically it might make sense to first discuss the beginning of agriculture. I will start this paper by explaining the importance of large-scale agriculture in the development of humanity. I believe that intensive agriculture was the key that allowed for the development of early civilizations. Before the dawn of early empires in Mesopotamia, humans lived mostly in hunter-gatherer tribes. Indeed, hunting-gathering is said to have started before humans were even homo sapiens, with some historians believing that our predecessors, homo erectus, began hunting gathering some 1.6 million years ago (Franciscus, 1988). Over the course of millions of years, hunting-gathering skills were advanced. Humans created tools to hunt bigger game, and the accumulated experience of millennia allowed for more efficient scavenging of edible plant life.

Despite those advancements, the hunter-gatherer civilization never progressed into empires. Although tribes could grow in size and number, they were limited ultimately by the low amount of calories (in the form of edible wild food) that a given area of uncultivated land could produce. Also, when seasons changed, the tribe would have to migrate along with animal herds in order to maintain their supply of game to hunt. Also, hunters would have to walk anywhere up to 10 hours a day. The bipedal human body is not designed for efficient sprinting. We can be outrun over short distances by basically every animals. Outside of trapping, ancient humans mostly used the “persistence hunting” technique, where hunters would chase their prey to exhaustion (Liebenberg, 2006). As the human body is very efficient at reducing body heat (via sweat), over long distances and time hunters had the advantage over animals, who would have to slow in order to pant. With such a large portion of daily life devoted solely to the procuration of food, it’s obvious why population growth in hunter gatherer societies remained fairly low, and why those societies did not have time to erect buildings, develop villages, and pursue knowledge and artistic culture.

We can see now why intensive agriculture had such an advantage over hunter gatherer society. Where hunting society might have been able to provide enough food for the now, agriculture allowed for the accumulation of excess food. Through large-scale cultivation, farmers were able to produce far more calories per land unit than what scavengers could provide. Before, gatherers might have to search acres of land for a few edible plants. Through cultivation, farmers could select edible plants and grow the plants directly, eliminating the need to forage, and also eliminating the dangers of harvesting poisonous wild plants. Also, the plants could be grown at a much higher density than found in the wild. This hugely increased the provided calories per land unit and made it possible to produce more food than a tribe could eat. Even before considering the raising of domestic animals, land cultivation also eliminated the need for early civilizations to migrate with animal herds. By choosing long lasting, cold-resistant plants, early civilizations could produce excess food during warm months for consumption later.

Paving the way for sedentary civilization was only the first of many benefits of intensive agriculture. The increase in food production created an increase in population growth. With a stable food supply, families grew bigger which forced the development of communities and villages; the beginnings of large scale civilization were born. Previously, an entire tribe might have needed to focus on the procuration of game and edible plant life. Through agriculture, we can see how a smaller population of farmers could support a much larger society. Without the need for every person to worry about food, some people could be free to develop skills in other areas. There was now time for non-farmers to pursue advances in areas such as construction, metalwork, religion, education, and government. Of course, agricultural advancements were also discovered as farmers found more efficient ways to grow food.

As communities grew in size, people began to discover methods that allowed for expansion. While a hunter-gatherer tribe is solely dependent on what land can naturally create, but could move their society to fallow land. An agricultural based society does not have that ability. Crops take years to develop, so a farmer cannot just uproot his plants to cultivate elsewhere for immediate consumption. By developing irrigation techniques, early civilization could make adjacent land arable and thus subject for expansion.

More than just allowing the development of non-farming skills and trades, agriculture also paved the way for people to specialize in skills other than farming. It was through this that more advanced forms of bartering and economy began. With an excess food supply produced by farmers, other members of society could sustain themselves even if they decided to forgo farming entirely. Trades could occur between farmers and others. A farmer, while skilled at growing crops, might not be as skilled at creating the tools he used on the land. He could trade a portion of his crops for a well-crafted tool made by a smith. This kind of inefficient transaction, repeated innumerable times, ultimately resulted in the development of currency and the idea of market prices. Rather than trading an amount of crops for tools, those products could be sold for currency and used to buy other items later.

However, the development of sedentary civilizations was not without dangers. By eliminating migration, early civilizations opened themselves up to the perils of changing weather. Also, other hunter-gatherer tribes might view such a civilization as prey. An immobile farm, after all, does not present as much of a hunting challenge as a deer or bison. It was through this that the need for defense developed, and advances in warfare technology began. Also, excess supply was also subject to theft, creating the need for law and order. Such a large and complicated society could not function well under a tribe system, there was need for government. A government, or authoritative organization, was needed to organize, defend, and maintain society in order to allow the specialized workforce to continue their trade without fear of invasion.

As civilization created more and more specialized roles, the beginnings of social class also developed. Previous tribe leaders became kings, land owners became nobles, and shamans would become religious leaders. Guilds could also develop as specialists in the same trade came together to share and learn from the experience of others. The boom in population also created the need for politics, and designated leaders. As the population grew to a point where popular vote became unfeasible, elections began and the idea of community representatives (democracy) was created.

All of these advancements share a common genesis, the production of excess food. Rather than asking what the development of intensive agriculture allow early civilizations to accomplish, it is more accurate to say that agriculture was what allowed civilization to develop at all. The ancient Sumerian civilization is a perfect historical example of a culture that flourished after the development of intensive agriculture.

It’s commonly accepted that the first semblances of civilization started in the Mesopotamia region, what we know as modern Iraq. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that is also where we see the first uses of large-scale agriculture. As early as 6500 B.C., during the Ubaid period, ancient Sumerians began setting into the extreme southern regions of Iraq. Drawn by the availability of fresh water whist surrounded by desert, three separate cultures came together. The agricultural Samarra culture, the Arabian fisher-hunters, and the nomadic Semitic herders. By establishing agreements about the limited fresh water supply, the city of Eridu was born. Irrigation techniques brought by the Samarra culture ultimately allowed for the growing of grains despite the arid conditions of the region. Over hundreds of years, an extensive canal network was developed that allowed for a larger and larger population. As the availability of grains increased, early farmers began to practice animal domestication, further cementing their permanent residence in the area. Mud-brick villages began to spring up and Eridu itself grew to as large as 10 hectares with 4000 inhabitants. With excess food supply, trade developed. Archaeologists have found painted pottery and religious artifacts dating to the Ubaid period in the Eridu region, showing the beginnings of art and culture, made possible by agricultural advances. However, the Ubaid period ultimately came to an end at 3800 B.C. as a result of shifting climates making even irrigated lands barren, causing inhabitants to move to more arable regions.

The Sumerian Ubaid period was succeeded by the Uruk period. It is during this period that we see the rise of trade and centralized administration. Trade flourished between cities located near the rivers of southern Mesopotamia and Uruk itself grew to over 50,000 inhabitants. Class structure also became more clearly defined. Early texts show usage of slave labor and specialized workers. Uruk culture was spread through trade to the various cities in the region, which in turn developed similar economies to compete. Advances in metalwork also occurred as painted pottery (previously used as tools) was slowly replaced by copper. Religion also developed, with most theories pointing to early Uruk government as theocratic in nature. At this time, war science had still not developed, and even the largest of cities were generally open and without walls. By 2900 B.C., Sumerian culture had begun to expand outside the original southern Mesopotamian region. Along with this expansion came increased violence. Walls were built and wars began. Ultimately though, the Sumerian civilization was brought to an end with the rise of Babylonia.

Although the facts of Sumerian history are hard to come by. We can see a clear trend of growth that started following the use intensive farming. First, irrigation was used to make more arable land. Then, painted pottery tools, later replaced by copper, were used to increase farmland productivity, and we saw a corresponding increase in population. Advancements in architecture also occurred. The earliest tri-culture Sumerians lived in mud-brick houses and tents. Over time and through advancements in construction and architecture, they eventually began to build palaces and ziggurats. After securing a food supply, trade began, and other cities also developed along the rivers of southern Mesopotamia. Animal domestication became more prevalent, and as tools developed, animals were used to provide additional labor. Class differences became more pronounced, and slavery was established as another form of labor input. Ultimately, military science also came into play. Cities built walls, which are a testament to advancements in war technology.

Ironically, if the beginning of Sumerian civilization was made possible by developments in intensive agriculture techniques. Its decline was caused by incorrect application of those same techniques. The irrigation that brought water to previously arid land also brought along with it salt. Without proper draining techniques, soil salinity grew which resulted in a huge decrease in crop yields. Quite literally, over thousands of years, the Sumerians had “salted the earth.” Although stopgap measures were introduced, such as cultivating salt-resistant plants, such measures were ultimately ineffective in stopping a 60% reduction in population. Emigration sapped the Sumerian empire, and it was later taken over by the Amorites.

The decline of the Sumerian empire is an ancient example of a problem we are facing today. Since 1927, the world’s population has grown at an exponential rate incomparable to ancient times. In order to feed a rapidly increasing population, society shifted to intensive agricultural farming. Slave and animal labor has been replaced by massive machines. And science allowed us to add a new factor to increase yields, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Right now, the vast majority of the population is fed by a proportionately tiny population of farmers who utilize everything from monocropping to gene splicing to increase crop yields. What may have started as a need to feed an increasing population quickly became commercialized. By hugely increasing the amount of output in crops per input of land, farms quickly began to generate massive amounts of revenue.

According to economic theory, food is a highly inelastic good. Elasticity is explained as the degree to which demand or supply changes for a particular good when reacting to a change in price. After all, people will always need to eat. At the same time, the agricultural industry is the closest to a perfectly competitive market that we have. Indeed most economic textbooks use “the grain industry” when trying to explain economic competition. If one company in the grain industry decides to raise its prices in grain, consumers will flock to its many competitors, and the original company would lose its business. Therefore, a company in the agricultural industry generally cannot increase its revenue by changing the prices it charges for crops. So what is the obvious alternative solution? To increase yield. This kind of reasoning, repeated endlessly, is how something like the packaged food industry alone (not including fresh foods, meats, dairy, etc.) has become a $1.6 trillion industry per year. To put this into perspective, the packaged food industry exceeds the annual GDP of all but the 11 largest countries, and is just shy of Canada’s GDP.

This shift towards intensive farming is not without drawbacks. Like the Sumerians, modern intensive agriculture also places us at risk of decreasing soil fertility. Since the advent of industrialized farming, organic matter in soil content has decreased by anywhere up to 50%. Although advances in agricultural technology has so far outpaced decreasing soil fertility, at what point does the organic matter decrease to such an extent that the soil becomes barren? Also, widespread use of antibiotics in livestock has given rise to new, deadlier forms of disease and bacteria. When the livestock is consumed as food, those antibiotics are transferred into human bodies. Many of the deadliest modern day diseases such as MSRA other superbugs that can overcome antibiotics started only after the advent of penicillin. It is possible that such prolific use of antibiotics in livestock could give rise to a new breed of antibiotic resistant organisms. A rise that, if not controlled, could develop into a plague.

Perhaps the most worrying impact of intensive agriculture is its dependence on a non-renewal able energy source. In other words, the modern intensive agriculture is highly relied on petroleum based products like fuel, fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. In order to achieve highly intensive mechanized agriculture, petroleum is essential for power the equipment.


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