The Garden of forking paths

  Long, long ago, people lived in the forest or by the sea and for generation after generation they lived on Nature's bounty - leafy greens, nuts, seeds, shellfish, fish, wild free ranging meat, eggs, roots, berries and seasonal fruits. These people were hunters and gatherers.
This was how we lived for about 150,000 years. An incredible 90% of human existence on this planet!

Around 10,000 years ago we began to learn the art, science, trials and toils of farming. Animals were domesticated and used to plough large tracts of land which could be sown with annual grass seed. This was harvested, threshed, baked or stored. This meant that the supply of food was less haphazard and uncertain than before but the diet had fewer proteins and vitamins. The people had full bellies but were actually malnourished ( much like many today!)
And they shrank! Before farming men were on average 5'9”, with the adoption of agriculture the average dropped to 5'3”
Still, they were fit enough and fertile – the people prospered and grew in numbers. Hamlets became villages, which became towns, which became cities. Those who weren't toiling laboriously in the fields were free to create the artifacts and knowledge systems of civilisation.

Can this really have been “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” as Jared Diamond claims?   Was the hunter-gatherer life really better?
In some ways it was – wild foods were more nutritious, they had more leisure - for instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food for modern hunter-gatherer is only 12 to 19 hours (the Kalahari Bushmen,) 14 hours ( the Hadza nomads of Tanzania), there is no elite class, no slave or peasant labour.
However hunter-gathering only works where the population is small – it cannot exceed the locality's carrying capacity.
And is impossible now for the vast majority of the global population.
Enter the era of industrial agriculture
Farming practices grew, focussing mainly on annual plants - wheat, corn, rye, rice, potatoes, chickpeas which have provided calories but reduced the intake of proteins and vitamins of the hunter-gatherer life.  Farming methods expanded and improved until we reached the 19th century. The use of fossil fuels for mechanisation and synthetic fertilizers changed everything. From this point and on throughout the 20th century, yields increased, less labour was required, and there was plenty of food (though fair distribution was another matter).

Vast acres of land were ploughed and planted with single crops. Herbicides and pesticides solved the farmer's perennial problems. Huge, efficient machines were designed to till, seed, spray, harvest and process.
They were so successful that food mountains were created. And the global population just grew and grew and grew.....
But it all came with a price.
There is now clear and undisputed evidence of
- Vast areas of degraded land
- Usable water is likely to become a scarce resource
- Weeds have become resistant to herbicides and superweeds are crippling the livelihoods of farmers (especially in the USA)
- Severe and chronic biodiversity loss. We are witnessing the 6th Great Extinction
- Opportunistic corporations have trapped farmers into buying patented seeds causing widespread misery and loss of livelihoods.
- Bees - ( especially in the USA) have been disappearing
- Centuries-old cultures and languages have disappeared
-Aggressive land-grabs are taking place in Africa and South        American countries, displacing and denying the rights of peasants and small farmers.
So if hunter-gatherering is off the menu and industrial agriculture is causing us more problems than benefits, what do we do?
Currently there are two opposing schools of thoughts and modes of action.
This suggestion from the Economist that we "can now look forward with confidence to feeding 10 billion on less land using synthetic nitrogen, genetically high-yield crops and tractors".
is typical of more-of-the-same industrial, large-scale agriculture
    The other states that we already have viable approaches to producing the food we need.
Agroecological, eco-efficient, and organic agriculture, can not only nourish a world population of some 9 to 10 billion people, but are the only approaches that will be able to do it in the face of climate change, natural resource scarcity, and growing demand challenges.

This is the subject of the next post
"You can solve all the world's problems in a garden"



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    Marianne Winfield

    For a more organised (not date sequenced) collection of the
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    January 2013
    November 2012