The first known appearance of agriculture occurred in Mesopotamia around ten thousand years ago during the Neolithic Era; the Neolithic Revolution is considered one of the most crucial eras of human history. During this time, humans began the transition from a nomadic lifestyle that relied on hunting and gathering to a more permanent lifestyle providing for the first time the opportunity for permanent settlements. At the time this land consisted of mostly swamplands providing the optimal setting for crop growth thus giving it the name the Fertile Crescent.
“A majority of the human population once worked in agriculture and even today few, if any, humans could survive without it.”
With just the right climate and plentiful water, including marshes and tributaries, the Fertile Crescent was the perfect setting to begin the evolution of agriculture. There were multiple species of wild grains already growing on the land, these would eventually be tended to through the use of damming and draining water supplies, sheep and wild boars were also domesticated from this land. This area of land is currently occupied by modern day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Palestinian territories.
Archeologist have excavated “bone sickle handles” and “flint edges” that date back as early as 9000 BC. The discovery of these tools allowed scientists to determine the gradual shift from hunter gathers to farmers.
Irrigation structures and examining the land surface have also hinted at the development of agriculture. The findings by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, including their tributaries, suggest systems of irrigation were being explored as early as seven thousand years ago. And smaller systems are thought to have been used eight thousand years ago in Palestine.
In addition to these finds, scientists have established that two separate populations developed agricultural practices independently from one another. Examining the DNA from the skeletal remains of these two groups allowed scientists to discover two very different genome maps. This is the proof that agriculture was being implemented in two regions of the Fertile Crescent separately from each other. Furthermore, the individuals living in the southern region of Levant, modern day Israel and Jordan, farmed barley and wheat while the other group living in what is currently western Iran domesticated goats and emmer wheat.
With the invention of agriculture came the start of domesticating plants and animals marking a major turning point for humanity. Raising one’s own livestock and tending to one’s own crop fields eliminates the need for hunting and gathering for consumption in addition to other uses like the making of textiles.
Some of the first crops included: emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, hulled barley, chickpeas, and flax. While this land was perfect for crop growth some areas were still susceptible to dry spells, especially the flood plains in Babylonia and Assyria. Because of this, simple plows were used to keep the soil cultivable and by 3000 BC they were in common use.
Groves of figs, pomegranates, apples, and pistachios were also common throughout the Fertile Crescent. In cities of southern Mesopotamia date palm groves were bountiful.
Plants were not only being domesticated, they were also being stored and even transported. All harvesting was done by hand with a sickle. After being dried out, animals were driven over the grain to “tread out” the grain. Transportation was established by use of waterways, this allowed products to move faster and more easily. “By the time farmers in present-day Turkey began migrating to Europe, they carried a 'Neolithic toolkit' that included crops, animals and tools from both farming traditions.”
I argue this also marks the beginning of humanities decoupling from the natural world.
The natural world is full of symbiotic relationships. These relationships are essential for the success of individual ecosystems, but also have a major effect on the globe in its entirety. Relying on the patterns of the natural world for food as well as other needs that come out of agriculture and domesticating (i.e. textiles), force humans to adhere to these relationships. Humans are forced to live within the natural world rather than above it. By domesticating plants and animals, we are removing them from the role they play in their ecosystems. And furthermore, we begin to physically change the natural state of these species to better adhere to our needs, putting the benefit of humanity above the natural relationships occurring in and on the land.
“For example, early wild chickens weighed about two pounds. But over thousands of years of domestication, they have been bred to be larger. Larger chickens yield more meat. Today, domestic chickens weigh as much as 17 pounds. Wild chickens only hatched a small number of eggs once a year, while domestic chickens commonly lay 200 or more eggs each year.”
Around the 4th millennium BC came the introduction of qanats to crop fields. This more involved system of irrigation includes man made underground streams called qanats. This method is continually being used in some areas of the Middle East today.
This is another significant innovation that continued to distance humanity from the land and the natural world. Now humans no longer have to settled directly next to a source of water, instead directing water to them with the use of underground channels allowing gravity to do what it does best. This also further cements the potential for permanent civilizations.
The invention of metal tools brought the end of the New Stone Era and the beginning of the Bronze Era. As advancements in metalworking exponentially increased tools to assist in agricultural production became more and more involved.
By the Middle Ages European farmers had developed more complex systems of irrigation such as dams, reservoirs, and water raising machines. Around this time three field crop rotations were being implemented. By the 17th, 18th, and 19th, centuries the British Agricultural Revolution was underway. This brought new modes of crop rotation as well as the introduction of new crops; turnips were being introduced to crops fields around this time. Methods of cultivating land that previously would have proved to be too marshy or forested were being implemented as well. All this could not have been achieved without the development of these tools. Or perhaps I should say could not have been achieved it this amount of time.
By 1830 the first mechanical combined harvester was in use. This device allowed for a more efficient harvest. Combining four harvesting styles, reaping, threshing, gathering, and winnowing, farmers were now able to harvest multiple grains at once. 1892 brought the first gasoline powered tractors. Invented by John Froelich, this tractor brought even more convenience to the crop field. And by 1938 the first refrigerated transport company was established. This is another major turning point for agriculture. Products could now be transported further with lest pressure on spoiling.
"[There was a] dramatic increase in agricultural productivity from 1929 through 2014, as agricultural output almost quadrupled while input usage remained relatively constant." - Robert Johnansson, chief economist at the USDA
I have already established that our decoupling began with domestication. The convenience that comes with the use of agricultural tools continues the decoupling in a relationship that is already weakening. Crop and livestock yields are being established more efficiently saving the time and physical energy of farmers. However, I would argue that convenience has destroyed any hope of mending our relationship with the natural world. With a taste of what life could be like with the involvement of technologies why would humanity chose to keep a close relationship with the natural world?
During the Twentieth Century work done by scientist Gregor Mendel paved the way for modern genetics. These experiments focused on plant hybridization, which is the cross breeding of plants, and later animals, of different species. He most often carried out his experiments on pea plants.
Life during and after the World Wars brought never before seen innovations to agriculture and plant and animal growth.
The nuclear age opened the world’s eyes to the potential for atomic radiation to make plants, seeds, and animals for efficient. Atomic gardens
became a huge area for experimentation after world war II.
There were two leading ideas that motivated the interest in atomic gardening:
“bombard plants with radiation to purposely cause as many mutations as possible → maybe one would lead to a mutation that would benefit consumption quality of a plant”
“Create plants that were disease resistant or cold resistant”
John Hersey’s 1946 piece of New Journalism Hiroshima recounts the story of six survivors of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
“Over everything - up through the wreckage of the city, in gutter, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks - was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdacy rose eve from the foundations of the ruined houses. Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones. The bomb had not only left the underground organs of the plants intact, it had stimulated them.”
Radiobiologist Arnold Sparrow contributed major studies to this field some of which included:
Tumor induction in plants
Production of new horticultural varieties
Prolongation of storage life of various plant products
Relative radio sensitivity of a wide range of plant species
While humans have been looking for methods of making their crops more and more beneficial for their needs since the dawn of agriculture, the science that came out of the Nuclear Era completely changed the game in its totality. The executive associate director of the Biotechnology Center at the University of Illinois has claimed that humans have tampered with plants so extensively that they could to survive without the nurturing from humans.
The present-day gamma garden at the Institute of Radiation Breeding, Hitachiohmiya, Japan.
Malaysia’s Gamma Greenhouse
Most of today’s fruits and plant derived flavors come genetic mutations which are a result of gamma radiation exposure. The most well-known results of these experiments are disease resistant peppermint and the Rio Star grapefruit which ow makes up 75% of grapefruits grow in Texas.
Crops are not the only area of agriculture that are being exposed to this experimentation. Genomics allows scientists to determine breeding potential based off an animal’s genome map. These maps are made from nuclear techniques called radiation hybrid mapping. Cells from an animal are collected and irradiated to randomly break up the DNA and then are fussed with rodent calls to propagate short strands of DNA.
Area wide pest management is also a result of atomic mutation. This involves targeting an entire pest population. The Sterile Insect Technique sterilizing the male insect of a specific species. They are then released back into the natural world. The sterilization keeps the female insect from reproducing young therefore controlling the number of insects affecting crop fields.
With all of this said I believe our interventions on plants and animals for the purpose of agriculture has majorly contributed to our decoupling from the natural world. Agricultural technologies have created a physical distance between farmers and farm. Increased population creates a demand for more food. This combined with our consistent need for convenience and efficiency continues to distance ourselves from the land. While atomic experimentation has created efficiency, has clouded our thinking? Is this in depth tinkering ethically okay? If we do not establish a line of ethics, where will humanity stop if at all?
a closer look...
“There are over 127 million acres of agricultural land in the Midwest and in addition to 75% of that area in corn and soybeans, the other 25% is used to produce alfalfa, apples, asparagus, green beans, blueberries, cabbage, carrots, sweet and tart cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, grapes, oats, onions, peaches, plums, peas, bell peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, raspberries, strawberries, sweet corn, tobacco, tomatoes, watermelon, and wheat.” USDA
The United States Grains Council released statistics
on the 2018/19 production and distribution of corn. According to them, the United States produced more than 14.42 billion bushels or 366 million metric tons of corn harvested from 91.7 million acres of farmland. From this yield about 14.3% of it was exported to 73 different courties with the top three being: Mexico, Japan, and Columbia
Giving this region its nickname The Corn Belt, corn is a major part of the United State's economy. Corn is a major part of most peoples lives. It is in almost everything
we eat, from sweeteners to oils to flour and meal corn is increasingly difficult to avoid. Corn is also used to produce ethanol, batteries, and plastics, to name a few. Additionally, much of the corn produced ends up right back on the farm in form of livestock feed. This is especially interesting given animals cannot sustain a diet of just grain; if their lives weren't already shorten this diet would kill them far before thier natural lifespan.
The Chicago Federal Reserve Bank organized a conference
in November of 2019. The goal of this meeting was to take a closer look at the "environmental issues related to Midwest agriculture". The following are some take aways I am particularly interested in.
Gary Schnitkey, Soybean Industry Chair in Agricultural Strategy at the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, stressed the issue regarding the use of commercial fertilizers. This nutrient runoff consists mainly of nitrogen and phosphorus and is polluting crucial water supplies including the Great Lakes, which are a source of drinking water for many in the Midwest, and the Gulf of Mexico. Schnitkey also pointed out the issue of carbon release presented by tilling.
Another speaker, Emily Bruner, the Midwest Science Director for the American Farmland Trust, spoke of growing practices that ensure healthier soil than the industrial practices widely used. She provided case studies from farms in Ohio, New York, and Illinois.
"In the Illinois example, the farm’s net income was boosted through the use of cover crops—which increased the farm’s corn and soybean yields by more than enough to offset the cover crops’ associated costs—and through nutrient-management techniques and reduced tillage, which lowered costs for running machinery and expenses for nutrients."
In all three row crop farms studied, Burner concluded there was an average increase in net income per acre by $42 and an average return on investment reaching almost 170%.
Innovations in agricultural practices have take huge strides in the past decade. Pushes towards indoor and vertical farming presented the opportunity to:
cut down the distance between producer and consumer
reduce run offs
allow our lands to return to their natural state
There has also been a huge surge in public interest in home growing. This has lead way to all sorts of creative DIY growing methods.
I am excited about what these new technologies hold for the future of our food and land, but also question where this will leave humanity in our relationship with the natural world.
"Man – despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication, and his many very real accomplishments – owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains."
- John Jeavons