Agriculture in Perspective: Part 2 of 2

by Ray Grigg

Agriculture ended the enchantment of the intimate and timeless accord we have had with nature since the beginning of our being. Not only did agriculture separate us from each other by breaking the social cohesion of cooperation and sharing that made hunting-gathering so sustainable, but the husbanding of animals and the growing of crops set us apart from nature, enticing us to become distinct, independent, deliberate, willful and controlling—even selfish, uncaring and greedy. We became takers rather than receivers. And we paid with our freedom. Although we worked the land, the land also worked us, indenturing us to labour in the fields of our own making.

The biblical poetry of Genesis contains the pensive regret of a lost Eden and captures so eloquently our enslavement to agriculture: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread till you return to the ground; for out of it were you taken; for dust you are, and unto dust you shall return.”

Agriculture also changed our patient attitude to the elemental rain and sun that once came and passed in the easy order of their seasons. With our lives dependent on the success of crucial crops, weather became a subject of consternation. So, too, with the insects and other creatures that had once been our innocent companions in nature’s grand and harmonious design; they now became competitors and enemies to dread and oppose.

Then the animals and birds we domesticated brought us diseases. Living in close proximity to them brought us smallpox, chicken pox, measles, polio, diphtheria, typhus, influenza, syphilis, hepatitis, tuberculosis, leprosy and a host of other contagions which we avoided as hunter-gatherers. Farming practices are the source of almost all the serious diseases of human history. And more are on their way.

Agriculture has also brought us the expectation of plenty and the illusion of abundance. In a risky dance with death that the anthropologist Ronald Wright has called “a progress trap”, we have multiplied in numbers and appetite to consume the supply of food we grow — our reproductive compulsion has kept us just one crop ahead of starvation. From a few million in our early history, we are now more than 7 billion and still multiplying. So far, our food production efforts have been a qualified success — qualified because the number of today’s malnourished people roughly equals the world’s population of 1900.

This desperate Malthusian race to keep food production ahead of population growth is destroying the ecologies we need to grow enough food. And with projected world population growth expected to peak at 11 billion, we are stressing entire biophysical systems to the point of exhaustion. Indeed, our history records many civilizations collapsing when an irregularity such as a volcanic eruption, diseas, pests, or change in climate causes agricultural failures.

We, of course, would like to believe that we are the exception to this lesson of history. Maybe we will be. Unfortunately, we have no choice but to find out.