Plough, Spray, Eat, Repeat
For millennia we survived as a semi-nomadic species, hunting and gathering that which was required for our survival. Early humans, as with our living relatives, the Gorillas, Bonobos and Chimpanzees, were mostly vegetarians and spent their days foraging for fruit and browsing for plants. Our ecological footprint was minimal and our impact reduced to clearing small areas of land, thinning the canopy and allowing more light to reach the forest floor. This unconscious management of the landscape, not dissimilar to the coppiced woodland of the Middle Ages, created the habitat for fresh growth and so, as we roamed, we left new life in our wake.
As scavengers too, and even when we took our first footsteps as hunters, we lived in balance. It is believed that early humans gleaned most of their animal protein from the leftover prey of larger predators. Our footprint here was also minimal, constrained by our lack of technology (and thus our ability to kill en masse) and by our moderate population.
And so, as we wandered, we caused little harm but to gently thin the numbers of grazer species, and to spread the seeds of the fruit we’d eaten. With the spark of innovation, however, the human path began to diverge from that of our planetary neighbours.
A Civilization of Farmers
Once the secrets of growing food were discovered, the Age of the Nomad ended as the Age of the Farmer began, and the need to roam and forage became redundant. Growing food required both time and attention, and neither of these were compatible with a nomadic lifestyle.
With the cropping process, workload peaked during sowing and at harvest, remained steady throughout the growing season but dropped off to almost nothing over the winter. These periods of low activity provided, for the first time in human history, free-time.
Alongside the fluctuating workload, agriculture brought periods of plenty and periods of famine.
Following the harvests, food was abundant and life became carefree and easy. The hard work of the year gave way to a period of rest and of feasting. This feeling is immortalised in the folklore and holidays of almost every region of the world, from Thanksgiving to Holi, that are celebrated at the time of the main harvest.
The yin to the harvest yang are the “hungry gaps”, the periods (thankfully, beyond memory for most) between the end of the winter stores and the first new crops coming to fruition in which food was scarce and morale low.
Both factors played a crucial role in the cognitive and technological development of our species. The reprieve offered by those times of plenty provided us with the space and comfort to think, free of concern for our food, safe in the knowledge of our stores; the times of hunger urged human ingenuity onwards, pushing us to improve our food storage, our harvesting techniques and the efficiencies of our farms.
As the culture of farming took hold, humanity began to settle and to build; we began to change the face of our planet, a little at a time. Houses became villages, villages grew to towns and the towns, in turn, became sprawling metropolises. With these new urban areas came great waterworks to sanitise them, and to irrigate our crops that allowed for their construction; roads were built to connect them; walls raised to defend them and, eventually, the borders of civilizations drawn.
Walking Away from the Land
Agriculture, and the technology facilitated by it, has resulted in a slew of changes that have brought humanity from hunter-gatherers to metropolitan urbanites. Whilst early humans lived in small groups and engaged in all aspects of their survival, our contemporaries, far from the reality of our ancestors, typically spend their lives engaging in a tiny sliver of the activities of our much larger society.
A key development in this journey, our industrialisation, was the division of labour. A specialist worker is able to work more quickly, forgoing the time and effort lost switching tasks. These efficiency gains simultaneously increase the speed of production and drive down the cost of production.
The continuation of this trend has brought us to modern mass production: a fiendishly complex, globalised network of developing-world factories, production lines and just-in-time contracts, all tied together using the insomniac shipping lanes that crisscross the planet. The modern paradigm is the most efficient in history and we are able to produce food and consumables cheaper than ever before. This comes, however, with a price.
As a society we have chosen cheaper goods at the expense of disconnecting workers from the fruits of their labour.
Our original, holistic production system led to a deep understanding of whichever product was being created. This understanding was inevitable, the result of the producers overseeing the entire process and becoming intimately aware of the time, skill and resource they required to perform it. Such involvement also led to a feeling of responsibility for the product, ensuring it was used, maintained, repaired and, eventually, disposed of carefully and appropriately.
When it comes to our food (and, to a lesser-degree, our shelter), a feeling of connection and understanding is essential. As with all life, we require food for our survival, and, within our agricultural society, we simply cannot avoid producing and harvesting it. A complete loss of understanding concerning the origins of our food, the hardships implicit in growing it and the costs exerted by it would be cataclysmic: without such an understanding we cannot hope to judge our behaviour, or its impact, positive or negative. The loss of this understanding would also render us unable to cultivate kindness, and pride, for our planet and our home.
We have lost our connection with the soil, the provider for almost all of our nutritional needs. Instead of nurturing fruit from a seedling, or fostering an animal from its infancy, our food is now shipped around the world, packaged and presented to us, neatly wrapped in styrofoam. Gone is our awareness of the realities of agriculture and hidden from view are the countless unsightly crops that don’t make it to the table, falling instead at the first quality-control hurdle to feed animals, become compost or, most-harrowingly, be buried as landfill (incurring an energy cost and breaking down, not into a fertile growing medium but anaerobically into methane, a harmful greenhouse gas).
Modern farming glorifies the mass-production of ever-larger, more aesthetically perfect crops. It does this both to feed our growing populations and our growing expectations: the Platonic has become the norm and a crooked-carrot or a blighted potato are now banished to the compost heap (or, more often, the landfill). The relationship this fosters is an unhealthy one, disconnected with the hardships involved in producing food, distancing the consumer from the producer. What was once the sole aim of human endeavour has now become an afterthought or a trivialised object of glutton.
To worsen the matter, our problems do not end with consumption alone. The large-scale use of pesticides and herbicides decimate the biodiversity in heavily farmed areas, reducing them to a monoculture of corn, wheat or soy. The creation of these genetic deserts has a hugely detrimental effect on the pollinators and other insect life in the area, poisoning them or eliminating their food sources. In turn, the massacre of the microfauna has a knock-on effect on rodents, birdlife and so-forth, rippling upwards through the food-chain like so-many hungry dominoes falling.
This is without even considering the detrimental effect on human health.
Pesticide use is responsible for almost a quarter of a million deaths each year and has been reported to result in increased rates of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer diagnosis. The widespread use of these substances also has a detrimental effect on the nutrition of our food: organic, pesticide-free foods produce typically contains higher levels of antioxidants, reduced levels of toxic cadmium and an all-round richer mineral profile.
Neither are fertilisers a free-lunch for food producers; there are hidden costs here too. The excessive use of phosphates and nitrates as a replacement for the holistic management of soil has the unpleasant side effect of filling our streams and water supplies with widespread algal blooms, choking out other, slower-growing life. Similarly to pesticides, this systemic suppression of many natural foodstuffs is starving the ecosystem from the foundations upwards.
The problem is caused and worsened by inadequate management of arable land; intensive farming methods promote the use of these chemicals that, when coupled with multiple yearly harvests, ravage the soil for its nutrients and destroy its composition through repeated digging and ploughing. This reduces the capacity for the soil to hold nutrients (resulting in more fertilisers leaching into water sources), decimates mycological flora and crushes the biodiversity to near zero.
We can thank these ‘modern’ methods for the dire state of our soils. Yields are now decreasing annually, typically by around 5% per crop per year in the EU, and some climatologists estimate we have as few as 60 harvests left. Worryingly, our food is running out.
Where once farming entailed growing a variety of crops, rotated or intergrown to aid fertility and disease-resistance, tailored to the unique climate of the area, now corporation-owned cultivars are grown globally to fit our idealised image of the fruit, vegetable or grain. Gone are the multitude of heirloom crops, the plethora of distinct varieties, each suited perfectly to a unique, ancestral environment – and with it’s unique taste, nutritional profile and merit.
We are left with barbie-doll bananas.
The notion of interconnectedness, which at one point must have seemed so obvious to humanity, too obvious for words perhaps, is now a rare concern within our society.
An understanding of our place within the ecosystem is necessary, not just for our long-term survival but also for our long-term happiness. Without an appreciation of our role in maintaining planetary balance we will be unable to lay meaningful plans for our future; without acceptance of this role as our responsibility, as joint custodians of this planet, we cannot be truly satisfied with our behaviour.
So, what is the solution to all of this? There does seem to be a shift in global consciousness happening and the world is becoming aware of the situation we are faced with.
The popularity of organic food is rising, with the industry growing to over $80bn in 2015 and increasing annually. The prevalence of environmental documentaries on Netflix is also testament to a change in public perception and, hopefully, the advent of both the conscious consumer and a self-aware population. By contributing to this movement – by choosing sustainable food and voting with your wallet; by supplementing your diet with home-grown food; or, by simply engaging those around you in meaningful conversation – you can help make this a reality.
Organic, sustainable agriculture, coupled with a local and decentralised food production network to reduce transport emissions, presents a viable solution. Holistic agricultural system, such as the organic movement, requires careful crop-rotation to nourish the soil and restore the nutrition depleted with each harvest, ensuring it remains fertile and productive. Agricultural practices that do not focus sprays and fertilisers also typically foster 50% more life than ‘conventional’ systems, restoring the ecosystem for the non-human inhabitants of our planet.
Sustainable agriculture can nourish and restore our home for humans, insects, animals and plants alike. Through systems such as these we can create a legacy of positive environmental change, leaving resilient food production, animal habitat and natural beauty in our wake.
Luke Mitchell is a permaculture enthusiast, software developer and cryptocurrency entrepreneur from Bristol, UK. He is currently immersed in several permaculture and sustainable agriculture projects. You can read more about him here: https://LukeMitchell.co/