The Agricultural Revolution and The Impact on Our Food

The Agricultural Revolution and The Impact on Our Food

Exploring where our food comes from and how we got here

I wanted to explore the history of our food sources and how they impact the way we connect with the land. Many aspects of our modern world can be correlated to this pivotal period during the agricultural revolution. More than 90% of today’s calories that feed us stem from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated 10,000-3,000 BC

For over two and a half million years our ancestors feed themselves without the intervention of domestication. They ate from the local area they roamed, hunted game, fowl and other wild animals. The transition from hunter-gathers to farmers and controlled agriculture starts around 10,000 years ago. Before this humans gathered in nomadic bands, traveling with the seasons. The days were most likely filled with more time for leisure as food sources were abundant.   

A Slow Transition

The transition was slow and arduous, as we settled down to domesticate varieties of plants and animals. Feasibly this took centuries or even thousands of years to fully develop into normal behavior. We started to live in larger and larger communities of people with many more mouths to feed.  The days were now dedicated to sowing seeds, tending to the fields, watering crops and breeding out unwanted traits in an ever-narrowing list of crops. 

It was formerly believed that agriculture sprang up from a single origin point in the world. Today it is widely understood that there were other civilizations cultivating crops independent of each other. 

Out of the thousands of species of animals and varieties of plants that our hunter-gather ancestors utilized, but a few were suitable for domestication. It seems no significant plant or creature has been domesticated in the past 2,000 years, as we still rely on the foods of the agricultural revolution.

 

domesticated goats

Early plant and animal domestication

Grains were among the first crops domesticated by early farming communities in southern Turkey. These early pioneers also domesticated many legumes and seeds as well. The practice of domestication is by which the selection of traits that are more desirable are selected and grown over many life cycles until it no longer represents the wild varietal. Over time, a domestic species becomes different from its wild relative thus narrowing the genome of the plant or animal.

Early growers preferred crops that were easy to tend to and could store for longer periods of time. The durability of the grain was a large factor that needed to be bred into our food sources. Wheat was very fragile in the early days of cultivation and would not keep or store well.

Prey animals

Younger males were considered to be used as food sources and females allowed to live for breeding. Actively defending the herd from predators was the succeeding step in this domestication process. Finally driving them into a coral or gorge, they then started to make distinct selections and weed out the more aggressive or most inquisitive. With each passing generation, the animals became tamer and grew to bigger sizes to sustain early farmers. From a narrow evolutionary perspective that measures success by the number of DNA copies, the agricultural revolution was a boom for prey animals.   

The Agricultural revolution was one of the most important events in human history. This was a turning point in which we shed off our connection with nature and headed towards the path we are on today.

Wheat germ close up

The success and failure of a revolution

When wild plants gave way to domesticated wheat fields. The population explosion was a direct effect.  Wheat is one of the most successfully grown crops in the history of the earth. It now spreads over hundreds and hundreds of miles of the surface of our planet.

Just about the same time that farmers were beginning to sow wheat in the Fertile Crescent, people in Asia started to grow rice and millet. Historians have located evidence of rice paddies in China determined to be around the same periods. While in Mexico, squash cultivation began about 10,000 years ago, and ancient corn crops emerged around 9,000 ago.

The story of human progress through the agricultural revolution revered as a great step forward, but the opposite may be true. Foragers knew the ways of nature and were better versed in how to survive than we are today. Excess amounts of food didn’t always translate into an easier style of life. Questions come to mind when looking at this time, was humankind domesticated by agriculture? We passed all our time, engineering crops to feed the ever-growing settlements. People settled next to fields to tend to crops, build infrastructure, and to protect the food sources.   

 

Crop biodiversity: The produce pitfall

Crop diversity is an aspect of biodiversity important for food protection. The loss of biodiversity in our ecosystem is one of the most serious environmental concerns we face. Our narrowing of varietals is of serious concern because of the risk of disease to a specific crop could potentially wipe out that food source. Safeguards are being taken with the storage in seed banks across the globe but more effort needs to be done.   

In 2016, nearly thirty percent of the world’s wild plant species were missing from the world’s seed banks, with another twenty-four percent only having ten samples or less. The modern diet is increasingly large percentage of a modest number of commodity crops, including wheat, rice, sugar, maize, and soybeans.

We need to look no further than the “Panama disease” that hit in the 1900s and nearly wiped out the world-wide supply of bananas. The gene pool of the banana was single-origin and field after field was ravaged by a fungus. The cloning of a single genome is a risk that we’ve been living with for a long time and we may need to come to the realization that our food sources need to be a diverse as our modern urban centers.