As humans we have to consume food to survive. But why do we farm at all? Why can’t we just live off the land like our hunter/gatherer ancestors?
For thousands of years humans spent most of their lives searching for food – hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. Then around 11,000 years ago people began to settle down and gradually learned how to grow cereal crops (wheat, barley, oats, etc.) and root crops (potatoes, onions, etc.). People began to domesticate animals and raise them close to their settlements.
This domestication of plants and animals drastically changed the way humans lived their lives and gave rise to great cities and entire civilizations. Rice was one of the first crops domesticated. Sheep and goats were some of the first livestock to be domesticated. These animals have a calm disposition and a herd mentality making them ideal partners for humans. Later cattle were domesticated for labor purposes as well as meat and hides.
Cereal and root crops could be stored for months or even years and this provided a stable source of calories. The domestication of plants and animals allowed for more calories to be produced more efficiently. Fewer people were needed to produce food and could start to specialize. People not involved in food production could become involved other activities like art, music, government, trade, and craftsmanship. Trades developed and innovations in technology made leaps forward. Having cattle, sheep and other livestock close at hand also provided a number of by-products for these crafts and trades. Leather and wool were turned into clothing and much more.
This societal shift to agriculture provided huge benefits, but was not without costs. Living close to water sources with lots of humans and animals creating waste was not always sanitary. Wells and rivers were often sources of disease. Water had to be mixed with alcohol to kill bacteria and prevent illness (though germ theory hadn’t yet been discovered). Growing grains and root crops provided the necessary calories for humans to survive but the lack of variety in diet did create some health problems. Early agriculturists were known to be shorter in stature and have more health problems like lost teeth. (Fortunately modern agriculture and trade allows us rich diversity of food. Human health is arguably the best it has ever been with long life spans and diseases of old age rather than malnutrition.)
By approximately 2,000 years ago, much of the Earth’s population had become dependent on agriculture. Agriculture enabled people to produce surplus food. They could use this extra food when crops failed or trade it for other goods. Food surpluses allowed people to work at other tasks unrelated to farming.
Formerly nomadic people stayed near their fields and villages started sprouting up. These villages became linked through trade. New economies were so successful in some areas that cities grew and civilizations developed. The earliest civilizations were near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq and Iran and along the Nile River in Egypt.
For thousands of years, agriculture progressed slowly. One of the earliest agricultural tools was fire. Native Americans used fire to control the growth of berry-producing plants, which grew quickly after a wildfire. Farmers cultivated small plots of land by hand, using axes to clear away trees and digging sticks to break up and till the soil. Over time, improved farming tools of bone, stone, bronze, and iron were developed. New methods of storage evolved. People began stockpiling foods in jars and clay-lined pits for use in times of scarcity. They also began making clay pots and other vessels for carrying and cooking food.
Irrigation systems also evolved. Farmers could water fields based on the needs of the plants and not be dependent on the uncertainty of rain. Early farmers developed and improved varieties of plants. Seeds from the best producing plants from each year were saved and planted again the next season. Plants evolved alongside humans as humans selected for the most desirable traits. For example, the wheat that was most prized had large, plump heads and berries. The berries stayed on the head when harvesting so seeds weren’t lost before thrashing. The wheat plant was stronger than previous cereal grains. Its hulls were also easier to remove so the wheat could be made into bread.
Trade quickened the spread of these plant varieties and the spread of agriculture innovations and technology. New tools were developed. Techniques to preserve nutrients in the soil were spread to different cultures including leaving fields fallow and crop rotation.
Produce, food, spices that originated in one corner of the globe began to spread across the entire globe. Chickens and spices like pepper and nutmeg spread from Southeast Asia to Europe and beyond. Wheat and barley originating in the Middle East are now grown around the world. Maize (corn), squash, apples and turkeys that originated in the North America have become staples in many cultures. Potatoes and peppers that developed in South America are firmly now part of European and Asian cuisines alike. Coffee, tea, tomatoes, beans, peanuts, and tobacco are all examples of crops that originated in one small part of the globe but today are being consumed around the world.
World population has continued to increase more rapidly in the 20th century than at any other time in history. Global population is currently over 7 billion and it is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2045. Compare those numbers with the fact that world population was still under 2 billion in 1900. This increase in population requires more food to be produced with limited resources.
Innovation and science have been at the forefront of producing more food and agricultural products. Horse-drawn seed drills gave way to fully mechanized tractors which today can practically drive themselves with GPS guidance systems. Corn and other crops have been selected to produce more on fewer acres. Chickens grow faster thanks to better genetics and precise feed rations. Sheep have been selectively bred to produce higher quality meat and long, coarse wool. Advances in agriculture have made leaps and bounds to try and keep pace with the demand for a healthy, safe, and abundant food supply.
In the early 1900s, an average farmer in the U.S. produced enough food to feed a family of five. Many of today’s farmers can feed that family and 155 other people. This great leap came about because of scientific advances and new sources of power. Farmers now use machines in almost every stage of cultivation and livestock management. Electricity has been able to light farm buildings and power machinery like water pumps, milking machines, and feeding equipment.
Today’s farmers can also better protect their crops and livestock from pests and diseases to keep them healthy. Crop losses have declined dramatically. Fertilizers greatly increase the growth and production potential of crops and supplement the nutrients found in the soil.
Farming today is not the same trial and error system that it was. Scientists and researchers now use sophisticated techniques to make plants better. By modifying genes in some crops, scientists can select for traits that will improve yield and make farming better, easier, and more cost efficient and at the same time improve human health. Genes might make a plant more resistant to cold or might be more nutritious. Certain genes can help ward off insects or increase yield.
Agriculture and food production has been 10,000 years of trial and error. But today it is more refined than ever and that has led to a higher quality of life for you and me. So, why do we farm the way we do today? Because we’ve applied the best practices of the last 10,000 years. But there is always more that can be learned and we can always do more to help ensure that agriculture will be able to sustain us for another 10,000 years.