We started cultivating crops only in 11,000 BCE, which makes agriculture just a flash in the pan in our history, but the one that radically transformed our way of life and the environment.
Have you ever wondered how the early humans managed to hunt a rhino? Or how the ancient Romans fed their armies? We can tell you right away that our ancestors managed to hunt not only rhinos, but also mammoths, and that the Romans loved oysters exported from Britain. What’s more, the history of food development and its impact on quality of life is a fascinating buffet that should be taken in as multicourse slow food.
Mammoths and berries for appetizers
For most of our history, humans were hunters and gatherers. We fished in the ocean, hunted on land, and collected wild-growing fruits, seeds, and plants. From as early as 11,000 BCE, people began a gradual transition away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle toward cultivating crops and raising animals for food. The shift to agriculture is believed to have occurred independently in several parts of the world, including northern China, Central America, and the Fertile Crescent – a region in the Middle East that cradled some of the earliest civilizations. By 6000 BCE, most of the farm animals we are familiar with today had been domesticated, and technological innovations like irrigation and later the plow brought enormous gains in productivity.
More consistent food supplies allowed the growth of civilizations and an exponential boom in human population. Even though farming probably involved more work than hunting and gathering, it’s believed to have provided 5 to 50 times more calories per hectare. Farming tied people to their land. Small settlements sprang up and eventually grew into towns, and towns into cities. Because people produced enough food they became free to pursue interests other than worrying about what they were going to eat that day. But producing food has always been a risky business. So keeping pace with the growing population in order to prevent famine and malnutrition has always been the major challenge.
How did we manage to have potatoes and corn for the main course?
Innovations in food production and distribution helped food supplies keep pace with population growth. Crops indigenous to the Americas, such as corn, sweet potatoes, and cassava spread across the globe. The nutrients provided by these prolific crops helped prevent malnutrition, and supported a widespread increase in population over the 18th century. The domestication of grains such as barley, wheat, corn, and rice created a plentiful and predictable food supply, allowing farmers’ wives to bear babies in rapid succession – one every 2.5 years instead of one every 3.5 years for hunter-gatherers.
At first, farming activities were expanded onto more and more land (and water), but this could not go on forever and innovations in agriculture replaced the space. One of the most influential were synthetic fertilizers – chemicals that transform nitrogen from the atmosphere in a form suitable to be applied to crops. First introduced in the early 1900s, synthetic fertilizers dramatically increased crop yields and provided the lion’s share of the world’s food throughout the 20th century. The use of these and other chemicals, like pesticides, has become a hallmark of industrial agriculture.
Other, non-agricultural innovations also added their share. Expanded railways, shipping canals, and new machinery for storing and moving grain enabled the export of surplus, for example surplus of wheat and corn, which was supplied from the US to Europe during times of scarcity. Improvements in refrigerated transport allowed farmers to ship perishable food over greater distances.
In recent decades, we’ve also radically industrialized other production methods and developed more resilient (and productive) crop species. It’s this growth in productivity – also called vertical expansion – that’s been credited with skyrocketing yields and reducing the cost of food. In 1914, a working-class family in Britain spent about 60% of their income on food. By 1937, food was cheaper and they spent about 35%, while in 2020 this lowered to only 10%.
What will we have for dessert?
Fast-forward to 2023. Many of the tools enabling today’s high-input, high-volume commodity agriculture have also contributed massive amounts of agricultural pollution. Scientific innovation may be able to keep famine at bay by always finding ways to increase food production, but the Earth has limited capacity to support human development. The first agricultural revolution was characterized by expansion and exploitation, but the second will have to increase the output of our existing farmland while respecting nature. The pressures on the world’s food system in the coming decades – from population growth, increased meat consumption, and increased demand for biofuels – will continue placing a tremendous burden on the world’s croplands. And we still face many of the same challenges as our ancestors, from resource degradation and disease to rapid population growth and climate change, which have periodically crippled food supplies, with the poor bearing the brunt of famine.
By the beginning of the Common Era, Roman farmers had degraded their soil to the point where they could no longer grow enough food and had to rely on imports from distant Egypt. This was a “luxury” we can’t afford anymore. We cannot simply move the production to another “unspoiled” country, because our activities have affected almost the entire planet. We have to change the way we produce our food, and at LoginEKO we are among those who pave a different path.
We constantly address the key challenge of how we can continue our growth in production in a sustainable way. Research and development are at the core of our work. Our sustainable agriculture focuses on using natural biodiversity to replenish soil and combat climate change. Our practices include crop rotation, green manure, and no-till farming among others. Our goals are to develop new models of data-driven and sustainable large-scale farming with ingredient traceability and also novel healthy food development. We are going to tell you all about it in the coming months, so stay tuned. We’ve already learned so much about sustainable agriculture and the process has just started. We want to share this with you so that we can act together for positive change. Because we all want to stay living on this beautiful planet rather than wandering the galaxy looking for a new “Egypt” because we destroyed our “Rome.”