The climate turned cold in North Africa and the Fertile Crescent 12,800 years ago. Forests and woodlands dwindled. Small stands of wild grasses and other seed foods became an increasingly valuable food source.
Drier weather drove people to better-watered locations. Increased population density focused efforts on bettering food production.
Early agriculture was a survival strategy. Plant and animal domestication for food began in response to bitter climatic elements which would eventually relent. Crop cultivation was a response to overexploitation of local resources by a growing population.
Agriculture engendered settled communities. This undoubtedly intensified conflict between neighboring tribes for the best land and water rights. Disputes were especially acute when harvests were paltry.
Food has long been a check on population growth, and a spur to diaspora. Since prehistoric times, tribes exhausted the natural resources in the local habitat and moved on. The habit of moving became more difficult with settled communities, but the practice of extracting more than could be sustained continued.
There were many incremental improvements to food production during the Middle Ages. The heavy plow was invented in the 6th century; an innovation which spread across Europe over the next 4 centuries.
The benefit of such metal implements was alloyed. Iron plows polluted the soil and poisoned the food that was harvested using such tools. Heavy metal pollution in the South China Sea from inland farming was significant as early as 4,000 years ago.
The Green Revolution was a period of agritech development and international transfer that transpired between the late 1930s and late 1960s. The Green Revolution was largely an American government-sponsored initiative. After World War 2, the United States used the Green Revolution as a political tool to counter communism.
The Green Revolution weakened socialist movements in many nations. In countries such as India, Mexico, and the Philippines, technological solutions were sought as an alternative to agrarian reform, which was often linked to socialist politics.
The Green Revolution significantly altered the socioeconomic dynamics of agriculture. Its emphasis on mechanization and chemical treatments rewarded larger farms. Those who had large landholdings were inclined toward the status quo, and against reform. Hence, the Green Revolution helped entrench wealth-holding capitalism.
Part of the Green Revolution was the further development of biocides – killers of life – which are commonly called “pesticides.” Biocides have a long history.
The plying of pesticides began in antiquity. Farmers in ancient Sumer dusted sulfur on their Mesopotamian crops 4,500 years ago. Contemporaneous Indian texts mention using poisonous plants for pest control.
Ancient Romans slayed insects by burning sulfur. Weeds were treated with salt.
By the 15th century, toxins such as arsenic, mercury, and lead were applied to crops to kill pests. In the 1600s, ants were fed a mixture of honey and arsenic.
Organic pesticides were also applied. Beyond their ample use as produce, plants have long been treasured as both medicines and toxins.
Chemists in the 17th century extracted nicotine sulfate from tobacco leaves as an insecticide. By the late 19th century, American farmers were applying a variety of chemicals to field crops to kill insects. The results were often unsatisfactory, owing to the primitive chemistry and inapt application.
The rise of modern pesticides began during World War 2, when a variety of potent formulas found favor. Among them were DDT and 2,4–D. These were products of government-sponsored research during the war: potent biocides that were quickly adapted to civilian use when the guns stopped.
Lulled into a false sense of security about “better living through chemistry,” people liberally applied pesticides in pursuit of habitats “sterilized” of pests. In the 3 decades following World War 2, American pesticide use leapt tenfold. Since the mid-1940s, over 200 synthetic chemicals have been concocted to exterminate pests.
A pest, keep in mind, is but another life form found hazardous at worst, but often just inconvenient. Only this century have people paid much attention to the interdependencies among life that are vital to all. Even now, biological ecology is little understood by experts, and barely recognized by the average person.
Presently, 2.7 million metric tonnes of pesticides are applied worldwide every year. Americans spray 22% of the pesticides: an average of 1 kilogram per hectare of arable land. Despite heavy dosing, the US does not use pesticides as intensely as some other countries. The Japanese smear 5.9 kg of pesticides per hectare on their crops; China 4.7 kg; Italy 2.5 kg; and 1.3 kg per hectare in the British Isles.
All biocides are poisonous to all animals. It’s just that the littlest ones are the worst affected. Most pesticides affect the nervous system. Many cause cancer.
Even herbicides which target plants are a hazard to animals. Herbicides kill or damage the gut microbes which all animals, including humans, rely upon to digest food.
The chemists who concoct killer compounds only care that their creations destroy the intended targets without being lethal to humans in the applied doses. As biocide chemists invariably work for biotech corporations, safety tests are rigged; the dangers of pesticides understated. This has been proven repeatedly. DDT is the most notorious example, but also applies to practically all pesticides still in use.
Pesticides slaughter all sorts of arthropods, including those that are critical to pollinating plants and those that would naturally eat crop pests. The decimation of bee populations worldwide owes to pesticides. Birds and other insect eaters get doses of pesticides which sicken them and reduce their life expectancy. Biocides are also a definite health hazard to human consumers of foods from toxin-laced crops. Water supplies are polluted by runoff from fertilized and sprayed plants.
Foodstuffs from crops that have been genetically modified are even more poisonous. Food crops are genetically engineered solely to withstand the application of biocides in high doses. There is no nutritional benefit to genetically modified foods; only an extra heaping of toxins.
The effects of pesticides run deep. Herbicides reduce earthworm casting, which promotes soil health. The toxins damage earthworm fertility, and so hurt soil quality.
In a natural environment, topsoil builds via decaying plant matter and weathering rock. The soil is protected from erosion by living plants.
In soil made vulnerable by agriculture, erosion reduces productivity by up to 65% per year.
The former prairie lands that constitute the US breadbasket have lost half of their topsoil after being farmed for a century. Soil is eroding 30 times faster than the natural formation rate.
It takes 500 years for Nature to replace an inch of topsoil. Reforming damaged topsoil to a depth for agriculture takes 3,000 years.
Food crops are much hungrier than the parsimonious grasses that once covered the Great Plains. Much of the soil there is now little more than a sponge into which synthetic fertilizers are poured to produce crops.
Erosion rates are rising throughout the world. China is losing 36 million metric tonnes of topsoil per hectare each year. During the spring planting season, Chinese soil can be found in the air as far away as Hawaii.
Almost all of the good arable land that Earth has to offer has been taken for agriculture. The devastation of standing forests, such as the Amazon rainforest, can only yield substandard soil for crops. The invariable overuse of fertilizers will bump yields for a decade or so before the soil is too exhausted to do much more than hold up plants.
Soil is itself a complex and fragile ecosystem. The soil creation process is so slow that soil is a nonrenewable resource. It takes centuries, even millennia, for soil to recover.
From 1975–2015, the world lost 1/3rd of its arable land through pollution and erosion. This far outstrips the pace at which natural processes can replace degraded soil.
Half of global agricultural land is degraded. Of this, the majority is so damaged that local farmers have been unable to restore it.
American cropland topsoil is eroding 10 times faster than Nature can replenish it. This owes to intensive agriculture. The current industrial practice of growing food is unsustainable.
Because of its promiscuous reactivity, methane is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; but there is over 200 times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than methane.
Carbon dioxide can keep warming the atmosphere for over a century before it breaks down. Methane has a relatively short lifetime in the atmosphere: just 9 to 15 years. Nonetheless, methane musters 25% of the global greenhouse effect.
People eat more meat when they can afford to. Global animal flesh consumption went from 40 million metric tonnes in 1950 to 270 million tonnes in 2010. If that trend holds, the eating of meat doubles by 2050. The trend won’t hold only because there won’t be either as many livestock or people by then as projected.
Livestock digestive tracts are well stocked with methanogens. The ruminants raised and consumed by humans have been responsible for 18% of the global warming since the machine age began: a greater contribution than all the traveling to-and-fro in fossil-fueled vehicles such as cars and planes.
Eating industrialized meat presents a health hazard beyond global warming. Worldwide, 73% of antibiotic use is for livestock, and this use is growing with increasing global demand for meat.
Microbes are wilier than generally given credit. They quickly evolve to survive the chemical assault intended to kill them. Antibiotic resistance in livestock has tripled in the past 20 years.
We have a microbiome which is essential to our digestion and health. Eating treated meat delivers a dose of antibiotics. For our own microbes which have not evolved resistance, they are downed by such meat eating.
Eating meat has been a significant contributor to a global crisis which increasingly spells death from infection; a dilemma for which modern medicine has no cure. Because bacteria learn from one another through genetic transfers, disease-causing bacteria, whether borne by food or otherwise, can no longer be thwarted.
The failure of antibiotics is a problem that is rapidly growing worse. Already, half a million die worldwide annually from infections which cannot be treated. The human death toll from invincible microbes is likely to rise to a million or more every year within the next decade. As a result of advanced medicines ill applied to meat, we are retreating to medieval times in being able to treat infectious diseases.
Studies have consistently shown that the nutritional quality of vegetables and fruits declined under the industrialization of agriculture in the 20th century. Commercial food has steadily become less nutritious for 2 reasons: soil depletion and crop selection. Modern intensive agricultural methods have incrementally impoverished the soil in which food is grown, as well as lacing the ground with toxic chemicals.
Phytonutrients are a vast array of compounds – over 25,000 – that confer health benefits. These crucial phytochemicals typically have a bitter taste, so growers select varieties that are sweeter but less nutritious.
Grapefruit exemplify. Florida is the grapefruit capital of North America. In 1985, Florida produced 27 million boxes of white grapefruit, and 23 million boxes of the colored varieties. Today, Florida growers ship twice as many red and pink grapefruit as they do white ones.
White grapefruit is high in naringin, a bitter phytonutrient with anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer, and anti-cancer properties. Pink and red grapefruit achieve their sweetness in large part by having substantially less naringin.
Looking at industrial use of land shows tremendous folly which has proved lethal to other life while not providing us the nutrition we need. Turning our sights to the seas also presents a dire picture.